Dr. Toon: The More, the Merrier
Every year hopeful animation independents and studios prepare to pitch shows to networks. All of them believe that they have a certain unique angle, style, or twist (be it art design or narrative) that will produce an immortal series, or at least one that lasts more than 52 episodes. Indeed, some of these concepts are quite imaginative novel in nature; just as some of them are so derivative and poorly executed that they are doomed right out of the software program. Some fall in between these extremes but tend to have little network longevity. The animation graveyards are full of Squirrel Boys, Juniper Lees, Kryptos, X's, El Tigres and of late, Mighty Bs.
All of these series were no doubt the products of considerable imagination, time, expense, and gigabytes, but in the end these series (and many others like them) are now extinct. Is there a secret that virtually guarantees success? A key to lasting fame, hordes of dedicated fans, scores of adoring websites and millions of dollars in licensing and merchandising? After a careful current and historical study of this crucial question, your Doctor Toon has reached the solid conclusion that there is. It's simple, it's obvious and it's probably not what you think.
In the formative days of animation (indeed, throughout the early 1960s) fame was based on a sort of star system. A single character was presented, rose to popularity, and was generally the star of its featured short. The only other characters were usually antagonists, foils, or a romantic interest. Mickey Mouse existed in this manner throughout his first decade (although team-ups with Goofy and Donald Duck were in vogue for a spell). Speaking of Goofy and Donald, they most frequently went solo. Felix the Cat was a loner, as was Mighty Mouse, Droopy, and Woody Woodpecker. Popeye was an exception, but recall that he was a comic strip character with a pre-existing background that the Fleischer's could call upon.
The Warner characters seemed to be aware of each other's existence (as in You Ought to Be in Pictures, 1940), but at times appeared to have only vague relationships. In the 1943 short Porky Pig's Feat, Porky refers to Bugs Bunny as someone he once admired in a Leon Schlesinger cartoon. Porky and Daffy sometimes co-starred during the late thirties and early forties, but until Chuck Jones began to use the Warner characters as an ensemble in the 1950s, cartoons such as the ones mentioned were the exception. At MGM Tom and Jerry were inseparable co-stars, but they seemed to live in a sparsely populated universe; even their battlegrounds were largely devoid of continuing characters, human or otherwise.
Later cartoons made for TV, especially those of Hanna and Barbera, operated by the "Hero and Sidekick" formula, with no one else in the shorts except the antagonist. It took some time for HB to feature an ensemble cast with The Flintstones, which was in turn adapted from popular live-action sitcom formats. However, The Flintstones proved to be HB's signature animated series for decades to come.