Comics review: Dastardly & Muttley (issues 1-4)

(cover art courtesy DC Comics)

 

If you’ve looked around you this year and thought the world had gone quite horrifically, cartoonishly mad (hate to break it to you but it has), then you’ll find a lot to appreciate in the new(ish) Dastardly and Muttley series from DC Comics.

Continuing the mostly clever reimaginings of a host of classic Hanna-Barbera characters from The Flintstones to Scooby Doo and The Jetsons, Dastardly and Muttley plunges the world into a crisis of quite comical – quite literally as it turns out – when the explosion of new Unstabilium 239 reactor in the fictional country of Unliklistan (home to every over the top Middle Eastern trope you can think of; you find out why later) leaves not so much a toxic radioactive wasteland in its wake as a weirdly-coloured cloud of hippie-ish symbols that strangely affects everyone who comes into contact with them.

Ignoring the usual laws of physics and a host of other constants in the natural world, this extraordinarily odd new world, where people have holes shot through their chest and live and politicians’e eyes literally bulge out where they get angry, changes a great many things.

Including our titular characters, decorated US Air Force pilots who suddenly find themselves profoundly transformed when their mission to check out what happened to Unliklistan takes a very unexpected turn; what should have been a crash into a nightmarish radioactive mess instead changes Captain Dudley “Mutt” Muller into a talking dog/man (he brings his dog along for the mission) and Lt. Col. Richard “Dick” Atcherly increasingly into an old time Vaudevillian-looking villain.

That is but the start of a, dare we say it, wacky series of events which see a US drone spreading the effects of the explosion, engineered by one Professor Dubious, far and wide, even infecting Washington DC with its strange brand of warped reality.

As events progress, and Dastardly and Muttley do their best to find out who’s behind the twisting of reality into ever more surreal, cartoonish extremes where decorated pilots such as Captain “Zee” Zabarnowski start speaking like Penelope Pitstop, to her horror and her co-pilot Lieutenant “Uncle” Longman (who remains unaffected by the weirdness enveloping everyone else) and Wiley E. Coyote and Roadrunner (in animal form) go dashing through the Oval Office.

It’s absolutely inspired, totally bonkers and cleverly hilarious and it’s all thanks to the brilliantly good talents of writer Garth Ennis (Preacher, Punisher) and artist Mauricet (Harley Quinn & The Gang Of Harleys).

 

(image courtesy DC Comics)

 

From the word go, Dastardly and Muttley is an enormously clever, grounded – quite an achievement given the glorious absurdity of the series’ premise – and funny as hell takedown of the way our world, all flashy, digital civilisation and human progress can so easily devolve into a wacky place where up is down, down is up and hitting someone with a mallet seems like a fun idea (trust us, even in this new cartoon universe, it’s not).

One of the chief effects of the Unstabilium cloud is the way it erases the inhibitions of anyone who comes into contact with it, while simultaneously giving them the comedic means to do something about their new, unchecked impulses.

This means that while there are some decided serious dynamics playing out – try a widening conspiracy that may or may not involve Dastardly and Muttley’s commanding officer General Harrington and Muttley trying to de-canine himself so he can get back to his wife and kids looking normal – the storyline uses a range of cartoonish devices to push the surprisingly emotionally-resonant action along.

Take the scene where our two comically-mutated heroes steal a plane to get back to the USA to confront General Harrington, get to the bottom of what’s going on and reset their lives (if that’s even possible anymore).

As Dastardly, who is increasingly speaking like a cartoon character with alliterative hilarity – “Out of our way, you goose-stepping goons! You Nuremberg Ne’er-Do-Wells! Begone! ” – urges Muttley to “Embrace the horror!”, an acknowledgment that the world has gone haywire and they should make the most of it rather than fight it.

If there’s still time left to do that.

The final page of issue 4 indicates that time may be something that the world doesn’t have much left of, at least in its present form.

Ennis deftly guides the narrative between outright nonsensical silliness and some rather sage and sober moments, injecting humour where its needed and going with Catch-22/Dr Strange darkness where it will be most effective.

Mauricet’s art is colourful and cartoonish but also real and stark, a visual tip of the hat to the way the world sits poised between the two extremes, with the tide tilting towards cartoons come to life.

You could well argue that the world is pretty much like that now, without all the visual absurdities, and indeed there is some delicious political parody thrown in for good measure, and Ennis and Mauricet make merry with this idea, delivering up one of the most inspired, compellingly-readable and loopy as Hanna-Barbara reimaginings to come down the DC Comics pike.

 

(image courtesy DC Comics)

Saturday morning cartoons: Hong Kong Phooey

(image via Wallpaperist (c) Hanna-Barbera)
(image via Wallpaperist (c) Hanna-Barbera)

 

Hong Kong Phooey is yet another of Hanna-Barbera’s long line of cartoon creations that seems to have had a far longer on-screen life than he actually did.

