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cic20080212-01.jpgIn last week’s column I embarked on a mission: to track down animated cartoons that had made an impression on me when I was in grade school, but which I hadn’t seen since, and watch them again through adult eyes. I wanted to see how many of them I could find on the Internet, and what other animated cartoons of note might be there as well.

My quest proved to be more successful than I’d imagined. I found a lot of vintage cartoons that I recalled as mediocre or worse, and which lived down to my memories: King Leonardo and Friends, Linus the Lionhearted, Silly Sidney and Deputy Dawg and more. But there were also plenty that proved to be true classics.

Although I’ve seen many of the 1940s Superman animated cartoons as an adult, somehow I never caught up with the one I found perhaps most memorable from my childhood, in which Superman battles a gigantic tyrannosaur. But now I’ve found it: it’s called The Arctic Giant, produced by the Fleischer Studios, directed by Dave Fleischer, and released by Paramount in 1942.

Like the other Fleischer Superman cartoons, The Arctic Giant is remarkable for its dramatic lighting, “camera” angles and visual compositions and its sheer energy and momentum. The superhero genre was only four years old in 1942, yet the Fleischer studio caught its spirit perfectly. But what I didn’t expect from The Arctic Giant were the little touches that the Fleischer team added to the cartoon.

A prologue sequence recounts how the colossal dinosaur was found frozen in the Arctic and was transported south in a freighter with similarly colossal refrigeration facilities. A new wing is built for the “Museum of Natural Science” in Superman’s home city specifically to exhibit the frozen creature. The cartoon never names this city, but the museum’s main building is clearly the actual American Museum of Natural History in New York City, with its towers that make the 77th St. facade look like a storybook castle. The Fleischer Studios were originally located in New York, so perhaps they thought of Superman as based there, too.

There’s not much dialogue in the Fleischer Superman cartoons, but the few words pay off in this one. Assigned by The Daily Planet editor to cover the dinosaur exhibit, Lois stops by Clark Kent’s desk to kid him that he’s so timid the sight of the monster would make him faint. This may be condescending, but it seems more witty than cruel, and Clark, once Lois has left, seems amused by it. It’s the sort of repartee I’d expect from the Lois of the 1990s Superman animated series; how interesting to see that the Fleischers had already caught the Lois and Clark relationship so well a half century earlier.

Of course, the dinosaur is not dead but in suspended animation, and, of course, he wakes up. Lois interviews a workman at the museum who sets down an oil can, which accidentally topples into machinery, cutting off the refrigeration that keeps the dinosaur comatose. In this high tech present, I’ve had enough experience with equipment that malfunctions because one little thing unexpectedly went wrong, so it seemed just right to me that to little falling oil can would end up releasing the monster.

When I first got to the real American Museum of Natural History, I think I was slightly disappointed with the size of the dinosaur skeletons. Big as a real tyrannosaur is, it still fits within a room on the museum’s fourth floor, whereas in my childhood, pop culture tended to make a dinosaur at least as tall as the entire museum. So the awakened “Arctic Giant” is far bigger than a real tyrannosaur: his foot is so big that he simultaneously steps on and flattens two police cars. Marauding through the city, this tyrannosaur looks like he is the size of Godzilla, and that’s pretty amazing, considering that The Arctic Giant came out twelve years before the first Godzilla movie (1954)!

Watching Arctic Giant, I wondered, if Godzilla wasn’t the Fleischers’ model for their “Arctic Giant,” could it have been King Kong? That makes sense: they are both gigantic monsters that stalk through a major city; like the dinosaur, Kong too was transported to New York by boat; Kong and the “Arctic Giant” both wreck an elevated subway line. And, of course, the dinosaur also menaces a young woman: at one point the tyrannosaur scoops Lois up in his mouth!

Superman goes to the city’s–and Lois’s–rescue, and there is a striking sequence in which Superman leaps to the tops of a succession of skyscrapers. Even though Superman streaks across the sky in the opening credits, this cartoon was definitely made before it was decided that Superman could fly. On the other hand, on the cover of Action Comics #1 Superman raises a car above his head; by Arctic Giant his strength has grown tremendously. The monster demolished the museum wing in escaping, and in order to rescue Lois, Superman lifts enormous chunks of rubble that dwarf him in size. This looks astounding to me in 2008; what must it have looked like to audiences in 1942, long before the recent rise of CGI, back when the superhero genre was still brand new?

