It’s not hard to imagine Porky Pig stuttering the iconic Warner Bros. Looney Tunes post-cartoon catchphrase. Given it was first used in the 1930s the odds are that you’ve seen or heard it on many occasions, and not necessarily via a talking pig. For many of us this weekend is a long public holiday and whilst it’s roots are religious, my personal memories are of it are of time off school, and that meant cartoons. Today, for the holidays, I’d like to indulge in a Looney Tunes style waltz down memory lane and recall a few cartoon and comic book characters from a different era. This waltz has a familiar refrain, however, and we have seen before that what may appear on the surface to be nothing more than child’s play is in fact an offshoot of the crime fiction genre. Today I’d l like to give you a few personal highlights from the detective-as-cartoon-or-comic book-hero offshoot. Before you judge me, let me explain the logic behind the power of the drawn image, and then let’s look at the commercial powerhouses behind those images.
Cartoons and comics are, in a way, the perfect vehicle to communicate to large populations. This is one of the reasons that public service announcements use the medium. I know how to put out a fire, how to cross the road and why lonely water is dangerous. If you grew up in Britain you’ll remember the films in the link above. Watching them again now as an adult is fun, but it also serves to remind us of the underlying message and why the medium is such a powerful communication tool. It can convey, in seconds, an important message to a large number of people, both literate and illiterate, young and old. If you are used to seeing cartoons as a young child then by the time you reach adulthood the medium will resonate instantly. It is no secret that one of the reasons super-hero films are so popular is because so many of them are rooted in either cartoon or comic book form, often both. The audience is pre-built, the appeal pre-generated. A faithful re-telling of the story, with the right nods to the genre and the characters will generate commercial success. But get it wrong at your peril. Cartoons and comics are not just child’s play. They are part of our cultural identity. When Marvel Comics killed off Captain America in 2007 the edition in which this happened sold close to 300,000 comics. He was soon brought back to life such was the desire of his audience to read more stories. You see this a great deal in crime fiction with Arthur Conan’s Doyle’s resurrection of Sherlock Holmes as perhaps the best example.
Marvel Comics is a publishing giant responsible for some of the most iconic characters in the world (Spider-Man, the X-Men, Captain America and the Hulk to name a few) and in the 1960s the company was selling 50 million comic books a year. That is serious heft. In cartoons, Hanna-Barbera had a virtual monopoly on every major US television channel from the 1950s onwards and they produced characters and stories that are indelibly inked onto our consciousness. For me Boss Cat will always be Top Cat, a police officer will always be a Dibble and criminals will always shop at Acme. In my view, some of the characters that comic book producers and animation production companies created fit squarely into the crime fiction genre. Here, as promised then are a few of my personal favourites.
- Batfink – created by Hal Seeger Productions as a direct parody of Batman, Batfink is a bat with superpowers (gained from living in a plutonium mine). When his wings were destroyed saving his mother he was given a new set, made of steel, by his friend Karate. These and his super-sonic sonar radar help him fight crime and his nemesis Hugo A Go Go. Seeger made 100 episodes. YouTube is your friend.
- Batman – originally from the DC Comics stable Batman is now an international legend. The World’s Greatest Detective as you may not know he is also known has reached dizzy heights since first appearing in 1939. I really can’t imagine a world without him.
- Danger Mouse – made in the UK by Cosgrove Hall Films is an excellent parody of spy fiction. Made in the 1980s it features the characters Danger Mouse (a mouse who is a secret agent), his assistant Ernest Penfold (a hamster), their boss Colonel K (a chinchilla) and the inventor of Danger Mouse’s flying car Professor Heinrich Von Squawkencluck (a mole). Together they fight a variety of villains one of whom was so popular that the character had a spin-off series all of his own. Count Duckula proved that even cartoon characters can become more popular than their original incarnations.
- Droopy – created by Tex Avery in the 1940s, and from the same MGM stable as Tom and Jerry, the hang-dog expression and monotone voice make Droopy instantly recognisable. A canine crime-fighting legend.
- Hong Kong Phooey – a Hanna-Barbera classic from 1974 staring the mild-mannered janitor Penrod “Penry” Pooch who transforms himself, with the aid of a filing cabinet, into Hong Kong Phooey. Only 30 or so cartoons were ever made but the way in which the character parodied the kung fu and martial arts stories of the day mean that the crime-fighting janitor will always have a place in the hearts of a particular generation.
- Inspector Gadget – a 1980s venture from DIC Entertainment featuring a cartoon cyborg detective with a plethora of life-saving gadgets who, with the help of Penny and Brain battles the evil Dr Claw (his cat is a nod to Ian Fleming’s Blofeld.) A parody of pretty much everything else you’ve seen. I’ll get you next time, Gadget. Next time…
- Mystery, Inc. – another Hanna-Barbera classic, and one we’ve looked at several times in these posts. In my mind, there is no better example of how successful the use of a crime fiction formula can be. Scooby-Doo, we salute you.
- Secret Squirrel and Morocco Mole – yet another example of the genius that was Hanna-Barbera we have a fedora-wearing squirrel secret agent and his fez-wearing mole sidekick. Together they fought crime at every turn and came up against their arch enemy Yellow Pinkie on more than one occasion. If you can find an episode with Yellow Pinkie in then I urge you to watch it. It is, to me at least, the cartoon version of Auric Goldfinger.
Whilst this is a light-hearted look at cartoons and comics there is a serious business model behind the product. The staggering success enjoyed by the likes of Marvel Comics and Hanna-Barbera shows us how important the medium has become. Crime fiction doesn’t have to be in book form. It can exist and thrive in many different guises, but we should never mistake the vehicles used to convey its messages as child’s play. One of the funniest things I’ve seen in years is a cartoon drawing of Che Guevara, wearing a t-shirt bearing the cartoon image of Bart Simpson. That’s clever, and so very far from being simple child’s play. That said, sometimes a child’s view is simpler. If only every time we faced danger we could all shout,
Your bullets cannot harm me – my wings are like a shield of steel!
Batfink. A cartoon parody of a comic book hero. So clever. Enjoy the long weekend.