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Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Often, after I've attended a convention-panel and heard a professional make an interesting statement, I've wished myself trained in shorthand, to write the statement down quickly before the memory fades. Not having so trained myself, I'm relying only on memory when I recall the following--

At a convention in the 1990s, JONNY QUEST creator Doug Wildey was on a panel, and I remember him saying that he wasn't crazy about having to introduce sci-fi/fantasy monsters into the JQ mix, and that he did so as a means of appealing to kids. He gave me the impression that he much preferred the JQ episodes that focused on realistic adventure, such as "Shadow of the Condor." He also had choice things about what he and his fellow animators would've liked to have done to the cartoon-dog Bandit, but that's grist for some other mill.

Now, when JONNY QUEST debuted in 1964, it did so as a evening show for ABC-TV. So, unlike the Saturday morning cartoons directed wholly at juveniles, JONNY QUEST was trying, like Hanna-Barbera's earlier nighttime success THE FLINTSTONES, to appeal to both kids and adults with "all-ages" material. Unlike FLINTSTONES, JQ did not last more than a year and so ended up being recycled to Saturday mornings during those pre-cable days, where most juvenile watchers may have noticed in the show a harder edge than one usually found in the Hanna-Barbera superhero shows around the same time.

That harder edge, that element of rigor is important to the subcategory of popular fiction I've termed "adult pulp" in other essays. This hardboiled take on the adventure genre shows up in many fictional works of the early 20th century, such as those of Jack London and Dashiell Hammett. In GUNFIGHTER NATION literary critic Richard Slotkin refers to this form as the "blood-and-thunder" genre, and though American comic strips didn't seriously embrace this approach until the late 1920s, they had a pertinent effect on popular culture as a whole and on specific pop-cultural works, including, as a quote from this site makes clear, JONNY QUEST:

Although at first Jonny Quest seems most closely related to the Tom Swift, Jr. juvenile science fiction novels of the 50's and 60's penned under the name Victor Appleton, Hanna-Barbera co-founder Joseph Barbera in his autobiography My Life in 'toons cites the comic strip Terry and the Pirates as being the primary inspiration for Jonny Quest.

"It was a major departure for us, but both Bill and I had been hooked on adventure stories and superheroes since we were kids. As I've said, Bill and I really don't have much in common, but we both spent our nickels and dimes on movie serials and had read Frank Merriwell and Tom Swift novels as kids. I particularly admired Milt Caniff's long-running newspaper comic strip Terry and the Pirates, and that was the main inspiration for Jonny Quest - not only for some of the characters...but also in the sharp, angular look of the artwork, the emphasis on scientific gadgets and high-tech hardware, and the far-flung, exotic locales for the action."

Now, what's interesting about this reminiscence is that it shows JONNY QUEST as having a foot in two worlds: that of Tom Swift, which was directed wholly at juveniles, and of Caniff's TERRY AND THE PIRATES, which was technically "all-ages" but written in a melodramatic vein meant to appeal a little more to adults than to children. Unlike Tom Swift, TERRY, as any comics-maven should know, did not actually have much in the way of "scientific gadgets and high-tech hardware," and it certainly did not have such kid-appeasing figures as Egyptian mummies and Tibetan yetis.

Indeed, I would say that Caniff, comic strips' foremost (albeit not first) proponent of realistic "blood-and-thunder" adventures, is also a Great Ancestor to many comic-book artists-- Severin, Kubert, and Toth as well as Doug Wildey-- who preferred to work in a more realistic vein of adventure. At least one could call it more realistic in comparison to the major superhero artists of the period: Kirby, Simon, Schuster, Kane, Peter et al. Kirby and the rest of these worked in an idiom where the marvelous, the uncanny and the atypical could merge at any given time, and none of the characters involved would give a second thought to clashing phenomenologies. The Caniff tradition, however, strove for realistic depiction, and so generally speaking the pulpish peregrinations of works in this tradition concerned *atypical* occurences within an *isophenomenal* setting.

JONNY QUEST may have the isophenomenal TERRY AND THE PIRATES as a major model, but in terms of phenomality the program bears more resemblance to the classic superhero model, in which stories may center about any combination of atypical, uncanny or marvelous elements. And because the original run of the teleseries was only 26 episodes, it will be easy to break down on this blog just how often the serial fell into each of the three AUM modes. By doing so I can then determine whether or not the series-concept qualifies to be placed within the category of the superhero idiom, much as I considered Zorro's fitness in this essay.

The breakdown will begin in Part 3 of "Theory in Practice."

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