Cartoon Creeps: Why Horror Lovers Are Obsessed with Max Fleischer

Don’t let Max’s playfulness or Betty’s sultriness fool you; beyond here, there be monsters.
Source: TV Tropes

Finally, I get to do something spooky for Halloween. Again, I apologize for how unexpectedly eventful this month has been, but we finally get to talk about creepy stuff that’s totally relevant.

If you’ve been following the gaming scene recently, you’ve likely been hearing the name Max Fleischer get thrown about quite a bit. You’ve also probably heard the name attached to hellish imagery and intimidating challenge as well. You can thank the dual successes of Bendy and The Ink Machine and Cuphead for bringing this man back into the limelight as both draw heavily from Max’s body of work for inspiration. So, what was that work exactly?

Well, Uncle Max, as he’s occasionally known by, is a Polish-American animator born in 1883 and one of the founding fathers of modern western animation. Today, most will recognize him for the creation of Betty Boop, Popeye the Sailor, and possibly the most iconic animated depiction of DC Comics’ wonder boy Superman.

And when I say ‘founding father’, I mean he developed the most important technological advancements of his time including The Stereoptical Process, the classic ‘Bouncing Ball’ style sing-a-long, and – most notably – the rotoscope that allowed for more detailed movement with less effort by artists. Basically, everything you associate with the earliest cartoons you can likely remember exist because of dear Uncle Max.

That’s all well and good, but why the interest in him as a horror icon? Well, there are quite a few reasons.

Firstly, much of his early work, prior to being strictly limited by the now abandoned Hays Code, dealt heavily in dark surrealist imagery. Uncle Max was no stranger to including stories and art depicting malevolent spirits, violent demons, and occult practices. Fans of early Fleischer Studios productions – myself included – will often cite films like Bimbo’s InitiationRed Hot MammaMinnie the Moocher (yes, that IS Jazz legend Cab Calloway performing the music and providing rotoscoping for the dance moves), and probably the most cited of his works – Swing You Sinners.

You’ll notice that the way a lot of these characters move feels unsettling as well. Well, that brings us to another factor to the freakiness of Fleischer’s Films; his use of an animation technique called ‘Rubber Hose Animation.’ Named after the rubber hose-like construction of many character’s limbs, the lack of any points of articulation (wrists, elbows, knees, etc.) means almost everything moves with an inhuman fluidity. Imagine a person whose limbs and body seemed to slither around themselves while they walked and you can see why this would be so unsettling – especially if the person doing it was otherwise conventionally cute and innocent looking like most characters from this era of cartoons.

But probably the big thing that most don’t think of is the horror potential in the real-life rivalry between Max Fleischer and Walt Disney. Contrary to popular belief Disney’s Steamboat Willie in 1928 was NOT the first animated film to sync sound and film together; that accolade belongs to Max’s Good-Bye My Lady Love a good four years prior in 1924 (which I sadly could not find). Walt was also quick to jump on and use rotoscoping once Max’s copyright on it ran out. He attempted to claim credit for it while using it to finish Snow White in 1937. The Disney Company would then spend several years lobbying to extend copyright length to ensure no one could make a better version of the public domain properties they adapted (shady business practices; just one more reason for me to hate Disney).

And through all of this taking of Fleischer’s hard work and unfairly discrediting him, Disney put his studio out of business in 1942 when it was incorporated into Paramount as ‘Famous Studios.’ Max would then pass away due to arterial sclerosis of the brain in 1972.

Basically, the idea of a hard-working artist who pioneered ways to make his art “come to life” as it were getting shafted by his old business rival to the point of being nearly forgotten by history is a good back story for a vengeful-spirit-from-beyond-the-grave story. So good, in fact, that some of the more obsessive nit-pickers among us have already made that connection to some of the stuff Max did and the things it inspired.

So, whether you’re looking for a good creep show or looking to brush up on your animation history, it would be worthwhile to study Uncle Max’s early offering. Just maybe watch with the lights on.

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The Agent Gets Nostalgic: Stuff From Yester-year That I Kinda Miss

So, I have literally been sitting at a blank word processor for two hours trying to think of the words to share this week and all I could do is let my mind wander aimlessly. I had nothing. For the first time in what feels like forever, nothing jumped out at me in my personal life this week to comment on.

… Until I started thinking back to the old days.

I started to think about the commonplace stuff from my day that they just don’t seem to have anymore. Things that I once took for granted that I sorely lack now.

So today, instead of sharing deep thoughts on pop culture trends or bringing obscure facts to light, I’m just going to wax poetic on the things from my youth that I miss having around.

CDs and CD Players

Carrying these bad boys around fully loaded is how we got ripped back in the day.
Source: Case Logic

I was actually born in the age of cassette tapes, VHS videos, and floppy disks. So when someone had the bright idea to slap music, movies, and games on CDs, it was a life changer for me. No more tangled or worn-out tapes that wouldn’t play anymore. Now we had durable, portable media storage with way more space to hold the stuff we love.