Upon rescuing her from the rubble, Superman warns Lois to stay out of danger, but once he’s gone, she says she’s not giving up on this story. She doesn’t seem foolhardy, as she often does in these cartoons, but rather dedicated to her job. She isn’t the least bit shaken after her close encounter with the dinosaur, and that seems appropriate for Superman’s leading lady, and should have strongly impressed audiences in this pre-feminist period: she wasn’t continually screaming like Fay Wray did at Kong.

The Arctic Giant mostly seems to take place in New York City, but the marauding monster soon crashes his way through a dam as big as Hoover Dam, flooding what seems to be a country setting with small houses. Superman topples a mammoth mass of rock to seal the gap in the dam. Then the monster is back in the city, wrecking a bridge that looks very much like one of New York’s (with Superman lifting an entire span, with trucks and cars on top, back into place!) and finally stalking towards what could be Yankee Stadium. This is where the dinosaur scoops Lois up in his mouth, and Superman has to go in after her. It’s not quite the “belly of the beast” in Joseph Campbell’s phrase, but close enough to fit the archetype. Once Superman rescues her (again), Lois again shows nerves of steel, whereas you or I, after spending time in a dinosaur’s maw, might be in the verge of nervous collapse; after Superman again cautions her, she even jokingly addresses him as “milord.” She kids Clark Kent abut fainting, but this Lois seems incapable of doing the same.

I recalled Superman killing the tyrannosaur in Arctic Giant and my disapproving: kids, after all, love dinosaurs. On seeing the cartoon again, I am pleased to say my memory was wrong. Superman topples the dinosaur, and there’s a Daily Planet front page with a photograph that seems at first glance to show the tyrannosaur lying prone, but this time I saw the headlines saying that Superman “subdued” the creature, what is now in the “park zoo” (Central Park? Bronx Park?). So it seems that the Fleischers anticipated Jurassic Park here.

And so the cartoon ends with Lois and Clark at the Planet, with Lois sitting on Clark’s desk, showing off her legs (the Fleischer team clearly regarding her as a sex symbol for the adults in the audience), and Clark doing what was a trademark of these Superman cartoons, breaking the fourth wall by giving a wink to the audience. The Arctic Giant lasts only a little over eight minutes, but it has thrills, spectacle, humor, sex appeal, and a “meta” touch at the end. What more could one want?

More than once, upon hearing volunteers at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art ask visitors to become MoCCA members that they ought to play the musical question from Max and Dave Fleischer’s Bimbo’s Initiation (1931): “Wanna be a member? Wanna be a member?”

I don’t recall seeing Bimbo’s Initiation as a child, but it certainly and deservedly turned up in Fleischer retrospectives I saw in the 1980s, and it’s about as different from the Fleischers’ Arctic Giant as can be.

“Bimbo” is certainly an odd name for a male anthropomorphic dog, who is now best known for his supporting roles in Betty Boop cartoons. In this cartoon, however, Bimbo is the lead and Betty the supporting cast member. Not only that, but this is one of her earliest appearances, when she was supposed to be a dog, not a human. She looks like the familiar later version, except for her doglike ears.

Watching Bimbo’s Initiation again on YouTube, I decided to apply the Joseph Campbell approach to this infamous cartoon. Walking along a city street, Bimbo tumbles down a manhole, thus inadvertently crossing a Campbellian threshold and descending into an underworld. This might also be an allusion to Alice falling down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. Bimbo, however, finds himself in a sort of hell.

Bimbo lands in the subterranean headquarters of a strangely garbed secret society, who chant in deep male voices, “Wanna be a member? Wanna be a member?” “No!” protests Bimbo. But their invitation is a Campbellian “call to adventure,” and according to Campbell’s monomyth, denying the call always leads to dire consequences. So Bimbo finds himself in a series of seeming death traps, often involving sharp, phallic blades, one of which comes to life and tries to bite him. If the dangers weren’t treated in a somewhat comedic manner, this could easily be a horror story.

As the cartoon’s title indicates, Bimbo is being put through an initiation ritual by this secret society. Presumably these traps are intended as a test of manhood. But whenever the society members return to pose their musical question, “Wanna be a member?” Bimbo persists in refusing to join, and yet more danger ensues.

