Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman draws some correlations between two independents named Johnguaranteed youll be surprised.
Animation, in its modern form, has been with us for roughly one hundred years. During that time it has seen rice paper and ink pots give way to particle systems and compositing modules while whistling mice evolved into the likes of Flik and Buzz Lightyear. The years 1900-2000 has been a century of dazzling progress for animation...but that fact did not reduce the chances that history would repeat itself and that the careers of two independent artists from disparate cultural eras would follow eerily parallel paths. Finding such phenomena in the history of animation is a wonderful delight, and half the fun lies in not seeing them in the first place -- until they hit us from above like a perfectly placed Acme anvil. This months column is a tribute to two geniuses of the animated art form, both named John, who have a surprising amount in common: John Hubley and John Kricfalusi.
John Hubley, as most of you know, was one of the premiere names in animation in his time. Throughout his career, which spans the years 1935-1977, Hubley, along with his wife Faith, pioneered a new look in animation that ran counter to the ultra-realism of Disney and its imitators. Hubley worked with graphics, pure line and color, and modernist design. His idols more resembled Jackson Pollock than Titian, and he was more likely to incorporate Benny Carter and Oscar Peterson into his soundtracks than Schubert or Ponchielli. John Hubley died in 1977 but left behind a legacy of some of the most sophisticated and visually stunning animated films ever made.
John Kricfalusi belongs to the new millennium. Kricfalusi is notable for reaching into the archetypal conventions of late 1950s/early 1960s cartoons and reinterpreting them through both his own and prevailing cultural filters. Kricfalusi was able to express his vision using a graphic style that was as unique to the 1990s as Hubleys was to the 1950s. Nearly every recent cartoon series has absorbed Kricfalusis "Spumco style" to some degree, and many cartoons have cannibalized it wholesale. To call Kricfalusis cartoons "edgy" is to woefully understate the fact; his hyper-kinetic shorts spew emotion like spittle flying from the mouth of a raving maniac (which Kricfalusi could easily become when pitching his ideas to studios). Unrestrained, unrepentant, and unrelenting in his pursuit of animated excellence, Kricfalusi is perfectly poised to reign over the next decade of cartoondom.
Although both men left an indelible mark on American animation, they were born of foreign parents. Hubley came from British stock, and Kricfalusi is Canadian (born in Ontario). From the first, both possessed a desire to enter into an artistic career. Hubley won art contests as a teen, and young Kricfalusi spent many long days drawing his favorite TV characters. Both left home at an early age to pursue their desires; Hubley went to live with an uncle while he attended art school, and Kricfalusi migrated to Hollywood following an unsuccessful stint at Sheridan College. Hubleys portfolio passed the rigorous standards of Walt Disney himself, while Kricfalusi quickly found employment at various studios, including Hanna-Barbera where he worked on toons such as Heathcliff and The Jetsons(during its 1980s revival).
The Road Less Traveled
There was a very good chance that Hubley and Kricfalusi could have spent their careers working at Disney and the Saturday Morning mainstream respectively, but both came to feel restricted, even cheated, by their lot in animation. Hubley became part of (and quite possibly led) a group of artists at Disney who became fed up with the traditions of literalism and sentimental representation that were the studios stock-in-trade right down to the musical scores. Hubley also hated the repressive political atmosphere at the studio, where personnel were discreetly but strongly urged to vote for Walts candidates of choice during elections. Hubley felt that he was stagnating, and when a divisive labor strike hit Disney in 1941 he departed for United Productions of America.
Kricfalusi, for his part, began as a Disney admirer but admitted that, "As I got older I rebelled against Disney -- I started realizing how insipid they were." He spent years working on various animated shows until the experience soured him. He attested that his resume included "some of the worlds crappiest cartoons," and when asked about those years in an interview Kricfalusi replied: "I hate even talking about the state that animation was in. We all know it, everyones written about it, its depressing." Kricfalusi, too, was stagnating and this dissatisfaction would lead him into a fruitful middle period, just as the move to UPA would for Hubley. (Both artists would not fully realize their talents and come into prominence until they were over the age of thirty-five.)
Meanwhile, both men had identified the individuals who would serve as their inspirations: For Hubley it would be the legendary Canadian animator Norman McLaren. Kricfalusi chose Bob Clampett, arguably one of the greatest animators and directors to come out of the Warner Bros. studio, as his mentor. Hubleys "middle period" was spent at UPA where he spearheaded a stylistic revolution in animation that spread around the globe. Hubley turned to the conventions of modern art and graphics that he loved, and proved along with his colleagues that there was an alternative style to Disney.
Kricfalusi spent his "middle period" attempting to revitalize two series which had been out of production since his childhood. When Ralph Bakshi hired Kricfalusi to help bring Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures to CBS in 1987, Kricfalusi was allowed to start a revolution of his own -- an experiment in creator-driven animation. Basically, this meant that Kricfalusi was in creative control of virtually every aspect of his cartoon, free to style his own dialogue, gags and mise-en-scene just as Clampett had done decades before. It also meant that no scriptwriters were used; they were frequently the object of Kricfalusis contempt since few (if any) could actually animate or even draw. Kricfalusi continued this crusade into his next series, a 1988 revival of Bob Clampetts own Beany and Cecil series...and of course, into The Ren and Stimpy Show (1991).