In truth, the entire series which is comprised of 16 episodes which in turn broke down into 2 sub-episodes, only ran for a very short time, from 7 September 1974 to 21 December 1974.

But while it may have only enjoyed a short run on the US ABC network, its creators clearly had a huge amount of fun bringing the show to life, giving us in the process a delightful parody of the martial arts movies and TV shows that were all the rage at the time such as Chinatown (1974) and the Kung Fu series (1972-1975).

Channelling a Mel Brooks-ian sense of the absurd – though to be fair nowhere near as sophisticated as the great comic master – Hong Kong Phooey was a delightfully inept crime fighter, a humble police station cleaner by trade but America’s greatest superhero when needed.

Drawing his inspiration from a correspondence course book, The Hong Kong Book of Kung Fu, and with no actual training in any form of martial arts, Hong Kong Phooey aka Penrod “Penry” Pooch (Scatman Carothers, who also sang the theme song), was more high-minded intent than an actually successful crime fighter in his own right.

In all honesty, if it hadn’t been for Spot the cat, who often freed him from the filing cabinet in which he changed into his outfit, and who got him into position to bring the bad guys to justice – many of whom, for some strange reason, seem to like to dress in drag, usually as an older woman – he wouldn’t have been as successful as he was, nor as revered by the general public. (A running gag throughout the series is the effusive adulation Hong Kong Phooey receives from everyone he encounters, be they hotel doormen, window washers or even, hilariously, the criminals themselves at times.)

He really is quite the accidental superhero, a product of his own mind more than actuality, but then that’s a great part of his charm.

You can’t help but love his endless chutzpah, his trenchant self-belief, which never comes across as arrogant or boastful, just sweetly self-assured, and his endless tenacity, his refusal to give up no matter how great the opposition he faces.

He is a character who believes quite firmly that he has what it takes, and that all he needs are the wise words from his correspondence manual to be successful, and you can’t help but admire that.

Sure it is grist for the comedy mill, and each episode makes merry with the fact that the baddies only ever make it into custody because Spot is more capable than his master, but there’s something about someone going hard at it come what may that is infectiously charming and yes, funny too, and it doesn’t take long for Hong Kong Phooey to find a place in your heart.

 

 

One person who loves Hong Kong Phooey more than most was Rosemary (Kathy Gori) the telephone operator at the police station who always answers the switchboard calls with a delightfully alliterative phrase such as “Hello. Police Headquarters. Rosemary, your loveable lady fuzz… you don’t say… you dont’ say… you don’t say!” or “Hallo, hallo, police headquarters, this is Rosemary, the lovely lassie with the classy chassis”, all delivered in an intoxicatingly-appealing Fran Drescher-thick Queens accent.

But while Rosemary adores Hong Kong Phooey, Penry’s boss, Sergeant Flint (Joe E. Ross), your classic Irish-American cop who brooks no nonsense, and doesn’t particularly like Phooey’s alter ego Penry, isn’t quite as enamoured.

He is far too circumspect a man to get carried away with such nonsense, the only person in all of America, if you can believe it, who doesn’t think the sun, moon and crime fighting stars shines out of Hong Kong Phooey.

But our eponymous hero is never troubled by Flint’s lack of enthusiasm – he believes in himself, the public adore him and he (well Spot effectively) gets the baddies and that’s all that matters.

Another notable aspect of the series are the gorgeous watercolour backgrounds, drawn by Lorraine Andrina and Richard Khim, whose artwork gives more of a suggestion of time and place than an actual location.

They immerse the adventures of the none-too-bright but good-hearted titular superhero in a world that is quite magical and not anchored to any sense of reality which is appropriate given that so much of what propels Hong Kong Phooey through his crime fighting capers is a figment of his imagination rather than any actual ability on his part.

The backgrounds also don’t repeat themselves too much, a rarity in Hanna-Barbera cartoons which have a propensity to repeat their artwork over and over, particularly in chase scenes such as those in Wacky Races.

The music too is a delight with everything from the quirky opening theme song, written by Hoyt Curtin, William Hanna, and Joseph Barbera, to the incidental music, reflecting a 1960s retro feel including the use of that decade’s favourite instrument, the glockenspiel.

In the end, what makes Hong Kong Phooey such an appealing show to watch is the way it mixes childhood silliness – in one scene he rides his Phooeymobile, which bursts out of his secret dumpster lair at the start of each episode, through a ton of freshly-laid cement; he earns no opprobrium from the workers who are honoured to have their hard work ruined by the hero – and its gift for satirising the martial arts fascination of the time.

