Everyone who has watched or studied animation for a fair amount of time can tell you who the greats are; many of them are recognizable by first name alone. Bugs, Woody, Donald, Rocky, Mickey, Scooby, Homer, Fred and Wilma all need no further elucidation. Along with these luminaries of the animated universe are many others whose names or series bespeak instant recognition. Animated celebrities of the second tier who did not reach superstardom might include the likes of Alvin, Josie, Beany and Underdog. Although these stars and their series were not merchandised or lauded as much as animation's superstars, they all hold a revered niche in the culture that spawned them if only for the purpose of nostalgia. (One of my colleagues at work named her baby girl Josie Tyger; I can't award her enough style points.)
The next stratum contains cartoons and series that either existed for a very short time or were spawned from existing properties (mostly comic book superheroes). Some of the inhabitants of this world are obscure, little known cartoons that have passed on into the darkness of extinction and are difficult to find even on DVD. They dwell in internet backchannels as bootlegs and copies of copies, occasionally surfacing on YouTube. I enjoy sifting through these for the purpose of finding hidden gems, and indeed I have found a few series that I thought were definitely underrated. By using that term I don't mean that they are "lost" cartoons (nothing in this digital age is truly "lost"). What I mean is a quality cartoon that flew under the cultural radar.
What makes a cartoon "underrated"? Admittedly, this is matter of personal as well as critical choice. However there may be some objective criteria useful as a starting point. Let's begin with the fact that only the most dedicated aficionados would be aware of these cartoons, since they did not last long to begin with. Impossible as it may seem, some of them may not even have fan sites on the web. Merchandising is either rare or non-existent, and revivals and makeovers would be as unlikely as Mideast peace. These are the cartoons that exist mostly as answers to trivia questions, or producers of puzzled glances when mentioned. They are rarely found on DVD, even in the voluminous cut-out bins of Wal-Mart. In short, they came, they went and they're history.
Yet, there was an amount of originality, charm and humor to these cartoons, something that shoved them up like a tiny atoll atop a sea of ink-and-paint dross: Sparks that flickered brightly if briefly on long-forgotten Saturday morning blocks (also extinct). Likeable, competently made cartoons that bring "Oh, yeaaaah!" and a bemused smile when remembered. Here are three of my old faves, in chronological order, for your perusal; after nearly 55 years of gobbling up cartoons, I hope that something of unrecognized quality might have stuck in my head.
Clyde Crashcup (1961-1962) Clyde Crashcup did not have his own show; rather, he existed as a seven-minute second banana to Alvin and the Chipmunks during the show's original run on CBS. Crashcup was a kooky, rather than mad, scientist who constantly invented benefits for humankind. This inept inventor was oblivious to the fact that everything he invented already existed, and in superior form. With his beanpole build, mop of wild black hair, and the longest toothbrush mustache in animation, Crashcup captured the essence of every pompous professor and elevated egghead ever caricatured. His high-flown speeches were eloquent masterpieces of silliness, especially when contrasted with his inevitable flops.
Clyde Crashcup was assisted by a short, pudgy lab partner named Leonardo, who was as mute as Crashcup was verbose. His bald head and outsized glasses put him in the same egghead category as Crashcup, but he was clearly the subordinate scientist. Leonardo sensed disaster well before it happened, tugging frantically on Crashcup's lab coat and whispering into his ear when he needed to communicate.
Crashcup owned the quintessential inventor's tool: A pencil capable of turning the inventor's drawings into reality as soon as they were finished. In Clyde's hand, it produced some of the most woe-begotten creations in science. There were plenty of laughs in comparing Crashcup's "inventions" with the real artifacts. Crashcup continually broke the "fourth wall" in his cartoons, addressing the audience throughout the inventive process. He announced his inventions by breaking the words down into their simplest components ("That's 'Buh' for 'Buh' and 'Oat' for 'Oat' – 'Boat'"), and never seemed to lose his composure when the worst happened, which was often.
And such failures! In one cartoon, Crashcup invented "The Wife" (voiced by June Foray). After waxing poetic about the virtues of marriage and companionship, Crashcup draws himself a mate. The last thing he draws is a happy smile upon her face; the moment she materializes it instantly turns into a frown, and soon the nagging harridan is clobbering Crashcup while he calls his savage spouse endearing pet names.
Crashcup's "boat" is seemingly designed to do anything but float, and if baseball had been played the way Crashcup invented it, our national pastime might have been tiddlywinks instead. This overlooked cartoon was one of the more inventive (so to speak) offerings on prime-time TV and one of the funniest; no surprise since Chris Jenkyns, late of Rocky and his Friends, wrote many of the episodes. Clyde Crashcup is the only character on my short list to merit an encore with a bit part in a 1990 episode of Alvin and the Chipmunks. This silly scientist was voiced by veteran character actor Shep Menken (who channeled former radio star Richard Hayden). Among the animated men of science, Clyde Crashcup was "Gr for Gr and ate for ate – Great!"
Prince Planet (1966) Many fans of classic anime consider this cartoon series to be a rip-off of Osamu Tekuza's legendary Astro Boy; it is actually a Japanese retelling of the Superman myth in which a strange visitor from another planet (called "Crifton" in the original Japanese) comes to Earth to perform feats of wonder and battle lethal enemies with the goal of making the world a more civilized place. In the anglicized version of the cartoon, Prince Planet is sent from the planet Radion, who would like to have Earth join the Universal Peace Corps, a subsidiary of the Galactic Council of Planets (you have to love this already!) However, Earth must be purged of evil, war, terrorism, ruffianism and probably jaywalking in order to qualify as a member. The Prince is highly moral by birth, and is so chosen as the GCP ambassador to Earth.