These "middle periods" ended under eerily similar circumstances: Each man was ejected from a promising career just when things looked to be at their best. John Hubley was "released" by UPA during the Anti-Communist investigations of the 1950s; even though Hubley was still among the studios guiding forces and the allegations surrounding him were largely unproven, UPA simply did not want to deal with the controversy. John Kricfalusi created the highly successful series The Ren and Stimpy Show for Nickelodeon, then bitterly fought the network over deadlines, budget, censorship and creative direction; at the height of the shows popularity Nickelodeon fired him. Yet another similarity: The downfall of each artist can be more or less traced to a single cartoon. In Hubleys case the "culprit" was The Brotherhood of Man, a film about humanity in harmony that was somehow interpreted as Communist propaganda by his antagonists. For Kricfalusi the pivotal short was the Ren and Stimpy episode "Mans Best Friend," axed by Nickelodeon due to the presence of the controversial character George Liquor and Rens trepanning of that character with an oar. This act of censorship marked the transition from strained relationship to all-out war.
A Chance At Freedom John Hubley and John Kricfalusi both entered their next stages of growth as independents, each with their own studios. Hubley went into advertising and produced many famous TV commercials; he became a frequent fixture at awards ceremonies. At the same time, he and his wife Faith continued to create animated shorts as a personal passion. Many of their projects such as Moonbird, Adventures of an * and Everybody Rides the Carousel are acknowledged classics of independent animation. These shorts were generally not available to the public as standard cartoon fare; one had to attend showings or festivals to see them.
Kricfalusi went into advertising and soon took home an award for his snappy Old Navy commercials. At the same time, he continued to produce animated shorts as a personal passion. Many of his projects, such as The Goddamn George Liquor Show, are among the subversive classics of independent animation. These projects are generally not available to the public as standard cartoon fare; if one wants to follow the adventures of George Liquor, Jimmy the Idiot Boy and Sody Pop, one must have a personal computer, Internet access and a Shockwave plug-in to see them.
Kricfalusi and Hubley both shattered the prevailing conventions of their times: In Hubleys case, his fusion of jazz and modern art represented an aesthetic that ran counter to Disney. For Kricfalusi it was a bizarre, 1950s retro style and bold use of heavy line and color that set his work apart from the cheaply produced limited-animation hackwork that prevailed on Saturday mornings. Both men were also multi-talented at a time when animation was becoming increasingly specialized; they could design characters, create backgrounds and layouts, write dialogue, do voice work, produce and direct.
Both men contributed at least one dearly-loved icon to the pantheon of American animated characters: John Hubley was clearly the most powerful influence in the creation of Mister Magoo and Kricfalusi gave the world the aforementioned Ren and Stimpy. Even these seemingly disparate characters have astonishing things in common: Magoo, Ren and Stimpy were designed to be secondary characters. Magoo was a supporting player in his first cartoon; the actual star was supposed to be a bear. Ren and Stimpy were originally house pets in one of Kricfalusis early proposals to Nickelodeon. After their ousting both artists saw ex-compatriots take over these characters and diminish them from their original conceptions. Pete Burness softened Magoos character until the old coot eventually lost his deliciously crusty disposition, and Bob Camp took over Ren and Stimpy only to see the show ebb in popularity without Kricfalusis manic guidance to keep it afloat.
Hubley and Kricfalusi both met with disappointment in the realm of feature films as well. Hubley was involved in an animated production of Finians Rainbow that never made it to the screen and twenty years later was fired from the movie Watership Down, most likely due to creative differences with producer Martin Rosen. Kricfalusi spent an inordinate amount of time in the early 1990s pitching a proposed feature-length film tentatively titled The Ripping Friend to major studios; no deals were struck.
Finally, mention must be made of their similarities in temperament: Both men were radically independent, acerbic, passionate artists with little tolerance for rigidity, stupidity and conformity. Both were outspoken about their art and were notably quick to sting those who held conflicting opinions about their work. Kricfalusi and Hubley both shunned repetition. In his autobiography, Shamus Culhane recalled that, "John (Hubley) was never tied down to techniques that he was already familiar with," while Kricfalusi once stated in an interview that, "No matter what I do its going to be new cause I dont want to do the same shit over again." Each in his own way was out to make the world a better place; Hubley became deeply involved in social issues, while Kricfalusi became a champion for creators rights within the animation industry.
And the point, loyal readers? Simply this: Where were going is where weve been. Techniques will become more sophisticated and the medium will become increasingly respectable as an art form, but the future of animation will rest upon visionary figures that have the ability to step outside the current conventions of the genre, examine them through a unique, personal filter and feed them back to audiences in startling new configurations. John Hubley and John Kricfalusi, following virtually the same paths, managed to perform these feats in completely different ways and we are all the richer for it.
A final note: When John Kricfalusi created one of his faux-commercials for The Ren and Stimpy Show,he illustrated a happy bunch of children playing with their indispensable toy "Log." One of the children is a dead ringer for another tyke featured in a series of commercials from the 1950s. That child was a pitchman for Maypo cereal, and its creator and designer was...John Hubley.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.