These days, while I’m not exactly heartbroken about DVDs and CD-ROMs being replaced by digital streaming and downloads, I do find that I miss CD quality music. I get that having your Spotify playlist on your phone is more convenient than schlepping around the mall with a backpack filled with CD binders. But I’m an audiophile (if you haven’t noticed from the many articles I’ve done on the subject of music and my weekly #TuneTuesday posts on Facebook and Twitter) and the compressed sound of today makes me feel like I’m missing something.

Music is a spiritual experience for me; my mind and body resonate with some indescribable emotion that I never feel anywhere else. I’m the kind of guy that cranks his car stereo to 60 just to feel the sound run through my veins like liquid lightning. As such, I want to make sure I experience all of it every time I hear it.

Cartoons made just to sell toys

Don’t even get me started on the ones we would “customize” from pieces of the broken ones and nail polish.
Source: Mental Floss

In one episode of my favorite cartoon of all time Freakazoid, I was introduced to the term ‘toyetic’ – an adjective used to describe an object that has the potential to be mass marketed as a toy, game, or similar product.

It was on that day that I realized that the vast number of shows I grew up with as a kid – TransformersZoids, etc. – existed for no other reason than to see how many times I would buy the same toy over and over again just because it was cool.

And you know what? I’m totally fine with that.

The reason I bought those toys (or rather, begged my parents to buy them) was because my friends and I were convinced that we had better stories to tell than the people who were paid to write them professionally. And for that short time as kids, we actually did.

Basically, I miss these toy-centric cartoons because they were my first introduction to writing. And while I’m not that into fiction anymore, I like to think that the passion still burns just a hot now as it did back then.

Speaking of cartoons…

Animated Variety Shows

I couldn’t think of an adequate picture to sum up this thought, so please enjoy this GIF of a toy that’s wildly inappropriate in retrospect.
Source: Giphy

What is an ‘animated variety show’ I hear you ask? In essence, much like how variety shows of yore were showcases for various acting, comedy, and musical talents, their animated brethren were collections of short subject cartoons from various artists and writers. And much like how actors could use those appearances as a jumping off point for bigger projects, these cartoons served as pilots for what could become a new series.

A lot of well-loved shows got their start this way; both Powerpuff Girls and Courage the Cowardly Dog got started as shorts on Cartoon Network’s What-A-Cartoon. Meanwhile, Beavis and Butthead and Aeon Flux came into their own via MTV’s much edgier Liquid Television.

I miss these cheap and cheerful parades of creative Ids gone wild because it gave us a look into talents that we very rarely would get to see otherwise. These days, such things have been replaced with soulless statistics and sample audience surveys.

There’s a reason why Youtube is my go-to place for entertainment these days; because the internet is where the people crazy enough to do something amazing can be truly free.

John Callahan: The Greatest Artist That We Never Talk About Anymore

Think for a moment about how a quadriplegic man drew more visually appealing cartoons than most modern artists do.
Source: Around Portland w/ PDX Guy

Those who have followed me for some time now know that I like shining a spotlight on up and coming artists in various fields. However, I felt compelled recently to talk about a great talent that nobody seems to mention that has, sadly, not been with us for some time and I regret only now learning of him.

John Michael Callahan, born on February 5th of 1951, was thrust into one the most difficult lives one could imagine. He was adopted as an infant and, at the age of eight, was molested by his teacher. He reported that he turned to alcohol abuse at the age of fourteen in order to, “… hide the pain of the abuse.”

This destructive behavior only got worse on July 22nd of 1972 when, in the midst of a night of bar hopping, Callahan’s friend who had been driving crashed their car at 90 miles an hour. The collision severed his spine, making him a quadriplegic at the age of 21.

Callahan continued to struggle with his alcoholism during his rehabilitation that left him permanently wheelchair-bound. Finally, at the age of 27, he swore of alcohol completely and decided to find a new outlet for his thoughts.

Callahan took up cartooning with much of his work appearing in the alternative newspaper Willamette Week. This was even more impressive when you consider that, due to his fingers remaining non-functioning after the accident, he could only draw by gripping his pen with both hands. This resulted in a rougher, more simplistic art style that was uniquely his.

One of the running themes of Callahan’s cartoons was his sense of black humor – especially regarding taboo subjects or if it offered him a chance to laugh at himself. Although many critics paned his work (many threatened Willamette Week with protests and boycotts due to the ‘political incorrectness’ of his subjects), he cast them aside to enjoy the reactions of his fans – fellow disabled fans in particular. He spoke of them in The New York Times:

“My only compass for whether I’ve gone too far is the reaction I get from people in wheelchairs, or with hooks for hands… Like me, they are fed up with people who presume to speak for the disabled. All the pity and the patronizing. That’s what is truly detestable.”