Midway through the cartoon, the dog-eared Betty Boop appears and beckons to Bimbo. This time Bimbo, sexually aroused, happily accepts the invitation and he follows Betty through a doorway only to lose her and be subjected to yet more traps. Ultimately Bimbo is confronted once more by the leader of the secret society, who poses his question “Wanna be a member?” yet again. Bimbo still refuses, until the leader unmasks, revealing “himself” to be Betty. Now Bimbo definitely wants to be a member, the other secret society members reveal themselves to be Betty lookalikes, and the cartoon ends with Bimbo and Betty dancing hand in hand, while the Boop lookalikes provide a backup chorus line. The subterranean hell has become a romantic heaven.

So, if Bimbo is being initiated into masculinity, he refuses as long as he perceives it as requiring submission to alpha males upon threat of violence. Achieving adult masculinity becomes much more appealing to Bimbo when he comes to see it as the means for making a sexual connection with Betty. (So perhaps the word “member” in this cartoon is also a sexual allusion.) At the cartoon’s end Bimbo has passed the initiation, but instead of participating in power games with other males, he instead wins the hand of the leading lady.

Long before I read my first DC superhero comic, I was a staunch fan of another DC Comics title, The Fox and the Crow, a funny animal series which had an impressively successful run from 1951 to 1968. Although I was pleased to see the Fox and Crow turn up in cameos in the first issue of DC’s new revival of Captain Carrot, DC didn’t own these characters. Not until the 1980s, when I read Of Mice and Magic, Leonard Maltin’s pioneering history of animation during the Hollywood studio system years, did I learn that the Fox and Crow first appeared in Fox and Grapes, a 1941 cartoon directed by Frank Tashlin, who later and briefly made memorable cartoons for Warners. Tashlin would go on to direct live action comedies starring Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis (who, coincidentally, also starred in DC Comics series in the 1950s and 1960s).

Despite all the classic cartoon retrospectives I’ve attended over the decades, Fox and Grapes never turned up and remained a mystery to me. But now YouTube has finally given me the chance to see it, and it is surprising from start to finish.

Surprise #1: The Fox and the Crow are unmistakably voiced by none other than supreme Warners voice artist Mel Blanc!

Surprise #2: Maybe this shouldn’t have been so surprising, since I remembered from the comics that the Crow’s first name was Crawford and the Fox’s first name was, of all things, Fauntleroy, as in Little Lord Fauntleroy. When the Fox makes his entrance in Fox and Grapes, he is skipping along a bridge, virtually dancing, wearing a straw hat and enormous bow tie, whistling or singing “la la la” to the tune of a Strauss waltz, his rear end swinging back and forth. Later, Blanc elaborately rolls his “r’s” when the Fox speaks of grapes. Could it be that Tashlin intended the Fox to be gay? (In that same year, 1941, Disney released The Reluctant Dragon, whose title character also seems to be as stereotypically gay.)

Reportedly, Chuck Jones credited Fox and Grapes as a major inspiration for his Roadrunner series, which began in 1948. I expected to find some vague similarities. But now that I’ve finally seen this cartoon, my Surprise #3 is how astonishingly close Fox and Grapes is to the Roadrunners.

First, there’s the Fox’s obsessiveness, which is arguably greater than Wile E. Coyote’s. The premise of the cartoon is that the Crow is trying to get hold of the Fox’s picnic lunch, and learns from the fable of the fox and the crow in “Eslops Fables” that foxes love grapes. (There’s a “meta” dimension to this cartoon.) So, the Crow hangs a bunch if grapes from a branch high on a tree, and offers to exchange them for the Fox’s picnic food. The Fox refuses to trade and says he will simply jump up and seize the grapes. This leads to a long series of blackout gags in which the Fox tries over and over to reach the grapes and fails every time. Like his fellow canine predator, Wile E. Coyote, the Fox will not give up. But unlike Jones’s Coyote, the Fox already has lots of food right there, and, in fact, had already consumed plenty before he even saw the grapes. The Fox isn’t motivated by hunger; he’s simply after a particular delicacy, and yet despite continual failures, he won’t cut his losses and be satisfied with the food he already has. The Fox and Coyote are both obsessive compulsives, and they both suffer from hubris and overreaching.

