Dr. Toon reviews the latest entry in The Looney Tunes literary canon.
Just in time for the holidays, The Looney Tunes Treasury by Andrew Farago (Running Press) should find its way under many an animation fan's Christmas tree. Farago is as qualified as anyone to compose this treasury; he is presently the curator of the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco and has been published in The Comics Journal in addition to writing for Marvel Comics. He has also penned numerous pieces for Animation World Network. Ruth Clampett, daughter of Warners' most mercurial director, provides an enthusiastic foreward that gets the book started on solid footing.
In the "Acknowledgements" section Farago playfully thanks Jerry Beck "for being too busy to write this book." Farago could have also thanked Beck for providing the blueprint for The Looney Tunes Treasury. Like Beck's 2007 treasury for Hanna-Barbera aficionados, Farago's book is a toy box in a binder, laced with comic books, stickers, postcards, imaginative surprises hidden in envelopes (no spoilers here) and pictures of antique animation items (my own favorite paste-in was a faux-1950s Acme catalog). This seems to be the form that "treasury" books are taking of late.
The Looney Tunes Treasury, however, diverges from Beck's effort in its presentation of material. While Beck stuck to a light-hearted historical approach to the Hanna-Barbera characters, Farago goes the route of letting the Warner characters speak in their own voices, relating their histories directly to the reader. This is a rather risky approach, since most of Warner's major characters underwent both stylistic and personality changes several times over the course of four decades.
Changes in directors, artists and budgets all but ensured that there is no "classic" Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck, and Farago at times has to perform a balancing act in having the characters explain their metamorphoses. Surprisingly, he is able to do this with few missteps, although some of the "stars" occasionally slip into didacticism. Farago avoids simple narrative much of the time by using some creative ploys. One is to have the Warner stars discuss their directors, writers and even background painters over the years, or to come up with plausible explanations such as being tired of their typecasting.
Another twist is to present the characters relating their stories in different formats. We read the Tasmanian Devil's history in diary form, and hear Yosemite Sam's autobiography along with the captive audience of his "kiddie show." Witch Hazel offers up a revolting recipe book. Those approaches work, but at times the job is trickier: Supplying interviews for the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote or Ralph Wolf and Sam Sheepdog was obviously a little tougher for Farago, as these cartoons are virtual pantomimes to begin with. Farago must fall back on the erudite genius that the Coyote played in Operation Hare (1952), three years after he first appeared in the Warner shorts.
Farago's other choices are interesting: Besides the obvious superstars such as Bugs, Daffy, Elmer and Porky, he gives pages to secondary characters such as Michigan J. Frog, Witch Hazel and Prissy the hen. Farago's text, as far as I could tell, was free of historical errors but a couple of points raised my curiosity: It states (in Bugs' recounting) that he first appeared in the 1940 short A Wild Hare, but this is only partially true. There were several prototypical models dating back to 1938 (and arguably before that). It might have been interesting to have Bugs mention this in the context of his "maturing." Again, the Warner characters do not seem to have a history after the theatrical era. Why didn't Bugs and Porky, for example, mention that they served as faculty at Acme University during the 1980s?
A related point: Farago's book should actually be titled The Warner Cartoon Treasury. I have always been curious why "Merrie Melodies" gets such short shrift, since several major and supporting characters originated in them. Many of the Merrie Melodies are actually the cartoons treasured by those who say that the "classic Looney Tunes" are their favorites. "Looney Tunes," in fact, has become a brand. The "Merrie Melodies" title, with its antiquated spelling and lack of anarchic snap, is largely disregarded today, even though it persisted up until the last days of the Warner studio. We live, however, in an age of ubiquitous branding and future books will probably continue to lump all Warner shorts under "Looney Tunes."
Farago, as curator of the Cartoon Art Museum, has a great advantage in composing The Looney Tunes Treasury. There are many stills, production drawings and miscellaneous tidbits (such as caricatures of the Warner staff) that I can't recall seeing in other histories. Organization of material is tight overall; there is a nice double-page spread of Bugs in his greatest cross-dressing and celebrity impersonation roles. Daffy Duck's star turns are contained in a sticker book. The tidbits of history and attractive selection of artwork make this book what Farago may have intended it to be: a starting point for those who want to explore the history of the Warner cartoons in more depth.
This treasury is, in the final reckoning, a colorful assortment of animated amusements. It does a fairly good job of encapsulating the personalities of the Warner "stars" while providing only the amount of history needed to understand their metamorphoses over time. To ask Farago to produce a memento-stuffed piece of fun while also taking on the historical burdens assumed by Jerry Beck, John Canemaker or Michael Barrier is to simply ask too much. The Looney Tunes Treasury is a freshman's intro to Warner history and production techniques but it is just the sort of book that could make a casual animation fan's mouth water for the graduate level courses. They may even want to attend class wearing the Tasmanian Devil mask thoughtfully provided near the end of the book.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.
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