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#229 (Vol. 2 #1): OUTFOXED

depAs far back in my life as I can remember, I was reading comics. Of course my tastes have evolved over the course of my life, but sometimes I wonder, what would I think today of the comics I loved when I was in early grade school or even kindergarten?

The new collection, The Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics, selected and edited by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly, and published by Harry N. Abrams’ ComicArts imprint, provides me with an opportunity to find out. It is a superb anthology of stories aimed at small children from comic books published in the period from the 1940s into the mid-1960s, including comics that Baby Boomers like myself grew up with. I intend to devote a number of “Comics in Context” columns to the work of various comics creators that appear in this book.

The first stories I turned to in this collection starred were from a series that was one of my earliest favorites: The Fox and the Crow. These constant antagonists had a long run in comics, from 1945 to 1968, first in Real Screen Comics and then in their own title. The Fox and the Crow comic was probably the first DC Comic I ever read, long before I had any interest in super heroes. Back then there were rarely any credits on comic books, so I had no idea until reading Classic Children’s Comics that the principal artist on the handsomely drawn Fox and the Crow comics was named Jim Davis, who is not to be confused with the Jim Davis who created the comic strip cat Garfield.

But as a child I had no idea that not only did DC not own the Fox and the Crow, but that they had originated in animated cartoons. In the 1980s I finally saw the Fox and the Crow in The Magic Fluke (1949), a UPA cartoon directed by John Hubley, in which the Crow inadvertently gives the Fox, a conductor, a magic wand instead of a baton, leading to chaos; it appears to be the inspiration for a far greater cartoon, Tex Avery’s Magical Maestro (1952). But in The Magic Fluke, the Fox and Crow did not seem much like the versions I recalled from the comics.

It was not until a few years ago that I finally saw the first Fox and Crow cartoon, The Fox and the Grapes (1941), a theatrical cartoon directed by Frank Tashlin for Columbia:

As the title suggests, it was inspired by one of Aesop’s fables, which had been sources for cartoons at Disney and other studios, notably at Terrytoons, since the silent era. Tashlin had worked on Warner Brothers animated cartoons at various points in the 1930s and the World War II years, becoming a director. In 1941 he briefly left Warners for Columbia’s animation department. He even hired Mel Blanc, creator of so many voices for Warners cartoon characters, to create the voices for the Fox and the Crow. Eventually, Tashlin became a live action film director, working on comedies starring Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis, among others, which sometimes seem like live action cartoons in staging gags.

depThere is no crow in Aesop’s “The Fox and the Grapes,” which recounts a fox’s vain efforts to get hold of grapes high on a tree. (Spoiler warning: as usual I will discuss stories, including their endings, in detail.) Tashlin introduced the Crow, who tries to steal food from the Fox’s picnic spread. The Fox angrily retaliates by giving the Crow a hotfoot. The Crow then finds the fable of the Fox and the Grapes in a book and decides to restage it. He hangs a bunch of grapes on a tree branch high above the ground, and offers to trade them for some of the Fox’s picnic food. Though immediately obsessed with the grapes, the Fox refuses. So the Crow then watches placidly as the Fox makes repeated and ever more elaborate attempts to reach them, all of which backfire on him. Chuck Jones is said to have cited Tashlin’s The Fox and the Grapes as an influence on his Roadrunner-Coyote series.

The Fox and the Crow as portrayed in this cartoon were closer to the versions I recalled from the comics, though I remembered their conflicts as more personal and verbal. Tashlin only directed this first Fox and Crow cartoon before returning to Warners, but Columbia made a whole series, mostly directed by Bob Wickersham. Mel Blanc did not continue performing the Fox and Crow, but the voices he gave them were imitated in subsequent cartoons. Wickersham’s Woodman, Spare That Tree (1942) isn’t as good as Tashlin’s cartoon, but the Fox goes to even greater extremes, using an elephant and a train to try to knock down the Crow’s tree:

By Mr. Moocher (1944) the Fox lives in a handsome suburban house, and the Crow is his lower class next door neighbor, living in a shack:

This brings the characters close to the setting in the comics, in which the Fox’s house is next door to the Crow’s tree from the first cartoon. (UPA produced the last three Fox and Crow cartoons before Columbia ended the series.)