Callahan’s work eventually resulted in the creation of two animated television series. The first and longest running was Pelswick, a children’s show about a teenage boy that emphasized how, despite being in a wheelchair, he lived a perfectly normal life.

The second was Quads which retained the more mature nature of Callahan’s original works and is notable in animation history as being the first series to be completely animated via Macromedia Flash, which has since become a staple of animation.

In addition to his cartoons for newspapers, television, and several books, Callahan also experimented as a songwriter and released his first CD in 2006. He has works with many notable names in music including acoustic blues guitarist Terry Robb and eccentric music icon Tom Waits.

Sadly, Callahan’s amazing career was cut short in July 24th of 2010 when complications following a surgery for chronic bedsores resulted in respiratory problems. He died at the terribly young age of 59.

John Callahan – cartoonist, illustrator, writer, and musician – was one of the few people who could honestly say that he did everything he could as an artist despite what others saw as ‘limitations.’ In his actions and in his work, he pointed out that whether you’re disabled, disfigured, or (god forbid) just plain normal, we are all human and kin and we all deserve to be respected as such with all of our quirks and flaws.

That is why, on principle alone and regardless of whether or not I agree with his opinions, I say that he is one of the greatest artists ever.

Missing The Green Light: Three Great Animated T.V. Pilots That Never Got Picked Up

See? It’s Funny, cuz’ it’s a pilot! …I’ll go to my corner now.
Source: HassleFreeClipart.com

Lately, I’ve been getting my daily recommended R&R by watching The Mysterious Mr. Enter’s YouTube channel where he gives brief but detailed reviews of animated shows. Watching his work has got me hungry for more cartoons.

After a brief glimpse around the web, I found a few pilot episodes – those first episodes intended to sell the show to networks – that, for one reason for another, never got picked up for series but deserve to be loved and recognized for what they gave us.

3 Dog Band

Given the play on words of the band Three Dog Night, you can guess at the plot here. 3 Dog Band is the story of three quirky anthropomorphic dogs who play in a band.

The story is very light and I feel that this might be the primary reason that it was never green lit. However, where the pilot lacks in story, it makes up for in presentation.

If the art looks familiar, it’s because this show was the brain child of Paul Rudish, an animator most well known for his work on Dexter’s Labroratory, The Powerpuff Girls, Samurai Jack, Sym-Bionic Titan, and My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. As is par for the course with Rudish, the art is beautifully stylized; reminiscent of his work in the mid 90’s.

The goal for Rudish was to create a show with a focus on music. In that regard, the soundtrack is astounding. It’s a fantastic blend of House Electronic, Funk, and Disco that comes together perfectly. Think Daft Punk’s Get Lucky years before.

As a series, I see why 3 Dog Band didn’t get picked up. However, I can’t help but feel that it could thrive in the YouTube era where many music artists earn renown.

The Modifyers

Imagine James Bond as a young girl, give her a bit of slapstick humor and a whole lot of British Mod fashion, and you might arrive in the ballpark of the awesomeness that is The Modifyers.

This show is the tale of Agent Xero, a master of disguise working with the aid of her transforming mechanical assistant Mole to bring down the criminal empire of Baron Vain.

As mentioned, the humor is very slapstick oriented, but it does so with a deft touch. Many of the best gags are subtle and in the background while Xero and Mole do their work.

I’m also quite fond of the art. It’s reminiscent of My Life As A Teenage Robot with a bit 60’s spy show ala, shows like Get Smart or The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

There are many theories as to why the series was never picked up. I like to think the reason was that people watching it would likely mistake it for the adult parody that appeared on Newgrounds shortly after (Yeah, I’m not going to inflict that on you. It’s bad enough that I had to watch it to research this show), but it’s much more likely that Nickelodeon – the channel it was pitched to – just has a long track record of having a poor eye for quality; they did give Fred a series, after all.

Constant Payne

The late 90’s and early 2000’s weren’t hurting for American attempts at recreating the popular art style of anime. But seeing as it did give us shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender, I think we could have gotten away with a few more.

Constant Payne follows the titular Paynes, the headstrong Amanda who’s eager to prover herself and her loving scientist father who’s just a little overprotective of her. Together, they manage to fight crime and protect the city.

While the art direction is very generic, I rather liked the subtle hints that story dropped. One such hint comes at the beginning of the pilot where it is suggested that Ms. Payne met some horrible fate; giving Doc Payne the motivation to protect his Daughter.

What’s more, the introduction of Amanda’s uncle Welton as a villain creates a very Runaways/Kids Next Door vibe in the plot that would help to build tension in future episodes.

So why did Nickelodeon turn down yet another seemingly great series? Because of politics. Executive Producer Micah Wright was apparently attempting to create an animator’s union in order to ensure better wages and benefits for his fellow artists. Nickelodeon refused the show fearing that supporting him would cost them much more than they were willing to part with.

Perhaps if today’s cartoon centric stations existed back then, we would have enjoyed the adventures of The Paynes. We can only imagine.