Joseph Barbera is dead and Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson is dancing on his grave.

Although everyone born in the last 60 years might imagine that they have happy childhood memories of The Flintstones, Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound or, God help us, Scooby-Doo, the truth of the matter is that they're crap. Complete and utter crap. Worse, they're shoddily made crap, after Hanna-Barbera devised what they called "limited animation", more than halving the number of drawings from 26 per second to 3000 for five minutes, the better to fill the empty moments on TV between the ads. And thus they effectively destroyed animation for at least two generations, before it slowly began to claw its way back to respectability in the mid-90s.

Those 1990s—the age of Batman: The Animated Series and the good episodes of The Simpsons—were my introduction to animation. So I'm inclined to agree. But the shoddy Hanna Barbera cartoons of the 60s, 70s and 80s are directly responsible for some of the more interesting animation of the moment, starting with Space Ghost Coast to Coast and continuing through Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law. The tropes of crummy comic books and rotoscoped animation are the grist for The Venture Brothers, for my money the best animated show since the launch of South Park.

I'm fascinated by this, because the Mike Judge view (maybe he doesn't completely agree, but I'll assign this to the director of Idiocracy) is that people who drink deep of dumb commerce and dumber culture will, in turn, produce even dumber commerce and culture, their inspiration being so bad to start with. Why, then, are animators and writers weaned on Scooby-Doo producing smart, learned and referential stuff like South Park and The Venture Brothers?

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  1. The visual quality is better because the technology is better and cheaper now.

    I’m guessing the content is better because there are more outlets for it now (Adult Swim and Comedy Central didn’t exist not so long ago). Plus, it’s cheaper.

  2. Is it really accurate to say that the current cartoon people were weaned on Scooby Doo? I mean I’m sure there was some of that, but I’d think most were brought up in the 80’s or so (whose cartoons have provided fodder for Robot Chicken). Plus the Hanna Barbara cartoons and the earlier “better” cartoons and everything else all coexisted in the time where there were expanding numbers of cable channels but limited amounts of content. Venture Brothers functions as a parody of Scooby Doo/Johnny Quest-type shows. So is it really appropriate to credit the inspiration for a parody for the parody itself?

    Also, why does the author of the Guardian article compare 26 frames per second to 3,000 frames per 5 minutes? I had to bust out the Windows Calculator to determine that there are 7,800 frames in 5 mins at 26fps and that the HB cartoons were done at only 10fps (which really does seem like quite a drop).

  3. or maybe the quality of animation had nothing to do with the success of these shows.

    For my money, south park is one of the better animated shows on TV, but is absolutely at the bottom for actual animation quality. (I think the first episode was done with stop motion snaps of construction paper cutouts if I’m not mistaken)

  4. Rowson is talking more about the actual quality of the animation than the content of the cartoons, but I think some bellyaching about that content is implied.

  5. What no love for John Kricfalusi? Seriously, if there’s one show that paved the way for Adult Swim it’s gotta be Ren & Stimpy.

  6. There’s confusion between quality of animation with content. Hanna-Barbera of the 60s and 70s could well have produces much better work using the same animation techniques, by simply starting with better material.

    It has to be evaluated with the time. Live action TV shows of the same time were notoriously crappy, and are entertaining today only for the kitsch value. I have fond memories of seeing Green Acres and The Brady Bunch, knowing full well back then that they were really pretty stupid.

  7. HB produced crap animation in the 1960s because that’s all anyone could afford. Studios weren’t producing a few shorts of theaters anymore, they were producing animation to fill hours of TV time. And are we to simply ignore Hanna-Barbera’s Oscar-winning theatrical shorts from the 1940s?

  8. greg,

    I believe all of south parks episodes are essentially a digital equivalent of stop motion snaps of construction paper,as all the facial features and sets are already in existence before a season begins (or atleast mostly there). The time it takes to do the animation of South park is incredibly short, one of the reasons the show can address such up to date issues in the news. And the complaint about the technical side of animation is pretty funny, its basically the same complaint artists have of popular art and musicians have of popular music, done technically worse with less heart, more commercialism. Its just entertainment elitism from a people who are upset that people in general just don’t understand them.