Still more surprisingly, many of the gags in Fox and Grapes will be familiar to any Roadrunner aficionados. The Fox repeatedly ends up falling from great heights. At one point the impact literally flattens him, compressing him as if he were an accordion. As with the Coyote, most of the Fox’s failures come from overlooking the one little thing that could go wrong with his plans. At another point, the Fox stands on one end of a kind of teeter-totter, strains to lift an enormous rock, and then, with great effort, hurls it into the air. His intention is that the rock will hit the other end of the seesaw, catapulting him upward towards the grapes. Instead, of course, the rock falls directly back down, crushing the Fox beneath. How often have we seen variations in that gag in Roadrunner cartoons?

Fox and Grapes isn’t just an inspiration for the Roadrunner series; it’s virtually a blueprint! But Chuck Jones and writer Michael Maltese elaborated on this basic structure in numerous ways, turning the Roadrunner series into something conceptually superior to the Tashlin cartoon, and even more profound, as I will explain in some future column.

Who was the first superhero I ever saw on television? I can’t be sure. Was it Superman in the Fleischer cartoons, or Mighty Mouse? Or was it Tom Terrific? He was the title character of a Terrytoons series created by Gene Deitch that ran for years on CBS’s Captain Kangaroo show, back when CBS programmed for children on weekday mornings rather than try to compete with the Today show (here and here).

Tom arguably qualifies as a superhero by the standards established by Peter Coogan in his book Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre (See “Comics in Context” #162). First of all, he has super-powers: he wears a “thinking cap” that not only augments his intellect but also enables him to transform into anything. Distinctively shaped like a funnel, the thinking cap also acts as a symbol of his superheroic identity, as much as the chevron or insignia on the typical superhero’s costume. Of course, he also has a mission, to do good.

On the Internet I found a complete five-episode Tom Terrific serial. Alas, it does not feature Tom’s archnemesis, Crabby Appleton, whom I haven’t seen in decades, but instead substitutes a worthy opponent who seems newly relevant in the wake of the popularity of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies: the piratical Captain Kidney Bean.

The Tom Terrific cartoons turned their miniscule budget to heir stylistic advantage. The characters an backgrounds are simple line drawings, devoid of color: in fact, you can even see the background lines through the characters. But I suspect that graphic simplicity was appealing to very small children, as was Tom’s strikingly visual shapeshifting power.

Like so many superheroes, Tom has a sidekick: his case, his talking pet, whom he calls “Mighty Manfred the Wonder Dog,” Tom insists that Manfred is as heroic as himself, but as surely even the youngest viewers could tell, Manfred is actually sleepy, stupid and virtually immobile. This may be a clever satire on the way that many pet owners project personality traits onto their pets that the animals don’t actually have.

Seeing Tom Terrific now, I wondered, is it possible that Deitch and his colleagues named “Mighty Manfred” after the title character of Lord Byron’s 1816-1817 romantic poem Manfred? If so, Deitch and his writers were amusing themselves in this instance, knowing that the full irony of Mighty Manfred’s name would never be grasped by their target audience.

Though little kids would understand that Tom is mistaken about his dog’s heroic qualities, perhaps they would not realize that the cartoons also poke understated fun at their boy hero’s innocence about the world in general. The “Captain Kidney Bean” serial makes it clear that its pirate villain is considerably nastier than its naive hero realizes. In this regard Tom Terrific reminds me of the Batman TV show later in the 1960s. In both cases this is a joke that grows old quickly. Tom Terrific was aimed at very young children, and has little to sustain adult interest.

But I am impressed on the cartoons’ emphasis on Tom using his “thinking cap” to think his way out of dilemmas rather than resorting to violence. How often do kids’ cartoons make being smart seem cool?

The vintage cartoons that proved to be better than I had remembered were from Bob Clampett’s legendary Beany and Cecil series. I expect that one reason is that, like Jay Ward’s The Bullwinkle Show, made during the same period of late 1950s and early 1960s, Beany and Cecil worked on two levels: these series had colorful characters and plenty of slapstick action that would appeal to the target audience of little children, but also simultaneously aimed verbal humor and satire at an older audience. Significantly, both Beany and Cecil and Bullwinkle ran on prime time television before settling into Saturday morning berths. The smarter children would pick up enough of that upper level of humor to recognize that Beany and Cecil and Bullwinkle didn’t condescend to them, but instead respected their intelligence and even initiated them into appreciating more sophisticated kinds of wit.

