Dr. Toon: Across the Pond
There was also, during the 1980s, an explosion in the availability of entertainment options available to world audiences. VHS tapes, multiple cable channels, and the end of NBC, ABC, and CBS hegemony over television meant that more and fresher entertainment would have to find its way into American homes. This was a vast jump from the only alternative source (UHF TV) available prior to the late 1970s. Suddenly, overseas animation looked like a great option, and no producers were as prolific as the Japanese. Since 1963, over 260 anime series have been shown on American television, and the demand for them remains insatiable. Recent sophisticated series such as Cowboy Bebop and Death Note maintained an avid following, likely the same American generation that cut their teeth on Sailor Moon during the 1990s.
The one instance where European animation was able to rival Japanese animation had its origins in 1958 when Belgian artist Pierre “Peyo” Culliford introduced a community of tiny blue homunculi to Spirou magazine. Originally named Les Schtroumpfs, the happy horde became The Smurfs when Hanna -Barbera began joint production with SEPP International S.A. in 1981. The Smurfs were a ratings and merchandising bonanza, leaving a permanent mark on American culture. It was an all-too rare breakthrough into U.S. markets.
The only other European series of note to American audiences was the cult hit Danger Mouse (no relation to the singer/songwriter/producer of the same name). This wacky Brit hit featured an eye patch-sporting white mouse who riffed on James Bond from 1981-1992. After a brief solo run in U.S. markets, the series was picked up by Nickelodeon during the network’s formative years.
Every year since 1990, European hopefuls have been screening prospective series at Cartoon Forum, held in different locations around the Continent. The next Forum will be held from September 17-20 2013, and 69 animated TV projects will be on display for investors, buyers, and acquisition personnel to peruse. Since the Forum’s inception some 500 TV series have been financed for successful participants. Projects aimed at markets from preschool to tween audiences are represented, and it’s probably a good bet that if some of them, were exposed to American markets, they would be hits. Inferior material like Assy McGee, Chop Socky Chooks, and The Brothers Grunt found buyers on American TV; shouldn’t some of the classier European products get a tryout?
In short, America and Europe got off on the wrong foot during the 1920s, and the ship has never been wholly righted. Due to a changing world, changing tastes, advancements in technology and shifting market forces, Japanese anime had a much easier time integrating itself into American markets than European animation did. Perhaps it’s finally time to rectify things.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.