How have we all ended up in this animated world? Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman relates his journey into animation fandom. Does it resemble your own?
Contrary to a popular adage, life is not a journey; it is rather a series of them. Some may be concurrent, some may overlap and still others are entirely disparate from one another. Destinations may be pre-planned or accidental, reached or abandoned. These sojourns have one thread in common, however: they serve to explain who we are, how we grow and what moves us through the course of our lives. This month's column begins the story of one journey among many in my life, and I tell it because I suspect that most of you have kept me company on this same path -- one that we tread to this day. We begin in Boston, Massachusetts.
A Meager Beginning
The state of American animation in 1956: Walt Disney was the undisputed king of the medium, the only figure in the field worthy of attention or scrutiny; his cartoons and films were incomparable in the eyes of critics and the public alike. No one then sought to interview Charles M. Jones, Fred Avery, Robert Clampett or Isadore Freling, and few outside the industry knew them by their now-familiar nicknames. A production company known as UPA had created somewhat of a sensation, but mostly among art critics and graphic designers. Independent animation in America was virtually nonexistent, and most of its potential proponents animated singing beer cans and cereal-munching critters at the behest of advertising agencies. The theatrical short lay supine on its Technicolor deathbed. Television had little to offer save cartoons recycled from decades past; they floated across the tiny screen like scratchy, black-and-gray ghosts -- and so they were. Those that did not feature Popeye were often incomprehensibly strange, as if they were alien relics discovered within a cathode tomb. This was the world I was born into and it held little promise as a starting point for my journey. Still, what was seemingly fated would come to pass.
The first cartoon I can reliably remember seeing was Fleischer's 1935 Color Classic Song of the Birds, broadcast on some long-forgotten local kiddie show. With my four year-old sensibility, I was drawn deeply into this maudlin tale of a boy who shoots down a baby bird as it first takes wing. The event is witnessed by the avian community, that conduct a melancholy funeral while the boy breaks down in remorse. It is needless to add that the baby bird, merely stunned, chirps back to life at cartoon's end; I had already dissolved into tears and had to be consoled by my mother. She reminded me of the happy ending and gently reassured me that, "It was only a cartoon." It was only a cartoon. Those words, spoken to me for the first time that day, never took hold and never would. These little films, so different from the westerns, game shows and early sitcoms I also saw on TV, seemed to resonate and merge with some emerging component of my nascent personality. For the rest of my life I would respond to animation with deep, visceral feelings that live-action movies, theatre or television could not summon.
Now We're Getting Somewhere
I sought out cartoons at every chance. I crawled out of bed in the early morning hours to switch on the TV set since cartoons were typically the first things broadcast once the test pattern and national anthem had left the screen. I acquired friends: Pow Wow the Indian Boy, Spunky and Tadpole, Tom Terrific and Felix the (wonderful, wonderful!) Cat. Early Saturday mornings brought Bugs, Daffy, Porky...and at that time, even Coal Black. My parents took note and began to supply me with brightly colored comic books featuring many of these friends, and when I saw the characters on those pages, I believed that some artist at a "comic book factory" had arbitrarily colored them that way. Not until my first trip to a drive-in theater did I realize that most cartoons were made in color. My cartoon universe expanded: Hanna-Barbera spilled dozens of new characters into my living room and I delightedly watched them tear around a circus ring with the Kellogg's rooster in tow. I was awestruck upon seeing my first episode of the Fleischer Superman series: The Mummy Strikes. I cowered under the bedcovers that night at the memory of the giant mummy slowly coming to life, scowling at Superman through baleful blank orbs. I had never seen a cartoon with such vivid styling or primordial power, and the images stayed with me for days thereafter.