Beany and Cecil are, respectively, a young boy who wears a beany cap, which, in the cartoons, enables him to fly, and his best friend, a “seasick sea serpent.” (That new movie, The Water Horse, has hit upon a similar pairing.) They travel the world with Beany’s “Uncle Captain,” Horatio Huffenpuff, an amusingly ineffectual and cowardly father figure, in his ship, the Leakin’ Lena, and frequently run afoul of perennial nemesis Dishonest John.

The animated Beany and Cecil was a follow-up to Clampett’s more child-oriented Time for Beany, a puppet show on local television in Los Angeles. There are examples of this show on the Web, too, such as Episode 241 from 1951, which I found disappointing. lacking the energy and sharp verbal wit of the later cartoon series. Even so, this installment finds the regular cast of characters in Hollywood, where the villainous Dishonest John persuades Cecil to get himself some publicity by jumping of the roof of a building–and Cecil does! It’s a kids’ puppet show, so Cecil survives, but nonetheless gets badly banged up. The publicity stunt works, and a producer hires Cecil to be in a movie–and wants him to jump off another building. Thus a startling dose of adult cynicism about show business turns up in what is supposedly just an innocuous show for children.

Maybe the sign that Clampett ultimately wasn’t interested in doing a show just for small children is his treatment of Beany. Tom Terrific is also a young boy, but he’s the dominant character in his cartoons. In contrast, Beany is a blank, registering little personality beyond his characteristic smile, which sometimes seems as if it is as permanently affixed as Jack Nicholson’s Joker’s. It’s as if Clampett decided that since the audience is primarily made up of kids, there has to be a kid on the show for them to identify with. But really, was wearing a beany cap EVER cool?

One of the main reasons that Boomers loved this show was Beany’s unlikely costar, Cecil, the Seasick Sea Serpent. Think about it: Cecil is actually a gigantic snake! It seems to me that Clampett and the other writers set themselves a formidable task in having to do cartoon scripts about a major character who could only pick things up with his mouth!

But rather than being creepy, Cecil is wholly lovable. Watching these cartoons online, I realized that Cecil had much the same appeal as Ben Grimm, the Thing in Fantastic Four. Both of them, when in combat, are superhumanly powerful, courageous, and nearly unstoppable. (The Thing shouts, “It’s clobberin’ time,” while Cecil’s battle cry is “I’m comin’, Beany boy!”) But both of them also work superbly as comedy characters. They have similar personalities: hot-tempered but loyally devoted to their friends, prone to insecurity and embarrassment, with a ready sense of humor. (Ben mutters, “What a revoltin’ development this is,” while Cecil, faced with a similar situation, simply exclaims, “What the heck!”) Cecil’s voice would sound just as appropriate coming from the Thing.

The other true star of these cartoons is Dishonest John, familiarly known as D. J.. Dressed all in black, with a mustache long enough that he could twirl it, were he so inclined, Dishonest John looks like an updated version of a villain from a silent movie melodrama (and, indeed, an ominously tinkling piano theme accompanies his entrances). Sometimes the cartoons give D. J. a specific motive for his villainy in that particular adventure, like getting filthy rich. But it eventually becomes apparent that his real motivation is his sheer joy in nasty mischief. Although Clampett probably didn’t realize it, D. J. is a descendant of the “vice” figures of medieval drama, who were both evildoers and comedians, who often spoke directly to the audience. So does D. J., who seems well aware that he is in a cartoon. His trademark line (“Nya ha ha”) demonstrates that no one is more amused by his evil antics than he is.

Once I saw which Beany and Cecil cartoons were available on YouTube, I went straight to “Super Cecil,” Clampett’s comedic venture into the superhero genre. Cecil has sent away for a mail order superhero costume, which he dons to become “Super Cecil.” He doesn’t gain any super-powers in the process, but perhaps Clampett was here acknowledging that Cecil often plays a role like a superhero in these cartoons, overpowering the bad guys with his colossal strength.

Determined to outdo Cecil, Dishonest John switches to his own costumed identity, the Bilious Beetle–and his costume enables him to fly! The insect-themed name and the use of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” as the Bilious Beetle’s theme music suggest that Clampett was alluding to the Green Hornet. But it wasn’t until years after “Super Cecil” that the Batman TV show of the mid-1960s firmly impressed the concept of the costumed super-villain on the minds of the general public. I’m impressed that Clampett was thus parodying super-villains years earlier.

