On Saturday, June 14th, Meltdown Comics of Hollywood is throwing a party for one of the true living legends of animation. There will be an exhibit of his artwork and lots of people who worked for him over the years. Meltdown isn’t exactly saying who, but these are “people” with names like John Kricfalusi (like you need to know what he’s done?), Andrew Stanton (just say Wall*E, Little Nemo and one of the top directors of Pixar), Vicky Jenson (Shrek) and, uh, Bruce Timm.
You might have even heard of him. His name is Ralph Bakshi. He’s done some pretty amazing work in his time, too.
The way I first met Bakshi was when doing a phone interview. We were talking about his series Spicy City when he heard some jazz in the background.
“You playing Miles?” he asked. I told him that I indeed was playing Kind of Blue. “You’re too young to be playing Miles Davis!” he accused jokingly, quickly adding that even though he liked rock’n roll, he loved jazz. When he was young, he wanted to be a beatnik and play bongos on the beach. Before I knew it, I had his then home phone number and an incredible friend. In fact, he usually played music when he animated. Got a great interview from him, too.
The basic facts are this. Ralph Bakshi was born in 1938 in Haifa. His family moved to New York City shortly thereafter. His artistic talents were spotted early. He was sent to a magnet school specializing in the arts while still a high schooler. He started winning awards shortly thereafter.
He would soon confess to me that his real ambition was to be a fine arts painter. He initially went into animation, as a cel washer for Terrytoons, to support his art habit. He quickly rose up the ranks in the 60s on such syndicated TV shorts as Deputy Dawg, Mighty Mouse and Lariat Sam.
By 1967, he was ready to be a director. His first series was the unfortunately forgotten Mighty Heroes on CBS. They were a spin on comics featuring such “superheroes” as Cuckoo Man, Tornado Man, Rope Man, Strong Guy and, their leader, Diaper Man. Quite frankly, they made the Inferior 5 look like the Justice League. They also used to entertain the hell out of me when I did my Saturday morning ritual with a bowl of Cheerios.
In one of my later conversations with Bakshi, I confessed my love of the show. He confessed he had a blast doing that series. Another thing Bakshi had a blast with was comic books. He’d also been reading them since childhood. If Mighty Heroes wasn’t a sign, his next project would be.
While Mighty Heroes is now a beloved cult show fondly remembered by obscurists like myself, one of the big hits of the year was the first animated version of Spider-Man. With one of the coolest theme songs of all time, as well as animation that at least tried to emulate its Marvel origins, it now considered a Saturday morning classic, even if the stories were toned down to suit the time. The only thing that truly went wrong with that season was the studio that produced it, Grantray-Lawrence, declared bankruptcy shortly after the first season.
The broadcasting network, ABC, wasn’t going to let a little matter like that hold the series back. They hired Bakshi to produce the next two seasons of the show. The increase quality Bakshi brought in could be immediately felt. He did this by hiring such comic book legends as Mort Drucker, Wally Wood, Jack Davis, Joe Kubert, Jim Steranko, Gray Morrow, and Roy Krenkel. He also upped the ante story-wise, becoming more true to the original Marvel plot lines. His rebellious nature also started getting him in trouble at this time. The third season was considered too dark or weird by ABC’s Standards & Practices department. Episodes such as “Revolt in the Fifth Dimension” didn’t air domestically.
Still, Bakshi made one incredibly important hookup during this period. One of the execs for ABC was another legend of the TV world, Steve Krantz. Married to the highly successful author Judith Krantz, he and Bakshi would leave ABC to pursue a project that was long overdue, an animated feature film for adults. Their chosen subject would be another comic book legend, Robert Crumb’s Fritz the Cat.
According to Bakshi, putting Fritz together was a constant fight with its future distributor, Paramount. When I was doing an article on the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, Bakshi told me that his project nearly was killed because of the Fab Four’s feature being a financial failure. There were other issues. A lot of people were freaked out over the concept of cartoon characters doing drugs, causing riots, having genitalia and sex, lots and lots of sex, in the film. They also didn’t like the idea the film had a hard X rating.
That didn’t stop Fritz from being a hit. Personally, it was one of the first films I ever snuck into (being only 16 at the time). According to Bakshi the X was the best thing to happen to the film. Lots of kids like myself helped the movie make over $100 million during its run. Then it became a midnight movie, where it would run in smoke-filled underground theaters for the next two decades.
But from this point on, every project Bakshi would work on would be mired in controversy. The man’s follow-up was entitled Heavy Traffic. A look at youth culture of the day, it told the story of a young man growing up in Brooklyn in the early 70s with racist parents, lots of drugs and other signs of the times. It featured such scenes as its hero's father thinking it was time for his boy to “be a man” and hiring an extremely fat, ugly, more-than-willing woman to take his virginity. It also featured some live action footage of New York at that time.
Even though Bakshi considers it one of his best films ever, it was a financial bomb. His next feature film, which Krantz retitled as Coonskin, was the immediate target of civil rights advocate because of its name. Telling the tale of a black life in the 70s updating characters from the Uncle Remus tales, it would later earn the respect of future black entertainers including Spike Lee. According to his recently released autobiography, another fan of the film was Richard Pryor. What’s interesting to note is these days heavy duty rappers such as the Wu Tang Clan are thinking of doing a sequel. But again, the film didn’t do much at the box office. After it was over, Bakshi and Krantz parted company.