PP's ship crashes in the American desert, but the alien is taken in by lovely young Diana Worthy (no, that's really her name), daughter of a millionaire. She escorts him to the city of New Metropolis (shades of Kal-El!) where he adopts the secret identity of…Bobby. Prince Planet gained his powers of super strength and flight from a large pendant with the letter "P" conspicuously engraved upon it, which was periodically recharged with atomic energy beamed from Radion. PP was assisted by two stalwart buddies, the fakir Ajababa and Dan Dynamo, "the strongest man in the world." For 52 episodes Team Planet fought the sinister Warlock (who looked rather like Freakazoid), and the forbidding Krag of Kragmire, (who resembled the Penguin on steroids and threw saw blades through the air).
The series was notable for the tense, dramatic showdowns between the protagonists; even Krag and Warlock hated each other, and team Planet was not above dissension, either. Death was very real in this cartoon, and incidental characters occasionally met with their demise. By the series end, Prince Planet eliminates both Krag and Warlock by killing them, a forbidden act on cartoons aired in the States. Warlock actually dies onscreen, raising his head one last time to tell Prince Planet, "You fought well." At times the Prince and Diana are in mortal danger, which was all too real in this series. This was typically because the technician who ran the pendant recharging station on Radion was a habitual goof-off who waited until the last minute to hit the switch.
All this took place with a cast of button-eyed, doll-like waifs who cavorted in a black and white world enriched with more detail and shading than the typical anime of the time, suggesting a far more sophisticated show. The contrasts and contradictions in animation styles, story, and art direction made Prince Planet one of the most unusual and underrated offerings of early anime. Derivative as it may have been, bland it wasn't. The series offered adventure, thrills, and action aplenty to a young audience that would groove on Akira 12 years later.
Super Chicken (1967-1970) Admit it: Just about everything that came out of the Jay Ward studio except for Hoppity Hooper was funny. Even Ward's TV commercials were more amusing than most. It's no surprise, then, that a Ward production shows up on this list. Super Chicken (a.k.a. millionaire Henry Cabot Henhouse III) was a component of the successful TV series George of the Jungle, but the powerful pullet might have easily headlined on his own. Henry Cabot led a life of leisure until danger threatened; then it was time for a martini glass full of "Super Sauce," which transformed Cabot into the fearless fowl Super Chicken. The sauce varied in texture and quality from one episode to another, leading to hilarious off-the-wall reactions when consumed.
As in most Ward productions, Super Chicken had a sidekick named Fred, a lugubrious lion whose intelligence was suggested by the backwards "F" on his sweater. Fred, though loyal, was less than enamored with Super Chicken's crime fighting strategies and had to be cajoled into action with Super Chicken's famous tagline, "You knew the job was dangerous when you took it, Fred!" Super Chicken's costume suggested a demented musketeer, and he flew to battle in his egg-shaped Super Coupe.
What really made the show was the typical Jay Ward style of humor, more puns than Bob Clampett ever dreamed of, and an all-star voice cast that overplayed the material at every turn. Bill Scott voiced the main character, with Paul Frees speaking for Fred. Daws Butler voiced many of the villains and June Foray was on hand whenever a feminine touch was needed. The repartee was sharp and quickly paced, not unlike that heard in Ward's earlier Rocky and Bullwinkle series. Super Chicken faced off against ridiculous foes such as Rotten Hood, Merlin Brando, a larcenous Easter Bunny, Salvador Rag Dolly, Briggs Bad Wolf (a Snidely Whiplash reprise) and in a great sci-fi parody, the Wild Hair, a giant mop of orange locks that Super Chicken defeated by making it worry until it went bald; the resulting scalp got a job as the Houston Astrodome!
Of the many superhero parodies that flourished during the 1960s, Super Chicken was easily the silliest, wittiest and most underrated of the bunch. There was more nuttiness in the seventeen episodes produced than could be found in all the "Archie" cartoons made over twenty years. Unlike the other cartoons listed here, Super Chicken was recently made available on DVD when Classic Media released George of the Jungle: the Complete Series. You knew the cartoon was a winner when you watched it, Fred!
Honorable Mention: Tooter Turtle (1960-1963) Tooter Turtle was easily the most entertaining component of the King Leonardo and his Short Subjects TV series, and featured the best cartoon characters produced by Total Television until Underdog. Tooter Turtle was a clueless youth who enthusiastically changed his vocational aspirations from one episode to the next. Unfortunately, Tooter typically chose dangerous professions such as knight, fireman, sheriff, lumberjack and generally anything else that could get him killed. Mr. Wizard, who strove only to teach Tooter a lesson, granted his wish with his magic wand.
It didn't take long for things to go horribly awry, leaving the turtle to scream "Heeelp, Mr. Wizard!" With the chant of "Trizzle, trazzle, trozzle, trome, time for this one to come home," the wiz rescued Tooter and reassured him that "Be what you is and not what you is not. Folks that is what they is, is the happiest lot!" While some interpreted this as a call to conformity and acceptance of one's lot in life, Mr. Wizard's admonition may have also meant, "To thine own self be true." Allen Swift voiced Tooter in imitation of Mortimer Snerd, while Sandy Becker's delightful Mittle-European accent graced the voice of Mr. Wizard. A mini-classic of desire, morality, fate and comedy in 43 short episodes.
There are doubtless many other candidates for underrated cartoons in your own minds, and that's only for the good. Spread the word. At best, you may trigger a revival. At the very least, you would be paying tribute and showing appreciation to the many artists and writers that toiled on very good cartoons that, for one reason or another flew under the radar.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.