I was startled to see the Fox make his entrance in the Tashlin cartoon, prancing, skipping and singing along through the woods, acting as if he might have been meant to be a coded gay stereotype. In the comics the only traces of this seem to be the Fox’s first name, Fauntleroy, and possibly elements of his costume, like his big, floppy bow tie. I certainly didn’t see the implications when I read the comics as a child, and I doubt if many other readers my age did, either.

As for the Crow, in the comics his first name was Crawford, he wore a derby and smoked cigars, and spoke with a “dese” and “dose” dialect. As a child I had no idea at the time that crows could represent African-Americans in cartoons. One of the best known examples are the crows in Disney’s Dumbo (1941). Similarly, when I was a child, my favorite character in the Famous Studios (later Harvey) animated cartoons was Buzzy the Crow. Not until I saw some Buzzy cartoons recently did I realize that actor Jackson Beck (the longtime voice of Bluto in the Famous Studios Popeye cartoons), was attempting to give Buzzy a black Southern accent.

The crows in Dumbo remain controversial for being caricatured black stereotypes, but I suspect they were intended by the Disney studio as positive characters. Dumbo, the baby elephant with the enormous ears, is a misfit in the circus community. The crows also initially mock Dumbo, but after Dumbo’s friend Timothy the mouse explains how Dumbo has suffered, the crows become the elephant’s friends and supporters. In short, Dumbo has become an outcast from what is, for him, mainstream society, and is instead embraced by the alternative, more tolerant community of the crows, who are themselves outsiders.

As for Buzzy, he strikes me as being a surprisingly positive “black” character, considering his cartoons were made over a half century ago. He is a brilliant trickster figure, like a Bugs Bunny or Woody Woodpecker, who continually outsmarts his nemesis Katnip the cat, who sounds like a dumb white guy. See, for example, their tussle in Cat-Choo (1951):

Was Tashlin’s Crow–and the version in the comics–also meant to be a coded African-American? Probably not: in Tashlin’s original cartoon Mel Blanc gives the Crow what might be a lower class New York accent, maybe from Brooklyn, which the comics render by having the Crow say things like “dese” and “dose.” In one of the stories in this collection, the Crow exclaims, “What a revoltin’ development this is!”, a catchphrase used by William Bendix as the blue-collar white protagonist of the radio series The Life of Riley, and later appropriated by the Fantastic Four’s Ben Grimm.

So the clashes between the Fox and Crow have a subtext of class warfare. In the comics the Fox is an effete, prosperous bourgeois, perhaps WASP-ish, living in a nice house with a refrigerator well stocked with food; the Crow is his neighbor, who is clearly not prosperous and lives in a tree with various holes in the trunk that serve as a window and door, and seems of uncertain ethnicity. The Crow is continually attempting to con the Fox out of food or money, and, although Don Markstein’s Toonopedia advises that the Fox can be triumphant, it would appear from the evidence in Classic Children’s Comics that the Crow is more often than not the victor.

Classic Children’s Comics starts out its “Fox and the Crow” section with three short gag strips, two of which consist of only a half page each. These establish the basic pattern, in which the Crow cleverly outfoxes the Fox, who can be formidable in his anger. But though a fox is a more typical trickster figure in stories, Fauntleroy can’t quite keep up with Crawford Crow. For instance, in one of these short strips, the Fox discovers the Crow has gotten into his refrigerator and threatens to lock him inside. But the Crow is a step ahead of him and has bought an “Eskimo suit” and so will be perfectly comfortable staying inside the refrigerator indefinitely.

These three short strips set up the collection’s eight-page-long story “The Great Chiseler” from Real Screen Comics #42 (1951), which is a little masterpiece, surprising in its sophistication. The Crow starts out by soliloquizing about his own brilliance, saying “If dey gave da Nobel Prize for bein’ a great chiseler, I’d win every year!” This is hubris, as we soon see.

The Crow tries to con the Fox by asserting the Fox owes him money for breathing his air. While the Fox loses his temper over this, the Crow remains cool and calm. This is a pattern you should recognize from Bugs Bunny cartoons: Bugs keeps his cool and thus easily manipulates adversaries like Daffy Duck or Yosemite Sam, who are blinded by their own emotions. In this instance the Crow points out the fact that the wind carries air from his tree over to the Fox’s house, and then demands that the Fox pay up or stop breathing. The Fox’s panic at the idea that his air supply will be cut off keeps him from punching a hole in the Crow’s logic. The Fox looks literally dazed, and it looks as if he is about to pay the Crow for his air.