  9. I agree with Rowson, the best thing you can say about Hanna and Barbera is they weren’t as bad as Sid and Marty Kroft

  10. Flintstones was purposely brought in on the cheap because it was the first cartoon pitched as a primetime series, something unheard of at the time.
    And A Man Called Flintstone is pure art. If you disagree, you have no soul.
    Scooby Doo, on the other hand, was never anything other than an excuse for Casey Kasim to hear his own voice.

  11. Isn’t most animation these days outsourced to overseas companies? I’ve heard that was the case with the Simpsons at least.

  12. By the way, I’ll defend the animation of Hanna-Barbera. Let’s face it. Made for TV cartoons never had the budgets of Disney. And there were some nice moments of style that came from them. The Flintstones and The Jetsons had many clever things going for them. And the more obscure Wait ‘Til Your Father Gets Home was probably way before it’s time.

  13. shecky,
    Good call on WTYFGH. Did you ever hear about a project to reanimate it with a family of lions?

  14. Dan T,
    You are probably thinking of Korea.

    Adult Swim and Anime types get a bit hysterical whenever the notion of a war with N. Korea comes up since the fountain of all that is good would be the first place that is effected.

  15. SOUTH Korea, I should have said.

  16. The animation may be crap, but the Scooby Doo episode of the early ’70s are classic. If nothing else, they taught kids to be skeptical of supernatural claims and to look for a reasonable explanation.

    There also may have been an anti-drug message in the form of Shaggy, but whatever. Point is, can you imagine anyone trying to get a cartoon with those premises going today, in the age of Veggie-tales?

  17. there’s tex avery and there’s everything else. my dad forbade us to watch any of the h-b crapola. the only thing worse was depatie-freleng and rankin-bass (two names seems to be a gurantee of shittiness). i’ve got the same policy with my kid- quality animation with real writing and fine gags only. he’s the only boy in kindergarten with a screwy squirrel backpack.

  18. I don’t know about the animation. But the background music was the real beauty of the Flinstones and Scooby-doo.

  19. jkp makes an an interesting point about the skeptical nature of Scooby Doo. I always thought the anti supernatural theme of the show was curious. I wonder how that came about?

    Background music/sound effects of the Carl Stalling Loony Toon era was the best. To this day, I don’t think anybody has done better.

  20. I think the character designs from The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Yogi and Huckleberry Hound are quite endearing, and find many individual episodes quite funny. Is my mind addled by nostalgia?

    Does Rowson judge how good a comic book is by how many panels it has?

  21. Two words: Clutch Cargo.

  22. So who ever did 24 animation frames/sec even in theatric films? AFAIK, except in a few brief stretches where very fluid motion was deemed necessary, even “full” animation ran only about 1 frame of animation per 2 frames of film.

  23. The anti-supernatural nature of the old scooby doo’s has definitely changed in the new episodes / movies that they’ve made. In those, many of the things that seem supernatural are not just dudes in masks but are truly supernatural. A definite negative development.

  24. The animation quality of the Flintstones was crap but the shows were great. You take the Honeymooners, animate it, throw in some great site gags, and you’ve got a great show.

    Nobody is going to top the old Warner Brothers stuff for animation quality or for storyline.

  25. El Kabong was smashing guitars long before The Who.

  26. Heresy. Scooby Doo was one of the best cartoons on television. It was dark, subversive, and a wonderful gentle introduction to the horror genre for a kid.

    I wish modern cartoons could have the stupidly simple honesty of Scooby Doo; they all seem far too caught up in anticipating their future kitsch value for adults (I’m looking at you, Powerpuff Girls).

    I consider my childhood defined by the space between Scooby Doo and Thundarr the Barbarian. Which maybe explains a lot about my adulthood.

