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Special Delivery

The proliferation of recent delivery mechanisms has helped animation grow in many ways. Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman discusses why.

In the late '50s, Gene Deitch's Tom Terrific was part of the foundation for animation's television future. It, along with other shows, created animated stars and thrust them into the public consciousness.

In the late '50s, Gene Deitch's Tom Terrific was part of the foundation for animation's television future. It, along with other shows, created animated stars and thrust them into the public consciousness.

Welcome, dear readers, to my humble laboratory. Tonight I propose an interesting experiment in the name of science. For just this week, I am going to alter the physiology of your bodies so that instead of existing on oxygen, you must now survive through the osmotic absorption of...animated cartoons! You have just been converted from obligate aerobes to obligate animaterobes, and if you cannot find sufficient amounts of animation to absorb, well...let's just say that you have likely read your last column on animation, or on anything else for that matter. Since most research suggests that initial brain damage begins to occur in the third minute without oxygen, I suggest you all get busy. Now. Chest getting a little tight? Come on, it's only for a week. So -- what's the first thing you do? You can run to your TV set and hit the remote until you find Nickelodeon or the Cartoon Network, and don't forget that lifeline called Toon Disney. In a pinch you can even survive on MTV or Oxygen (the cable channel, that is), and you just might be able to live through the experiment.

Suppose you don't have cable or satellite? What then! Don't panic -- it will just cause you to hyperventilate. Ah! The DVD player! That's the ticket to your next breath. Calmly now, put the disk containing Iron Giant into the player and hit the menu with all due speed. Mmmmm, the blood is coming back into your cheeks...unless...what's that you say? You don't have a DVD player? My, this is turning out to be a trial, isn't it! Better grab that tape of Akira and pop it into your VCR posthaste. Oh...is it busted, or did the kids cram cookies into the slot again? Well...isn't that a Mac or an IBM on your desk, or dude did you get a Dell? No matter, best log on because your lips are turning blue. Did you find plenty of toons on the Net? I guess so, since you're no longer holding your breath. Good. Now call your cable company on your second phone line; you don't want to risk a crash or a power surge, right?

The Little Mermaid, shown here, along with Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, were pioneers in the current toon boom. They opened the doors to the huge revenue potential that animation has. © The Walt Disney Company.

The Little Mermaid, shown here, along with Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, were pioneers in the current toon boom. They opened the doors to the huge revenue potential that animation has. © The Walt Disney Company.

Very well, let's stop this silly experiment (yes, you can breathe again) and its attendant threat of anoxia. The point of the matter is, if you had to survive under such conditions, you could. There are at least four general resources listed above, and a few derivations thereof for good measure. If this experiment had taken place a mere twenty years ago, all of you reading this column would have been asphyxiated. One of the most overlooked aspects of the toon revolution is the fact that said revolution was made possible through a series of increasingly varied and sophisticated delivery systems, and that these systems interrelated with other factors to produce the cultural phenomenon of wide-based animation fandom.

The Way It Was

1940 was one of the greatest years in American animated cartoons history. Making their debut that year were Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry, Woody Woodpecker, and Mighty Mouse. Pinocchio and Fantasia were also released in 1940. Yet, if one closely examines the actual tally for that Athenian year, some interesting figures come to light. Seven studios combined for a total of 162 theatrical shorts and two features. The average studio produced 23 cartoons. The total combined running time of these films (including the two Disney features) was 1,342 minutes, or roughly 22 hours of animation. Twenty-two hours of animation for that entire year! For contrast, one season of a 26 X 30 animated TV series by itself is approximately 10.4 hours, about half of the total 1940 output. Now consider this as well -- there was only one way for the public to access these films. Unless one went to a different movie at a different theater each night (due to the practice of block-booking), there was no way to see all the animated product available that year. It is not unreasonable to assume that the average American did not see all 162 animated shorts. It is more likely that this person saw far less than half of it. Thus, even though the amount of animation produced in 1940 was minimal by today's standards the delivery system was more limited still. It is worth noting that (outside of puerile "fan clubs" dedicated to an individual cartoon character) there was no consolidated "fandom," no magazines or journals dedicated to the medium, and no serious study of animation to speak of.

