Tuned In to the Toons
"I wanna do that" I thought, with more of a wordless impulse than a formulated sentence, as my chubby little fingers clutched newspapers and books full of colorful graphics. The bizarre characters fascinated me with their noses and feet displayed in proportions that would never work in the real world. The animals talked as easily as humans, and the wildest creatures and personages seemed to come from a place that must actually exist somewhere, but had only been witnessed by a privileged few. Those "reporters" were called "cartoonists" I learned, and it was instantly my desire to become one of them.
I took crayon to paper before I could read and made my own worlds of humor and adventure. Not really special, as many kids do this. It's just that those of us who become cartoonists are the ones who never stop. Inspiration abounded all around me, with comic strips in the paper like Peanuts, BC and Tumbleweeds, comic books on the racks like Spider-Man and Fantastic Four, and also....cartoons.
In fact, first, cartoons. As a bit of a geezer, I'm someone who watched Space Ghost as a kid when it premiered on TV. Someone who begged his parents to buy him PF Fliers because that's what Jonny Quest wore. Someone just a tiny bit freaked out by Milton the Monster, and a devoted consumer of Sugar Crisps cereal because that's what the bear on Linus the Lionhearted said was the greatest thing to eat, ever. My initial efforts at graphic storytelling were attempts to capture those colorful characters on paper after their shows were over and I could no longer see them. Newspaper comic strips showed me they could be "caught" in little boxes. And that a row of those boxes could tell a story. A couple of years later, I was able to actually string legible letters together in a comprehensible form, draw a white balloon shape around them, point the tail to one of my characters and have him speak. I had become the maker of worlds. Worlds that could speak and tell their story.
"Yeah, why should I care?" said the bleary eyes of the editors of various comic book companies as they perused my work at the two or three comic book conventions I attended decades later. We "reporters of the graphically fantastic and humorous" were far larger in number than I realized. In my schools growing up I had been "the guy who could draw". Here, I was the guy in row G, seat 27 in a hall full of 300. It became very clear that I wasn't needed or wanted.
There are a lot of things one can do at this point. One is to give up. Another is to keep trying to become artistically what those editors say everyone wants. I didn't want to do either of those things. What's the point of being a Jim Lee clone (not that I could be), or telling the story of Batman's 456th battle with the Joker? No, I wanted to work with land that had lain fallow for some time. The characters that had wound up on a metaphorical "Island of Misfit Cartoons" that everyone (at that time) had forgotten. Characters whose stories had not been told in depth, yet characters I somehow could never forget.
These characters were the Hanna-Barbera superheroes of 1966 and '67. They policed our galaxy to protect us from conquering robots, repelled alien invaders that would harm our families, apprehended theatrically garbed thieves who believed all sparkly jewels were theirs for the taking, and stopped crazed scientists from enslaving humanity just in time. All while accompanied by jazzy music soundtracks! Yet after taking up all the oxygen of Saturday morning television for nearly two years, they were unceremoniously yanked off the airwaves. Their replacements? Cheaply animated music groups in bell bottoms, hippie bears and comedies that let you know they were funny by using laugh tracks and sound effects that were somehow offensive even to the ears of eight-year-olds. I was disgusted. I wanted my heroes back, dang it!
So as an adult I decided to bring those heroes back and tell their stories. But there was one problem. I didn't own the characters and I didn't make their worlds. And after an aborted convention pitch-meeting with a DC publisher who closed up shop early because he wanted to go home, it became obvious to me that I would never be allowed to touch them. So what was I to do?
Make my own characters, of course! Yet not just any characters. Characters that would hew closely enough to their inspirations that they could be "recognized", yet far enough removed that they could be called mine. This has allowed me a freedom that I have come to appreciate greatly. Since the properties are mine, I can "fine-tune" the concepts and get rid of things that weren't working (L'il Rok, anyone?) and add more background and supporting characters that we never originally saw (did Tom and Tub ever come up for air, and where was their uncle's Sea Explorer vessel anyway?). I could explain mysteries (why did the Herculoids seem both primitive and futuristic at the same time?) and explore relationships left unexplained (do Jan and Jace have parents?). I have had such a great time answering these questions and "filling in the blanks" that I now actually prefer my concepts over the ones they represent. Future Quest? Who needs it? I've got Omni-Men! And it is my mission over the course of the next few years to bring them to you!