Not that Bakshi was finished, hardly. He would incorporate his love of fantasy with his love of comics for his next project, Wizards. With artwork definitely based around the late underground master Vaughn Bode, the film featured a young Mark Hamill as part of its voice cast and was distributed by Fox. It became Bakshi’s next money maker. It should have, it was shot for the paltry sum of $1.2 million, making fairly easy to get its money back.
With that in his pocket, Bakshi would do two more fantasy-based films, Lord of the Rings (1978) and Fire & Ice (1983), which was based on the work of Frank Frazetta. In-between he also did two more contemporary films, American Pop and Hey, Good Looking. None of these films made anywhere near the money of Wizards, but further cemented Bakshi as one of the most groundbreaking animation directors of the day and one of the few highlights of the dark period animation was then going through.
Bakshi’s next important period was just around the corner though. He would hook up with Paramount and start working in TV again. He would do specials such as Dr. Seuss’ Butter Battle Book as well as the Saturday morning series Mighty Mouse, The New Adventures . He also did the video for The Rolling Stones song “Harlem Shuffle.” It was during this period he started hiring many of the animators who would become the major players of the renaissance, including Bruce Timm, John Kricfalusi and many, many more.
Still, it wouldn’t be a story about Ralph Bakshi if it didn’t include some sort of controversy. It happened with a particular episode of Mighty Mouse. It featured the caped rodent sniffing crush flower petals up his nose. The then “moral authority” of the time, Reverend David Wildmon, took serious issue with this scene, and the episode was pulled from the rotation and the series rapidly cancelled. It was a crying shame, too. The series turned one of the most boring animated characters who ever existed and turned him into a superstar among my generation. Couple this with the Turtles and Pee-Wee Herman, and we were starting to seriously watch Saturday morning shows again.
Things would get worse before they get better, too. Bakshi would start work on a feature film entitled Cool World that rapidly became one of his biggest nightmares ever. Starring Kim Bassinger, Bakshi told me she was given a bigger budget for bottled water to wash her hair with than he was given to produce the movie. It ticked him off so much he left Hollywood to return to New York.
His experience back home wasn’t much better. He signed a deal with Cartoon Network to do a series of shorts entitled Malcolm and Melvin. Telling the tale of a clown with a trumpet-playing roach in his mouth, CN found it just too weird and scrapped the project. From there, he hooked up with Eric Radomski, who had just moved from Warner Bros and Batman: The Animated Series to HBO. While Radomski worked on the first animated Spawn, Bakshi came up with one of his most original concepts ever, Spicy City.
Spicy was a mix of everything Bakshi had ever done before, with the added edge of a Twilight Zone-like anthology format. The series tied in no less than Michelle Pfeiffer to voice its host, Raven. Even though only six episodes were produced, the production quality was incredible for the time. Unfortunately for Bakshi, just when he was getting ready to start pre-production on a second season, HBO pulled the carpet out from under him. At that time, Bakshi told me he had had enough with the animation world, and quit, period. He went back to his first love, painting.
Hate to say it, but it was during this period where Bakshi finally got the respect he truly deserved. While the animation arts world tended to hate him—an apocryphal tale is of a group of animators actually taking a full-page ad in Variety trying to force him out of Hollywood—the fine arts world embraced him with open arms. I attended one of his showings during this period, and have to say he truly is an incredibly impressive artist.
One painting in particular I’ll never forget. It was a gigantic oil about five feet tall in all forms of golds, browns, and similar hues. Highly expressionist in detail, it depicted the Fleischer family as a circus act. As it turned out, it was sold pretty much by the time I saw it, and it went for tens of thousands of dollars.
Not that Bakshi was completely done with TV. He did direct two episodes of the Spike version of John K’s Ren & Stimpy. In one, Ralph voiced the Fireman character as a bipolar maniac who terrorized the asthmatic Chihuahua and simple-minded feline. In the second, he got involved in some live-action chicanery that has to be seen to be believed. Otherwise he continued painting and has moved to the Southwest.
But things are apparently starting to heat up for the grand master again. At this year’s New York Comic Con, Bakshi was named one of its guests of honor. One of the smart things he always did was keep as much of his original animation work he could lay his hands on, and much of it is now available in a recently published autobiography (with an introduction by no less than Quentin Tarantino). Now Meltdown Comics is hosting this ASIFA-sponsored party in his name.
Personally, I’ll admit I’m of that generation that virtually grew up on his work, and his spirit is deeply infused in my judgment of any project I look at. His fought the incredible odds that animators of his day, the constantly combating censors, narrow-minded entertainment execs and even fellow pros in his own field, and did manage to make some animation masterpieces if only to spite them. Yes, he’s not the easiest person to know. The bipolar character he played on Ren & Stimpy really isn’t too far from what he can be like.
At the same time, one must say the animation world would have been an undeniably poorer place without him. I don’t think Adult Swim would exist if he didn’t take many of the hits he did. Aaron McGruder would still be doing comic strips. Even Japanese anime would have been a much weaker themed field if he didn’t produce films like Fritz the Cat. Like many a pioneer, Ralph Bakshi did walk away truly bloodied, but it’s now becoming apparent that he’s also unbowed. He’s talking about doing another feature film after nearly two decades. I know if that happens I want to be one of the first to see it, whatever it is.
Anyway, Meltdown Comics is located at 7522 W Sunset Blvd., LA, CA. Come on down and say hello to Ralph for me. I personally wish I could be there.