It may not be the most sophisticated cartoon ever produced by the studio but it has heart-and-soul in great helping handfuls, a sense of the silly and the absurd and a protagonist who gleefully charges his way through life, convinced that he, a costume and a correspondence course book can change the world.

How canyou not like that?

 

Saturday morning cartoons: The Wacky Races (Hanna-Barbera)

All the member racing teams of Hanna-Barbera's Wacky Races (image via Dan Dare (c)  Warner Bros)
All the member racing teams of Hanna-Barbera’s Wacky Races (image via Dan Dare (c) Warner Bros)

 

I grew up in a far simpler age when television audiences outside the major cities of Australia only had access to two TV channels – one belonging to national publicly-funded broadcaster the ABC, and the other to a commercial company who usually took a mix of programs from the three commercial broadcasters in the capital cities.

While it did limit the variety of programs we were able to see, NRN11/RTN8, as our commercial channel was known for a number of years, somehow miraculously managed to show a fairly diverse of programs, which coupled with yearly trips to my grandparents in Sydney, meant I was able to catch many of the shows that mattered to a young Australian boy in the 1970s.

Among them of course were Hanna-Barbera’s array of cartoons, staples of Saturday morning children’s viewing bloc in this country, including Scooby Doo, The Flintstones, Yogi Bear, Hong Kong Phooey, Top Cat, The Chattanooga Cats, The Banana Splits, Wheelie and the Chopper Bunch and a host of others.

Granted the plots were rather basic, and the animation repetitive and somewhat crude at times but there a magical sense of fun and silliness to them that captured my imagination, leading me to fall in love with a slew of characters whose antics amuse me to this day.

As a homage to the countless delight hours I spent in front of the television sets in my childhood, and yes teenage years, I decided it was high time I featured the marvellous cartoons of Hanna-Barbera and why each one meant so much to me, starting with the over the top hilarity of …

 

The 11 contestants in The Wacky Races find themselves in yet another hilariously over the top racing situation (image via Big Sur (c) Warner)
The 11 contestants in The Wacky Races find themselves in yet another hilariously over the top racing situation (image via Big Sur (c) Warner Bros)

 

THE WACKY RACES

Rumoured to have been inspired by Blake Edward’s 1965 slapstick comedy film The Great Race, which starred major actors of the day such as Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood and Jack Lemmon as turn of the 20th century racing drivers in the race of their life, Hanna-Barbera’s The Wacky Races featured 11 different teams in fantastically idiosyncratic cars competing in a series of races across North America.

While it only ran from 14 September 1968 to 4 January 1969 with just 17 episodes being produced, each of which featured two races, it managed to capture my imagination and those of countless children worldwide as the 11 competing teams, including the villain of the piece, Dick Dastardly and Mutley in The Mean Machine – how I loved Mutley’s laugh and the way in which he was rarely best by his evil if ill-judged owner – living on in our memories and on Cartoon Network’s classic animation arm Boomerang.

To be fair the plots were hardly boldly imaginative or endlessly creative – the same storyline anchored pretty much every episode.

Dick Dastardly, who was a villain in the traditional silent era movie ties-a-damsel-to-the-railroad track mould, did his best to win each and every race, by any and all devious means, aided and abetted, willingly or unwillingly by Mutley depending on his mood, usually ending up, much like Wile E. Coyote in Looney Tunes, clutching the short end of the stick.

The hilarious thing for any kid, and yes as an adult re-watching the episodes, was the way in which Dastardly kept trying to win despite his abject failure to do so on every single occasion.

It wasn’t blind optimism that drove him so much as vaulting ego that couldn’t conceive that his brilliance wouldn’t deliver him up his ultimate goal, a sense that he was so talented and so deserving of the win and so much better than everyone else around him that he and only he possessed the ability to win.

Every car-destroying failure, every waylaid or wasted opportunity was Mutley’s fault, or the ill-deserved good luck of the rest of the contestants, who he uniformly regarded as talentless schmucks with no chance of ever winning.

 

 

But win they did, again and again and again, as the commentator told wince-inducing, pun-laden jokes one after another, as Keystones Cops-esque physical slapstick reigned and the delightfully idiosyncratic teams kept driving along, largely oblivious to what was going on around.

Was it sophisticated humour?

Not really but hey it was targeted as kids who could appreciate a silly joke or visual hijinks, who loved the idea that Dick Dastardly never won, and that he threw the best melodramatic tantrums in the world.

That’s what made us laugh, and even if it largely buttressed by nostalgia, keeps us laughing still.

 

 

Here are the 10 other teams, courtesy of Classic TV Info,  that competed in The Wacky Races, and thanks to Dick Dastardly’s consistent inability to successfully deliver on any of his multitudinous nefarious schemes, always won …

 

(image via Classic TV info)
(image via Classic TV info)

 

You can get more info on the teams via the wonderfully detailed Wacky Races Wiki.