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Strip-Mining For Animation

John Cawley looks at the relationship between comics and animation over the years, from Gertie the Dinosaur to Men In Black.

As Zippy the Pinhead, Silver Surfer and Men In Black are about to enter the arena of animation, modern producers may think they have found a new gold mine for animated properties in the world of comics.These new executives do not realize that animation was born from comics and has been linked to them by an umbilical cord ever since.

Silver Surfer, the comic book published by Marvel, is now in production as an animated series from Saban.

The origins of animation come from creators who were popular magazine or newspaper cartoonists. James Stuart Blackton, Emile Cohl, Winsor McCay (perhaps best known due to his Gertie The Dinosaur in 1914 and later Little Nemo In Slumberland), and John Randolph Bray created the modern animation industry with a variety of animated shorts and series based on original ideas and those found in their comics.

Bringing the Print to Life

Bringing characters from printed comics to the screen (and vice versa) has never been a guarantee of success. Such popular newspaper comics of the teens as The Gumps, Mutt and Jeff and Krazy Kat were all adapted into animation. Most of these were met with indifferent results.Far more popular were original creations such as Koko the Clown, Felix the Cat and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. In fact Felix the Cat moved into printed comics which actually outlasted the popularity of the original films. With the advent of sound, and the popularity of Mickey Mouse, studios seemed to be looking for fresh new characters. For the most part, the new stars, like Mickey, Bugs Bunny, and Tom & Jerry, moved from the movie screen to the world of comic strips and comic books. Animation producers did not forget their origins though. Comic characters such as Captain and the Kids, Li'l Abner and Nancy and Sluggo all became stars of animated series. Most did not prove as popular on movie screens.One notable exception of the time was Popeye. The scrappy comic strip sailor first appeared animated in 1933 and quickly became one of the biggest stars of animation. Creators generally drew from the popular mediums of film and radio for inspiration, frequently borrowing a voice or personality to place in an animated body.

Silver Surfer, the comic book published by Marvel, is now in production as an animated series from Saban.

By the late 1930s comic books had become a highly popular source of entertainment among young people.Comic strips, however, were perceived as more of an adult medium since adults read newspapers. Therefore, at this time, they became more popular as a source for film which was also perceived as an adult medium.Comic book characters were relegated to children's programming like Saturday afternoon serials. The lone exception was a series of shorts based on the Superman comic produced in the early 1940's.Though technically excellent, the series did not spawn any additional action adventure entries.

Television and the Fifties meant a new, if less budgeted, market for animation.Most of the programming was aimed at children via re-runs of theatrical shorts. However, studios began to make headway into the new television market by producing original product that featured characters which appealed to children. Creators pulled from television and film persona for their cartoon stars. The popularity of original characters like Yogi Bear with college students indicated a more sophisticated audience, but with the exception of a flurry of prime time series in the early Sixties, most animation stayed in the playpen.

Action Hero Mania

In the mid-Sixties, animation went back to its origins for source material and for different audiences. Fred Silverman at ABC wanted to take over the Saturday morning market and looked around for what was popular with children. His answer was comic books, and ratings proved he was right. Before kids could say "Up, up and away!," Saturday morning was filled with Superman, Archie, Spider-Man, and a host of other popular comic characters.Japan's anime market made some of its first impressions on U.S. audiences with adaptations of popular Japanese manga such as Astro Boy, Speed Racer and Kimba.

CBS, looking for more adult audiences, went to comic strips. Beginning with the surprise success of A Charlie Brown Christmas, executives once again found that people would enjoy seeing their favorite comic strips in animation.Peanuts, Blondie, Garfield, Cathy, B.C. and others became fodder for prime time specials. Peanuts eventually graduated into a line of successful feature films.

A decade later with the Seventies, anti-violence sentiment finally moved into children's programming. Faster than a speeding bullet, the super-hero comics disappeared from Saturday morning. Their time slots taken over by ghost hunters, adaptations of popular prime time series and races through time and space. The cycle was broken in the early Eighties when the European comic sensation The Smurfs hit Saturday morning.Suddenly, cozier, friendlier comics were sought. Comic books were represented by the likes of Richie Rich.. Taking a page from their later viewers, programmers went to the papers and offered Saturday morning viewers Garfield, Peanuts, and Mother Goose and Grimm.

The comic book property Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles became a phenomenonal merchandising success when it was adapted into an animated series.

A New Demand for Programming

The Eighties also brought new markets, like syndication, cable and home video to the table. These were not tied to network regulations and led the way back to action.The mega-hit Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a very sugary version of the alternative comic hit, sent producers scrambling for other alternative titles. Another source was a variety of new anime, mostly based on popular manga, which became available in the U.S. thanks to home video. Cable channels, like Fifties television, offered many new options, all with small budgets. Sadly the early Nineties saw several markets shrink as prime time animated specials all but disappeared and the major networks began to drop Saturday morning animation.

As we soar past the mid-Nineties into the end of the decade, comic book and comic strip characters continue to evolve... both ways. The Simpsons, Ren And Stimpy and Beavis & Butt-head have successful comic book series. Fox has the rights to all of the Marvel Comic characters and Warner Bros. sits atop the DC super-hero warehouse. Alternative and international comics are finding productions here and there, while manga continues to be a key source for anime, which is becoming even more evident in video stores and on television. Comic strips are also still around, and still apparently being considered more adult than comic books. For instance, Dilbert is being done in live action which shows that the series is skewed for an older audience than a cartoon.

Comics, comic books and animation.A new mix? About as new as gravity... and sometimes as powerful a force with which to reckon.

John Cawley is currently a producer on Fox's Spider-Man series.Along with producing, he has also written and developed animated properties. As an author, he has a number of books and hundreds of articles to his credit.