But tales of tricksters often work better when the trickster’s target can be clever as well. The Fox suddenly has a brainstorm, heads into his house, and reemerges holding what the Crow identifies as “an issue a da comic youse an’ me are in.” The Fox angrily says that the Crow pulled the same trick on him in this issue, and he won’t fall for it again.

And thus this kiddie comic has abruptly shifted into what we would now call metafiction. The Fox and the Crow are aware that they are characters in comic book stories, although neither seems at all perturbed by the notion. Whatever they do will appear in a comic book, and they know it. This even echoes Tashlin’s original cartoon, in which the Crow reads about the fable of the Fox and the Grapes and then decides to stage his own version. In Woodman not only does the Crow consult an “encycrowpedia” for ideas, but the book comments on what happens in the cartoon.

Moreover, when the Crow heads off to prepare another trick, he runs into the Fox, holding a towering stack of comic books. “I have every issue of Real Screen Comics,” the Fox tells him, so he has reference on every trick the Crow has ever pulled on him. “The Great Chiseler” was first published in 1951. Can this be one of the first references in comics to comic book collecting, or to keeping track of comic book continuity?

depNow the Crow, who usually keeps his cool and control of the situation, becomes flustered and angry. On page 1 he was complimenting himself on how quickly and easily he comes up with new ideas; now he realizes that he has just been recycling old ones. The Crow is suffering from something similar to writer’s block: after all, his schemes are what usually drive the comics stories he and the Fox appear in. He quickly concocts a new trick, and it nearly works, but the Fox sees through it. Now the Crow worries that he is in effect over the hill in his chosen profession of con artist: “If I fail now, I’m t’rough! Washed up! Finished!” He’s like a creative figure going through a midlife crisis.

Finally, the Crow has the Fox calculate how much he has cheated him out of on various occasions, and then announces that since “me chiselin’ career is over,” he is moving away. The Fox realizes that if the Crow leaves, he will never be able to get any of his money back from him. The Fox goes into hysterics while the Crow remains calm and cool: they are back to their usual relationship. The Fox then offers the Crow more money to get him to stay. To put it in contemporary economic terms, it seems that the Crow owes the Fox so much money that he’s become “too big to fail” and has to be bailed out!

The Crow, ah, crows in triumph, not so much over getting ten bucks from the Fox, but from successfully devising a brand new trick, thereby proving his creativity is still at its peak. The Fox balances the scales somewhat by beating the Crow up between panels, but the Crow is still triumphant. Notice that he even uses a metaphor characterizing himself as an author to describe his victory: “I added another great chapter in da history of chiselin’!”

The 1950s are infamous in comics history for the charges that comic books influenced juvenile delinquency by supposedly promoting violence and immorality. I expect that The Fox and the Crow flew under the radar of the censors of that time. But here are stories in which the Crow continually tricks the Fox out of food and money, and gets away with it. But that doesn’t bother me: through his arrogant anger and his refusal to share, the Fox seems to deserve to be conned by the Crow. The stories are based on the surefire appeal of seeing the little guy who doesn’t have much outsmart the smugly self-satisfied big guy who has more than he needs. The appeal that the Fox and the Crow had for kids is clear: the Crow is the kids’ surrogate, using his wits to get the better of the taller–read “adult”–Fox on whom he is dependent.

When I was a small child, I thought that The Fox and the Crow was one of the best comics I read, and it’s a pleasure, reading the Fox and Crow stories in Classic Children’s Comics, to discover that they really were as clever, as well constricted, and as handsomely drawn as I thought they were in my childhood. Not only that, but I see that they had a level of sophistication that makes them appeal to me as an adult, as well. In this and some of the other impressive comics in this collection, I get the feeling that the creators felt they had great creative freedom because no one was really paying attention to little kids’ comics at the time–except the kids themselves. It’s rewarding to discover that my taste in comics from early childhood was so good!

-Copyright 2010 Peter Sanderson

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