Cartoons even appeared during the evening hours, where I made the acquaintance of Alvin and his brothers. Shortly after that, Bugs Bunny got his own show -- his own show! -- after dinnertime. I can recall my parents telling me that a new cartoon was coming at night, and that I would be allowed to stay up and see it. That evening, we all tripped upstairs to the apartment occupied by my aunt and uncle where we watched the first episode of The Flintstones. On that early fall evening I had a dish of strawberry ice cream in my lap, a brand-new cartoon to enjoy and the happiness of knowing that cartoons were seemingly on television every time I wanted to see one. Somewhere around this time, I was treated to my first Walt Disney theatrical feature -- One Hundred and One Dalmatians. It was the most awesome cartoon I had ever seen, and by far the coolest adventure. This, dear readers, was the best of all possible worlds.
In my room filled with Huckleberry Hound jigsaw puzzles and Popeye Ring Toss games, I would fantasize about becoming a cartoon: wearing the same clothes each day, speaking in a funny voice, hamming it up through adventures like Yogi Bear did. I imagined myself as the fourth chipmunk brother, instantly accepted by David Seville as one of his own. I battered pillows across the room, pumped up on "me spinach"...which I begged my bemused mother to buy. My most beloved Chanukah gift? A cherry-red Give-A-Show Projector; I could actually present my own cartoon show (at least for the life of the batteries) and control its content. I sat before our battered old Philco for the first episodes of Top Cat (which I didn't "get") and The Jetsons (which I loved). I will admit, some shows did not connect with me. I never enjoyed Rocky and Bullwinkle as a child. I liked the characters but did not have the patience to follow episodic narrative, nor the sophistication to comprehend satire. One strange prime-time offering, Calvin and the Colonel, was simply beyond all understanding: it wasn't even funny. What kind of cartoon was this?
Then, an epiphany: the winter of my sixth year, 1962. I would like to imagine that my deepening appreciation for cartoons, a growing ability to discriminate among them and an increasing grasp of the language and style of animation allowed me to appreciate this experience beyond all previous measures -- but the truth is more prosaic. I met up with Bob Clampett's Beany and Cecil and the sheer excellence of this series validated everything I loved most about cartoons. Upon the decks of the "Leakin' Lena" I sailed the ink-and-paint seas of adventure. I was "Beany Boy" and reveled in my odyssey among the myriad of offbeat, endearing creatures that sprang from Clampett's imagination, a whirlwind taxonomy of cartoon oddities: Beepin' Tom; Little Ace; Thunderbolt the Wonder Colt; Tear-A-Long the Dotted Lion; and Davy Cricket. Faithful Cecil, the most beloved of all my cartoon friends, towered alongside me like a goofy, pea-green totem pole, always ready with a song, a slurp or a rescue. The Beany and Cecil show constructed an animated alternate universe -- and I wanted to live in it.
In a way, I did. I named my stuffed animals after characters on the show and pleaded for the panoply of (now priceless) products that bore the likenesses of my heroes. I was given, and duly wore, my own Mattel Beanycopter. Diligent practice of "Nya Ha Ha!" readied me for my encounters with Dishonest John, the coolest, snappiest bad guy in cartoons. Best of all were the times my father and I vied mightily to join Cecil as he belted: "A Bob Clam-pett CartOOOOOON!" both of us bursting into laughter before getting to within three octaves of that daunting final note. Somehow, those cartoons were brighter, funnier and more engaging than the suddenly unexciting fare coming from Hanna-Barbera. A musketeer turtle? An alligator with the same silly voice shared by thirty other characters? Humph! Clampett's klutzy Hopalong Catskill - one of his bit players -- had more personality than any of them, and his gags were funnier. Beany and Cecil left me with two priceless gifts: the psychological cement that bonded me to animated cartoons for life and the first inkling that some cartoons were undeniably better than others.
