Maybe it’s because I draw comic strips myself, but I always enjoy seeing animated adaptations of newspaper comics. Even if I don’t particularly care for the strip, or the animated version of it is not that good, I always like to seek them out anyway, just to see how they retain the strip’s style for the screen.
Animation based on comic strips have been the staple since the very beginning in the silent days. Even when cartoons transitioned to television, there were more than a few being made, either as commercials or regular series. When Henry Saperstein bought UPA, one of his tasks was to produce 130 cartoons based on Dick Tracy.
After the success King Features had with their made-for-TV Popeye cartoons, they went on to produce cartoons based on Beetle Bailey, Snuffy Smith, and Krazy Kat for syndication in 1963. The crown jewel, of course, were the numerous Peanuts specials produced by Lee Mendelson and Bill Melendez.
Other comic strips getting their own specials include Walt Kelly’s Pogo in 1969 (directed by Chuck Jones), Johnny Hart’s B.C. in 1973 (directed by Abe Levitow), and Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury (directed by Trudeau, John and Faith Hubley) in 1977, the latter getting an Oscar nomination.
Filmation jumped into the bandwagon by producing two shows featuring various comic strips, Archie’s TV Funnies (1971) and Fabulous Funnies (1978), while Rankin-Bass did a show based on “Wee Pals” called Kid Power in 1972.
So it seemed appropriate that, on May 15, 1980, CBS aired a one-hour special called The Fantastic Funnies, which was produced by Lee Mendelson in association with the National Cartoonists Society. Loni Anderson was the host, and over a dozen cartoonists were interviewed, talking about their work.
Loni’s fellow WKRP in Cincinnati co-star Howard Hessman, also appears in one segment, playing Johnny Fever reading the comics on the radio. Musical numbers were also present, and, of course, there are the comics themselves, most of which are specially animated for the special.
Here’s the intro, where Loni Anderson is turned into a cartoon character. Michael Mandy was voicing Charlie Brown around the time this special aired, so that might be him here. I think that’s Scott Beach voicing Hagar the Horrible (if anyone wants to chime in, feel free in the comments). Broom-Hilda is June Foray, reprising her role from Fabulous Funnies. Bill Littlejohn animated Hilda at the end of the clip.
One would think that all the strips Loni introduced would be present in the rest of the special, but that’s not the case. Nancy, Dick Tracy, Alley Oop, Miss Peach, Drabble, and Fred Basset were never seen again after they finish singing the song for Loni. While Miss Peach creator Mell Lazarus was interviewed, they decided to showcase his second strip, Momma, instead.
Other cartoonists interviewed are Mort Walker, Charles M. Schulz, Dik Browne, Cathy Guisewite, Morrie Turner, Russell Myers, John Cullen Murphy, Dean Young & Jim Raymond, Johnny Hart, and Hank Ketcham. In promotional materials, they list Garry Trudeau as another cartoonist interviewed, but while Doonesbury was featured, the creator never showed up.
Snoopy singing “Suppertime”
Beetle Bailey, Peanuts, Hagar the Horrible, Marmaduke, Cathy, Blondie, Momma and Dennis the Menace all had animated snippets shown when their respective creators were being interviewed. Clips from B.C., the First Thanksgiving, Fabulous Funnies (for the “Broom Hilda” segment), A Doonesbury Special, and I Go Pogo (which wasn’t released yet, shown as a “sneak peek”) were also shown. Also present was a scene from the Annie Broadway musical, with Patricia Patts as Annie and Keene Curtis as Daddy Warbucks singing “I Don’t Need Anything But You”.
Hagar the Horrible and Cathy:
In addition, Billy DeBeck’s Barney Google (minus Snuffy Smith, even though Barney had disappeared from the strip by then), Reg Smythe’s Andy Capp (which wasn’t even introduced by Loni Anderson), Tom Ryan’s Tumbleweeds, and Jim Davis’s Garfield all had brief animated segments.
Dennis the Menace, directed by Michael Lah:
This being a Lee Mendelson production, most of the animation created for this special was animated by Bill Melendez Productions, with direction split between Melendez and Phil Roman. The Dennis the Menace sequence was produced by Quartet Films, with veteran animator Michael Lah directing, while the Marmaduke sequence was done at Lion’s Den, an animation studio that was based in La Jolla, CA.
Marmaduke (produced by Lion’s Den) and Blondie:
Some of the comics featured, like Broom-Hilda, Beetle Bailey, Barney Google, and Peanuts, were animated before. For others, this was the first time. This was the animation debut of Garfield, voiced by Scott Beach rather than the more well-known Lorenzo Music. Phil Roman directed the sequence, who would later produce and direct the subsequent TV specials and the long-running Saturday Morning series throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
Marmaduke, Cathy, and Hagar the Horrible would all get more animation appearances later on. To date, this is the only time Drabble and Momma were officially animated; Tumbleweeds was animated once before by Filmation for the first episode of “Fabulous Funnies”, but they forgot to clear the rights with creator Tom Ryan, and thus was forced to remove the strip from its lineup on subsequent episodes.
Tumbleweeds and Garfield:
The special was a celebration of newspaper comics, and many of the statements the cartoonists interviewed said were already said elsewhere, but I think it did its job promoting themselves to TV-viewing audience. And for fans, seeing their favorite comic strips animated makes it worthwhile.
(Thanks to Jerry Beck, Mike Kazaleh, Phil Roman, Milton Gray, Al Lowenheim, Kevin Fagan, and Darryl Heine for assistance)