The Bilious Beetle tricks Super Cecil into thinking he’s kidnapped Beany, the perennial abductee in these cartoons, but actually D. J. is using a hand puppet in Beany’s image. This is a “meta” joke for anyone who knows that Beany and Cecil originated as a puppet show (as is the fact that the cartoons never show the end of Cecil’s tail, as if he were still a hand puppet). I suspect it may also be Clampett’s comment on how empty Beany was as a character. The cartoon didn’t even need the “real” Beany to lure Cecil into action. D. J.’s Beany puppet is no more than a Hitchcockian MacGuffin, a plot device of no inherent worth!

There are plenty of visual gags as the Bilious Beetle leads Super Cecil on a merry chase, giving the cartoon strong comic momentum. But it struck me that whereas in Clampett’s cartoons for Warner Brothers, the slapstick would have been the main source of laughs, in this cartoon the comedy principally comes from the personalities of D. J. and Cecil. First D. J. is wittily triumphant, while Cecil is repeatedly frustrated, setting up the cartoon’s payoff in which Cecil turns the tables on his adversary, culminating in a great gag in which Cecil unleashes a swarm of actual “bilious beetles” on their costumed namesake, whom they regard in a way I will not disclose here: go see the cartoon yourselves.

The title of “The Phantom of the Horse Opera” evokes Lon Chaney, but he’s actually a Western outlaw who has the power of invisibility. (Coincidentally, he thus resembles Marvel Comics’ Western version of Ghost Rider, now known as the Phantom Rider.) When the Phantom first appears in this cartoon, he does indeed seem menacing, until Clampett undercuts the ominous tone by having him speak: he sounds like the 1940s comedian Jerry Colonna. Nowadays Colonna’s most enduring work is probably his vocal performance as the March Hare in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951). Watching “Phantom” on YouTube, I wasn’t at first sure whom the Phantom was imitating, (The cartoon’s final gag makes it clear by revealing the Phantom’s face as a Colonna caricature.) Beany and Cecil cartoons continually engage in such references to the pop culture of their day. But I find that this cartoon captures Colonna’s comic persona so well that even if you’ve never heard of Colonna, you should still find the Phantom’s dialogue funny.

Since Cecil is so enormous, how can human-sized adversaries get the better of him? In “Phantom” the answer comes in the cartoon’s high point, a well constructed comedy set piece in which the Phantom, step by step ruins Cecil’s lunch, spraying him with ketchup, smearing his face with mustard, and dousing him with pepper to make him sneeze, bewildering the sea serpent, who can’t see his invisible tormentor.

Inevitably, the Phantom kidnaps Beany, who just as predictably calls, “Help, Cecil, help!”, but even the Phantom seems exasperated with Cecil’s one-dimensional co-star: “Who writes your dialogue, kid?”

The cartoon climaxes when the Phantom’s “invisible paint” turns Cecil invisible, too, and he has a knock-down, drag-out battle with the Phantom that literally shakes the landscape around them. Breaking the fourth wall, Cecil briefly pauses to tell the audience this is “the greatest fight ever filmed” but “it’s too bad you can’t see it.” I wonder if Clampett and company are joking here that their budget wouldn’t allow them to actually show such a fight, or maybe that the television censors wouldn’t let them show anything this violent.

Better still is “The Wildman of Wildsville”, whose title character is a beatnik artist presented as if he were a “wild man” living in the jungle. This is a topical reference to the Beat movement of the 1950s, and yet, again, Clampett and company make the character so vividly funny that the cartoon has not dated.

The cartoon opens with Captain Huffenpuff presenting one of his typically pun-filled maps. He intends to capture the “ferocious wild man” on the “Hungry I-land,” a reference to the “hungry i,” a famous San Francisco night club of the time. Among the locations on the map are “Mort Soil”–an allusion to political satirist Mort Sahl, who performed at the hungry i–and the “Lenny Spruce.” Wait a minute! A cartoon that was shown to children on Saturday mornings in the 1960s actually made a not-so-veiled reference to Lenny Bruce!?! What the heck!! And that’s not all: later on the Wildman refers to Oscar Wilde!