  27. Two words: Clutch Cargo.

    Damn, I rembember that show. It must be the worst crap ever produced this side of Captan Planet. Those moving lips, superimposed on those cardboard cutouts were just plain sick looking.

  28. BTW. I my opinion, Scooby Doo sucked. Sucked bad. Real bad. Me I’m more of a Bullwinkle fan. Jay was great.

  29. I know I’m treading on thin ice here, but South Park just isn’t very funny. It seems like every episode contains about 15 minutes of jokes stretched out to a half hour by repeating the earlier ones over and over and over. Gotta love The Venture Brothers though. That one may be the best cartoon ever made.

  30. btw, “powerhouse” is the greatest piece of music ever written.

  31. I believe all of south parks episodes are essentially a digital equivalent of stop motion snaps of construction paper

    This is literally true. Comedy Central’s press site runs ultra-hi-quality framegrabs from the show (great for desktop wallpaper BTW) and at that resolution you can actually see the texture of the paper.

    Bash H-B all you want, but the stuff Alex Toth designed for them trumps even the worst Scrappy-Doo-level garbage they foisted on us.

    The only way Venture Bros. could be improved would be if they had gotten Bowie and Iggy Pop to voice themselves in last season’s closer. (Klaus Nomi at least has the excuse that he’s dead.)

  32. I’ve never even seen Venture Bros, but if it has Bowie and Iggy as characters, how bad could it be? Do Poly Steyrene and Joe Strummer ever show? ๐Ÿ™‚

    – R

  33. Batman: TAS? Space Ghost Coast to Coast? The Venture Brothers?

    Weigel, I KNEW there was something I liked about you!

  34. The Jetsons, Yogi and Huckleberry Hound are quite endearing, and find many individual episodes quite funny. Is my mind addled by nostalgia?

    Not at all, Huck, Yogi et al were well-developed, likeably flawed characters, at least until the seventies when HB dragged in the politically correct crap like Yogi’s Ark

  35. Rocky & Bullwinkle or The Simpsons,….. It’s what I call “illustrated radio.” – Chuck Jones interviewed in The Onion‘s A/V Club

    This isn’t a new criticism. It’s also a misunderstanding about working within the limitations of a new medium, and comparing the new unfavorably to the old. As other posters have pointed out, today’s technology has improved to the point that computers have allowed animators to create great looking work, without the crushing labor costs that would hit a studio if they tried to do everything by hand.

    And what about those labor costs? Didn’t the studios get out of theatre-quality animation in large part because of the unionization of the work force that The Gruniad would have applauded? I’m also thinking that the Justice Department’s breakup of film production and exhibition might have damaged the economics of producing and distributing shorts.

    R&B was tremendously clever and funny, even if watching the show, or it’s antecedent, Crusader Rabbit was a bit like someone reading a comic aloud for you, if that someone was great at doing voices and the panels were projected one by one on a home movie screen. Naysayers slammed comic books when they first appeared, even when they were mostly reprints of newspaper strips that were considered perfectly suitable to read. It was true that Raymond’s Flash Gordon or Foster’s Prince Valiant were much diminished by the smaller pages and the inferior printing found outside of the Sunday sections. It is also true that, when new characters created to make better use of the new medium were created without slavishly imitating their newpaper cousins, a new form came into its own. A 13-page 4-color feature and a black and white newspaper daily are both “comic strips”, in the same way that an animated theatre short and limited animation made for TV are both “cartoons.” Pop singles and operas are both “song”, but nobody pretends that they are the same species of art, if art they both are.

    That said, much of the the H&B stuff was, per Stugeon’s Law, crap, especially when network standards and practices were tasked to put the scenarists in straitjackets after the 1968 assasinations. One reason why Scooby Doo was so popular is because, while it included “scary” threats that were never really visited on the crew of the Mystery Machine, it essentially was based on conflict without any actual violence. Bugs Bunny has a hard time being funny, or Batman adventurous, if they can’t ever hit anybody. H&B tried that, with Superfriends, and boy, did that suck!