Life went on, and with it came school, friends, music, comic books. Still, I could never resist a furtive retreat into that secret realm I loved so well. In 1964 Hanna-Barbera won me back with Jonny Quest, the best action-adventure series this side of modern anime. I always looked in the Fall Preview issue of TV Guide to peruse the new Saturday Morning lineup; if any of the offerings piqued my interest, I would tune in. The new UHF channels appearing in the late Sixties introduced me to anime: Speed Racer, Marine Boy, and my guilty favorite, Prince Planet. It would not be an exaggeration to say I saw everything Saturday Morning had to offer from Fat Albert to Milton the Monster, even though I was nearing the age where most males turned from cartoons and began stashing heavily-thumbed copies of Playboy beneath their mattresses. If it was animated, it spoke to me in some way and I had to check it out -- even if it turned out to be the cartoon equivalent of Love Canal.
I developed an active social life and participated in the same poignant rites of adolescence that my peers did...and that's where this journey nearly ended. By 1970 American TV animation had deteriorated into a stagnant pool of repetitive dross. Disney was moribund. Animation's voice was growing smaller in my soul, and there was no Leakin' Lena at the dock, no new Beany beckoning me to novel adventures, no steadfast Cecil playing Puff to my rapidly maturing Jackie Paper. The sound of animation dying within me was the whiny snicker of Muttley, goofing his way through another dreary concoction of thin slapstick and tinny music. The wondrous connection I once felt with this medium was muffled beneath the weight of too many wooden superheroes, too many judicious, pro-social polemics in cartoon form, and too many spiritless pieces of hackwork that were far too much alike. Then a horny grey cat saved everything.
I was sixteen when Ralph Bakshi unleashed Fritz The Cat against a middle-class morality that was already reeling; by the time of the film's premiere in 1972, sex, coarse language and violence had become a staple of American cinema. What no one expected was that an animated feature would join the fray, earning the penultimate "X" rating. I had to see this -- but I could barely pass for my own age. After hearing me rant, my sympathetic father offered to be my "accompanying adult" and off we went to the Avon drive-in (local theaters were refusing to book the flick). Fritz may not have been the finest animated feature I ever saw, but it was a milepost in my fandom. If this film was possible, then anything was possible; there had to be alternative voices in animation, and it was just a matter of finding out who they were and where their films were showing. If I succeeded, cartoons might live for me again. Alas, this quest sat on hold for the next several years while I dated, hung around Cape Cod, attended college and did other things too incriminating to reveal here. Then, most unexpectedly, the final component clicked into place.
Recognition and RejuvenationFor those of you who have never visited the Brattle St. Theater in Harvard Square, Cambridge, make the pilgrimage someday; it's worth the trip. On a spring day in 1977 I went to this venerable movie house with my then girlfriend and a buddy to catch a Fleischer retrospective. There were a few Betty Boop cartoons on the docket as well as the celebrated Popeye films that featured Max Fleischer's "3D" tabletop effects. Also present was a local film scholar (whose name I no longer recall), who wrote a pamphlet for the event and discussed the films afterward. There were few attendees at this particular showing and we had this knowledgeable gentleman virtually all to ourselves. As he regaled us with tales of the Fleischer studio and impressed us with his expertise, a humbling truth became clear to me: I had watched thousands of hours of cartoons and didn't know anything about them.
That's right. My knowledge of cartoons was limited to identification alone. I could remember Bugs Bunny's actions in a specific cartoon or name the lineup of The Wacky Races. I could tell Roland from Rattfink, or even identify Swifty and Shorty if you showed me a picture. But as to where they came from and who made them, I had no clue at all. I had not even connected Bob Clampett, the Aesop of my youth, with his Warner Bros. cartoons even after I had seen his name in countless credits; it simply never registered. I could recall seeing episodes of Woody Woodpecker as a small child; between the cartoons, there were segments on how these films were made, but since they weren't animated, I became bored and tuned out until Woody himself returned. Technology, history, the studios and their personnel were beyond my rudimentary experience of animation. On that day in Harvard Square as I thrilled to that erudite scholar, the next phase of my journey was set.
Next month: Walking to Toontown, Part Two, the path from ignorance to bliss as this journey reaches the present day.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.
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