Once the Captain and company arrive on the island, the backgrounds begin evoking the Abstract Expressionist art of the period. To my astonishment, some of these backgrounds even imitated the “drip” paintings of Jackson Pollack! Which children in the 1960s could possibly have recognized that? And yet Clampett and company put it in, laying a surprise for any adult who knew Pollack’s work and saw their cartoon.

The Captain, Beany and Cecil are out to capture the Wildman, as if he were a wild animal. Clampett and his collaborators are thus satirizing the way that mainstream culture regards people on the radical avant-garde as if they were part of an alien culture, potentially dangerous. The mainstream wants to tame these radical innovators. But in Clampett’s cartoon, it’s the Wildman who wins, just as so many once-controversial artistic movements end up being accepted into mainstream culture (like, say, taking the comics medium seriously). Using his paint, he endows Cecil, Beany and the Captain with berets, dark glasses, and goatees. As Cecil wisely observes, “If you can’t beatnik ‘em, join ‘em,” and the cartoon ends with the nouveau-Beat Beany, Cecil and Captain dancing along with the Wildman to a jazz beat. They’ve gone “wild,” too.

In 1988, four years after Bob Clampett’s death, The New Adventures of Beany and Cecil arrived on television, only to vanish after five episodes. It came and went so fast I don’t think I even knew about it at the time. But one of the delights of MoCCA’s 2006 “Saturday Morning” retrospective was a looseleaf notebook of photocopies of Bruce Timm’s storyboards for one of the new cartoons, “The Courtship of Cecilia,” written by Quick Stop contributor Paul Dini! Now I’ve found this cartoon on YouTube as well (in two parts: here and here). In Clampett’s own “Cecil Meets Cecilia,” Dishonest John disguised himself as a “she-serpent” to humiliate Cecil, and the real Cecilia only showed up at the end. The new cartoon builds upon the original’s premise, by having Cecil alternatively interact with the real Cecilia and with D. J. as the phony Cecilia, thoroughly confusing our serpentine hero. The new cartoon also follows Clampett’s lead in concocting awesomely awful puns (D. J. laments, “Cecil’s singing is giving me a haddock. I wish I was hard of herring.”), metafictional gags (D. J. exults, “I love being a cartoon bad guy–nya ha ha!”), and surreal visual metaphors. Describing what it feels like to be in love, Cecil says he feels “burning hot,” whereupon his face melts and feels as if he is “coming apart,” at which point his body shatters into fragments. This is pretty good! It’s too bad the series didn’t last, apparently in large part due to network interference.

Looking over these old cartoons over the last two weeks, it seems to me that many of those I remember most strongly were the ones that didn’t conform to the conventional notion of what Saturday morning animation should be like. They were wilder and subversive in some way. Matt Groening cites Bullwinkle as an influence on The Simpsons (see “Comics in Context” #8: “San Diego 2003: Day Three: Gaiman, Groening and Bradbury”), so perhaps today’s prime time animation is the true heir of the subversive classics of Saturday mornings of the 1960s.

-Copyright 2008 Peter Sanderson


3 Responses to “Comics in Context #213: Your Obedient Serpent”

  1. Guido Says:

    King Kong fits as an obvious influence for the Arctic Monster, but we can also consider The Lost World as a possible influence, which King Kong basically remakes, and that one features an all-dinosaur monster cast(though the one that they brought to the city in that one was not a Tyrannosaurus)

  2. Rob Chesley Says:

    I love these kinds of articles.. its so surprising to see how amazing and timeless some of these cartoons really are… While I grew up in the 80s-early 90s, many of the warner/disney cartoons were regularly shown on TV its nice to see some of the other “companies” making cartoons durring the same era and how similar some of them are..

    I was particularly impressed with the quality of detail in the Superman cartoon.. simply amazing when you look at some others of the era that are simplistic and use canned cartoons.. anyways

  3. Guido Says:

    Yeah, I remember the first time I watched the Fleischer’s Superman cartoon, it was actually The Arctic Giant episode. I was a teenager and was really surprised at the high quality of the cartoon. I don’t think I was aware at the time that those cartoons were meant to be shown in theaters, so my main point of comparison were the reruns of the 60s Superman cartoons, and the contrast in quality was staggering to me. I also noticed the clear influence the Superman cartoons had on the nineties Batman animated show.

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