    Besides, without Hanna and Barbera, we would never have had I love Mises to pieces! buttons!


  36. A coupla more things: H&B did Shazzan. That was the one with the kids with the magic ring that conjured a genie. Shazam! was the live action show about Captain Marvel, and an animated section of The Kid Superpower Hour, both of which originated from Filmation. H&B take the rap or credit for The Banana Splits, but that was live action from the sicko brains of Sid & Marty Kroft, with the saving grace of the “are you on drugs!!??” live action serial, directed by a young Richard Donner, Danger Island. The Splits did host some standard H&B cartoonage, notably The Arabian Knights, The Three Musketeers, and Micro Ventures, but they weren’t anything special, and hardly the reason anybody watched them.

    (whose “I caught you in a factual error, so maybe I can’t trust the rest of your article” mode has kicked in.)

  37. “And are we to simply ignore Hanna-Barbera’s Oscar-winning theatrical shorts from the 1940s?”

    IMHO, the best “Tom and Jerry” cartoons were the H&B ones (lates 40s/early-to-mid 50s), produced by Fred Quimby (I think); I hate the later ones that Chuck Jones did, although I’m a fan of most of his other work.

    “Two words: Clutch Cargo.

    Damn, I rembember that show. It must be the worst crap ever produced this side of Captan Planet. Those moving lips, superimposed on those cardboard cutouts were just plain sick looking.”

    And yet strangely arousing … ๐Ÿ˜‰

  38. Toys Col. Gentleman wishes he had when he was a lad, but they weren’t invented yet. Micronauts. Scooby-Doo monster game. Which Witch. ATAT Imperial Walker. Stay Alive, the survival game!

  39. I either never got the chance to see Clutch Cargo as a kid, or it ran when something else I liked was on, or when I was playing, reading or still at school. However, a similarly animated cartoon, Space Angel*, ran during either Sandy Becker’s or Soupy Sales program, and it rocked! That was becasue the still art was often by Alex Toth, who, as noted above, designed Space Ghost.

    Mr. Toth also passed this year.


    *(SA‘s protagonist was “Scott McCloud,” no relation to the cartonist/comics theorist.)

  40. “The tropes of crummy comic books and rotoscoped animation are the grist for The Venture Brothers, for my money the best animated show since the launch of South Park.”

    Amen, Hallelujah.

    The second season was so very outstanding. If you really want to get too far into it after seeing the shows, there’s a gentleman who does analysis of the VB episodes.

    Justice League/Justice League Unlimited (same folks who did Batman: Animated Series and Batman Beyond) is also remarkably good. Money well spent on those DVDs.

  41. Justice League/Justice League Unlimited (same folks who did Batman: Animated Series and Batman Beyond) is also remarkably good. Money well spent on those DVDs.

    Good stuff, and the commentaries and interviews are entertaining. (Though I couldn’t help laughing when they explained, in all apparent honesty, that Batman Beyond was meant to be the lighter, kid-friendly version of Batman. ๐Ÿ™‚ )

  42. Pro Libertate | December 20, 2006, 3:50pm | #
    Two words: Clutch Cargo.

    That was the first thing I thought of, reading all the lamentations over HB’s “minimalist animation.” Quality-wise, the Jetsons and Flintstones were Walt Disney’s Snow White in comparison with Clutch Cargo. From where do you think that Conan O’Brien nabbed the idea for the similar thing he does on HIS show? “Clutch” deserves props for that, at least.

  43. Mike Judge is wrong. For his view to be true would require that creation and even creative synthesis are impossible; the creator only “copies and exaggerates” her influences. It’s essentially of a part with the simplistic form of determinism that is habitually offered as one half of the false dilemma regarding ego versus environment, a view that, not content with being deterministic, refuses even to give its subjects credit even for sophisticated behavior.

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