Cable gave animation free license to develop adult fare like South Park. © Comedy Partners, Inc. All rights reserved.

Cable gave animation free license to develop adult fare like South Park. © Comedy Partners, Inc. All rights reserved.

Television would change all of this, but not immediately. The first true series animated for television did not appear until 1949 with Jay Ward's Crusader Rabbit, and televised animation remained sporadic until the late 1950s. Much of what was seen was recycled theatrical material, some of it decades old. Still, television proved to be a prodigious method of delivery to the public. Of prime importance is the fact that when television was entrusted to keep animation in the public consciousness, it performed admirably. Series such as Ward's Rocky and His Friends, Bob Clampett's Beany and Cecil, and Art Clokey's plucky plasticine star Gumby are fondly remembered today, as is Gene Deitch's Tom Terrific. The impact of these shows along with the Hanna-Barbera limited animation revolution laid important groundwork for animation's cultural future. Had these shows failed to find an audience (some of which was decidedly adult), television would have failed as a mode of transmission and the history of animation in America would have turned out much differently.

Television proved that the film industry was not needed in order to produce animated stars. Rocky, Bullwinkle, Yogi Bear, and Huckleberry Hound never had to appear on the big screen in order to gain fans (or cut licensing deals). As animation prospered under the auspices of the new medium, it also proliferated. Historian Charles Solomon noted that during the 1980-81 television season the Filmation Studio alone produced the equivalent of twenty-five animated features (roughly 38 hours of animation, close to double the output of all seven theatrical studios in 1940). This was not because the staff of Filmation was imbued with some variant of Chemical X; the audience available was far wider than the moviegoing audience of 1940 and television needed the hours in order to fill programming slots. Thus, in the case of television, the delivery system itself dictated the amount of commodity to be produced; this was not true of the theatrical method of transmission. It is an important realization that animation, by the 1970s, was in a symbiotic relationship with its chosen medium of delivery, and that the parameters of this relationship would expand to other forms of presenting cartoons to their consumers. The consumers, in turn, would undergo changes that would ultimately result in an increasingly sophisticated audience for animation.

Cowboy Bebop broke animation boundaries via home video. Now early next year, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie will grace U.S. big screens as well. © Bandai Entertainment.

Cowboy Bebop broke animation boundaries via home video. Now early next year, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie will grace U.S. big screens as well. © Bandai Entertainment.

Bringing More Outlets Home

The next expansion of delivery systems took place during the mid-1970s when the first reliable VCR technology became available for home use. The VCR as we know it dates from 1972, but with Sony's first home model (1975), Americans could enjoy movies that were not broadcast by TV. The second part of a powerful one-two entertainment punch was delivered in 1984, when the Cable Act deregulated the cable TV industry. Although cable TV had existed since 1948, the Cable Act helped to make this delivery system more attractive than ever; by 1989 the number of subscribers tripled. Both of these systems were ideal transportation vehicles for the transmission of cartoons to an eager public. Between the video market, cable TV and network TV programming, animation fans now had access to nearly the entire history of animated cartoons. It is no coincidence that some of the first and most revered animation fanzines came into existence, and that the seminal animation historians began their careers at this time. This phenomenon was noted by author Hal Erikson in his fine book Television Cartoon Shows (An Illustrated Encyclopedia, 1949 through 1993). Erikson believed that this explosion of presentation technology created a savvy viewership which in turn created the impetus for the production of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), widely hailed as the first salvo in the current toon boom.

Erikson is correct, but he omits some important points. The state of animation in 1988 was not an enviable one. In many ways, the newly "cartoon literate" viewership had meager pickings from which to choose. For example, Warner animation was a dead issue by the time Roger Rabbit was saving Toontown. Much of what was available on network TV and cable was commercialized and heavily tied to toy promotions. New pro-social guidelines and "educational" proscriptions saddled cartoon scripts. Erikson also overlooks the fact that Disney animation kicked its rusty engines back to roaring life a few months later with The Little Mermaid; this film also played no small part in the animation boom. The proliferation of presentation technology did create animation-hip fans, but it also opened possibilities for new series, new people, and creator-driven product. This was simply because there were so many hours of programming to fill and so much profit to be made from the VHS market (as the Japanese had already proven).

