Comic Strips That Move

My wife watches more TV than I do, and our tastes are divergent — I prefer to watch older fare, she leans to “reality” TV. When we watch together we tune into either news or some game shows, and with two game show channels in our cable TV bundle, it’s easy to make those selections.

That’s how it all happened.

Late last year an ad on one of those game show cable channels advertised nearly-forty-year-old, Bob-Barker-MCed episodes of The Price is Right coming to something we’d never heard of called “Pluto TV.”

“I wish we had Pluto TV — whatever it is,” said the wife. “I’d like to see some of those.” Since we have a voice-activated remote, I picked it up and told her, “Let’s see — maybe we do.” I thumbed the “microphone” button. said, “Pluto TV,” and the screen blanked, then flicked to a logo, and lo! and behold, there was Pluto TV.

Turns out this is one of a handful of free-with-commercials streaming services made available by our cable provider (perhaps yours, too?). And since one can only watch so much Price is Right, I started exploring Pluto TV’s other offerings (and poking around other, similar streaming services). I found some surprising things — like The Carol Burnett Show, and Mission: Impossible, and Johnny Carson Tonight Shows. I caught one episode each of Fireball X-L5 (which I hadn’t seen since I was perhaps six or seven years old), Dark Shadows, and Cool McCool. Nothing to make me set my schedule to become a regular viewer, but enough to provide a pleasant nostalgic frisson.

What does that have to do with comics strips, you ask? Everything above was the wind-up — now here comes the pitch …

Many of these streaming services offer a variety of cartoons that feature characters familiar to LOAC readers, and to lovers of comic strips in general. Fans of cross-continuity team-ups will be delighted to hear that the King Features Syndicate heroic Big Three of Flash Gordon, Mandrake the Magician, and The Phantom are readily available in their Defenders of the Earth animated series (as pictured above). This late-’80s saga pitted the Big Three, plus Mandrake’s friend Lothar and their children, against Ming the Merciless in that far-off, futuristic year of — 2015!

Almost every animated incarnation of Popeye is available on one or the other of these services (note another cross-over at the top of this piece, when the squinky-eyed sailor made his cartoon debut in a Fleischer Studios Betty Boop short). Pluto TV also offers the beautiful Fleischer Studios Superman shorts as part of its weekend programming.

And the troika of early-1960s King Features comedy-strip cartoons is also available for viewing on more than one of these services: Beetle Bailey, Snuffy Smith/Barney Google, and Krazy Kat.

As a lad, these cartoons — when packaged for syndication and aired on one of my local network affiliates (in those halcyon days of broadcast TV) — were my first introduction to George Herriman’s delightful view of Coconino County. Seeing some of them again, despite the TV narratives being far more linear and literal than was often Herriman’s wont, I was impressed by how often the backgrounds and familiar settings (like the facade of the Coconino jail) try to indicate a faithfulness to Herriman’s vision. It’s debatable whether these cartoons can be considered a success, but I think they are, at least, a fair and reasonable effort, within their day’s budgetary and technology constraints.

The Snuffy/Barney series hew more closely to what first DeBeck and then Fred Lasswell were serving up in newspapers, and I thought Barney’s voice, created by the versatile vocal actor Paul Frees, was spot-on.

Finally, while I’ve yet to find it on Pluto TV, one or two other streaming services are offering Filmation’s 1979 Flash Gordon (alternately titled The New Adventures of Flash Gordon). With a young John Kricfalusi as one of its storyboard artists, the first season of this depiction of Flash was arguably the most faithful filmic adaptation of the series concept as originally set forth in those beautiful Alex Raymond/Don Moore Sunday pages. The cartoon series’s sixteen half-hour episodes allowed room for the story to breathe, and the characters hewed closely to their newspaper comics counterparts.

As I recently told a friend in an e-mail that touched upon these recent “finds,” the idea that this material would again be available, and be available from multiple sources at just a couple clicks of a remote button, to be called up at each viewer’s whim, represents a paradigm shift in viewing that none of us could have imagined at the start of the 21st Century. The world grows more science fictional with each passing year … but it also helps harken back to the enduring characters and ideas of our past, which of course directly aligns with the mission of The Library of American Comics!

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