Queer Duck is not only unique in subject matter as the first gay themed animation series, but also because it made the jump from Icebox.com as a Web toon to a series on cable's Showtime. © 2000 Mishmash Media/Icebox, Inc.

Queer Duck is not only unique in subject matter as the first gay themed animation series, but also because it made the jump from Icebox.com as a Web toon to a series on cable's Showtime. © 2000 Mishmash Media/Icebox, Inc.

Since cable television and the video market were largely unencumbered by Broadcast Standards and Practices, adult-themed animation was able to gain hold in the United States, and many cartoons that play on our TV sets today would have been unthinkable in 1980. From Beavis and Butthead to South Park to the import Cowboy Bebop, these were not typical Saturday morning toons. The tendency for cartoons to break imaginative boundaries flourished with an innovation that came too late for Erikson's book to address: Web cartoons, along with the software technology that made anyone who could afford it his or her own Bob Clampett. It matters little that Icebox.com went broke or that the Web-based toon boom collapsed in 2001; the ideas and the technologies cannot be put back into the bottle, and some of the most exciting artists working today (such as Xeth Feinberg of Bulbo and Queer Duck fame) started out with primitive Flash animation programs. Their delivery systems are truly worldwide and constantly in production. Several Web toons are making, or have already made, the jump to cable TV and even live-action features.

In this way, the delivery systems have become seamless. Take the case of the aforementioned Queer Duck, a Web toon that originated on Icebox.com in late 2000. After only five episodes appeared on the Web, Icebox.com went bust but the toon caught the eyes of the execs at Showtime. Soon Queer Duck and his fey compatriots were accompanying the cable station's series Queer as Folk. Recently the BBC decided to pick up Queer Duck as an addition to their comedy lineup. It is not unreasonable to assume that DVDs are far behind; in fact, considering the popularity of the series, it would be surprising not to see them. None of this would have been possible ten years ago.

Other Paths of Influence

The impact of more and varied delivery systems for animation affected fandom in other ways. By the 1990s the full influence of what would eventually be called anime was felt due to the ability of multiple delivery systems to channel Japanese product to American audiences. The industry was changed by the need to move animation production overseas in order to save money and meet the voracious demands of network TV, cable and the syndication market. "Runaway" animation, as it was called, was a mixed blessing for the industry and a horror for job-hungry animators in America, but again the delivery system was calling the shots.

Web cartoons did help bring some creators to light: Xeth Feinberg, for example, started by creating Bulbo using Flash animation, now with Queer Duck, he's moved on to a TV series. © 2000 Mishmash Media/Icebox, Inc.

Web cartoons did help bring some creators to light: Xeth Feinberg, for example, started by creating Bulbo using Flash animation, now with Queer Duck, he's moved on to a TV series. © 2000 Mishmash Media/Icebox, Inc.

I readily admit the following: Cultural factors may have made a toon boom inevitable; changing standards and mores did enable a more adult style of animation; and globalization would have brought new influences into animation in any case. What I most want to stress is, none of those changes would have registered across the widest audience possible without a multiplicity of affordable delivery systems that represent the cutting edge of entertainment technology. The more systems in existence, the greater the demand for product to deliver, and the more diverse and sophisticated the product becomes. This, in turn, leads to a broader and more knowledgeable fan base -- from which the next generation of animators and writers is born.

From a single delivery system and twenty-two hours of animation in 1940 we have evolved to multiple transmission sources and 24-hour broadcasting of toons today. Whether your choice is the theater, network TV, its cable/satellite counterpart, VCR, DVD, or the Web, toons are now as plentiful as the air you breathe, coming to you via special delivery each and every day. Take a deep breath and enjoy.

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.

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