Science fiction conceits and the cartoonist’s will to anarchic fancy accommodate each other quite well, and over the one-hundred-odd years that the two mediums have been playing together, they have managed to capture the technological preoccupations of their times, document humanity’s concerns for their present moment, and speculate on people’s hopes for the future.
So let’s step into our time machine (Science! That’s impossible to implement! ‘Cause paradoxes!) and travel through the decades to see how cartoons have used the lexicon of spaceships, robots, and electronic gizmos to tell their tales. In so doing, we may well discover a bit of reverse time travel, the past reaching out to our present—to entertain, to provoke, and most importantly, to remind us that it’s always fun ‘n games with ray guns until someone gets disintegrated…
KoKo’s Earth Control (1928)
The Fleischer brothers—Max and Dave—were inveterate gadgeteers, as obsessed with the technology of cartooning as they were with its art. They were creating sync sound cartoons before Walt Disney, and their catalog of over twenty patents included the setback camera, a system that overlaid animated, 2D characters onto physical, 3D settings, and, most significantly, the rotoscope, a process to trace footage of human performers onto cartoon cels—a technology still in use to this day.
Neither sync sound nor rotoscoping figure much in the silent cartoon KoKo’s Earth Control, but a gadget-happy atmosphere still permeates. Clown KoKo and canine companion Fritz travel to the ends of the Earth (or, more literally, the bottom, walking the perimeter of a spinning disk) to reach a room studded with knobs, dials, and levers: the legendary Earth Control. While KoKo amuses himself with toying with the elements and shifting day to night and back, Fritz battles the irresistible urge to pull a lever whose label bluntly warns that activation will result in the end of the world. Do I have to point out that temptation wins?
At a point in the century where it seemed wonderful inventions were being introduced on a daily basis—and ten years after more ominous inventions threatened to reduce civilization to ashes (and this was before Albert Einstein & Friends leapt into the mix)—the notion of humanity teetering on the brink of apocalypse at the pull of a lever must have felt both tantalizing and terrifying. Fortunately, director Dave Fleischer merely uses the end-of-all-life-as-we-know-it for some customary visual puns, including a volcano that turns into a giant dude smoking a cigar, and some live-action gimcrackery with the camera, starring, presumably, some Inkwell Studios staffers and the streets of New York, both of which are slightly worse for wear by the end. Technology could be a promise or a threat, but happily the Fleischers could make you laugh at both prospects.
Mickey Mouse in “The Worm Turns” (1937)
There’s an odd incongruity to watching happy-go-lucky Mickey doing the mad scientist bit while whipping up a batch of “Courage Builder” serum, an impression not dissipated by him spouting a cheery, “Oh, boy!” while his infernal formula brews. It’s only furthered when the syringe-wielding cartoon mouse comes to the aid of a more… um… mousy mouse under attack by a cat. The animators work hard to keep Mickey visually separated from the two combatants, but still, the question could fairly be asked, “What the hell kind of subspecies is Mickey, anyway?”
Whatever he is, the rodent who helps keep the lights on at the Disney studios is more plot engine than participant here, repeatedly deploying his serum as the repercussions of his interference keep scaling up—first, saving the mouse from the cat, then the cat from an enraged Pluto, and then Pluto from Dogcatcher Pete (with, as a coda, an emboldened fire hydrant getting the last laugh on the mutt—poor Pluto rarely catches a break in these cartoons). Anticipating noted (if fictional) mathematician Ian Malcolm’s observation that just because science can do something doesn’t mean that it should, “The Worm Turns” demonstrates the consequences of profligately bequeathing power without considering the upshot. Released a scant month before the debut of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the cartoon makes its point while Disney was at the peak of its animation prowess, a status demonstrated in every painstakingly executed frame.
Superman in “The Mechanical Monsters” (1941)
Legend has it that when the Fleischer Studios was approached by parent company Paramount to budget out a series of Superman cartoons, Max and Dave Fleischer—none too eager to tackle the caped superhero —deliberately overbid at an exorbitant cost of $100,000 per episode. They were probably not happy when the studio took one look at the price tag and said, “Cut it to $30,000 [approximately $525,000 today and still pricey for the time] and you’ve got a deal.”
However reluctant the Fleischers may have been to bring the Last Son of Krypton to the screen, they were committed enough to their craft not to waste Paramount’s largesse. The Fleischer Superman cartoons were groundbreaking both for their embrace of action and adventure in a genre that still clung closely to pratfalls and slapstick, and for their lavish, deco-inspired animation, with proto-geek director Dave investing special attention on all that gee-whiz technology.
All that tech-love is raised to near-orgasmic proportions in “The Mechanical Monsters.” In the course of ten minutes, you get the titular, towering robots (which are never referred to as such in the cartoon), complete with flame-thrower eyes and retractable propellers and wings, plus an awesome panoramic control panel (with each robot being controlled by a knob, a lever, and four whole buttons!), a menacing subterranean smelting facility (every good mad genius needs one), and crackling arcs of energy overlaid onto every electrical device presented, whether or not it makes sense. The design of the robots, with their lanky, lumbering walk, became so iconic that they crop up in the likes of Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky, and the entire opening of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, while the highlight has Supes putting the beatdown on an army of automatons. The ensuing mechanical carnage—with metal limbs, torsos, and heads flying everywhere, capped off with the control panel engulfed in flames—is not just a cool piece of animation, it might just stand as history’s ultimate teardown.
Merrie Melodies, “Duck Dodgers in the 24½ Century” (1953)
It was typically Bugs Bunny who would go up against the alien entity eventually dubbed Marvin the Martian (he was nameless in his original appearances). But when director Chuck Jones was indulging his satirical side, the vainglorious Daffy Duck—who had long stopped being officially daffy—was a more suitable foil. With a movie-going audience who as kids had reveled in the comic strip/radio/movie serial adventures of Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, et al, and who had subsequently grown up in a time that saw more than a few of them experiencing the worst of humanity in combat and its aftermath, a skewering of innocent, pulp-y science fiction adventure may have felt long overdue.
In a universe of towers that soar and platforms that project precariously out into space (in brilliant background designs by Philip De Guard), where electric eyes trigger doors opening up on even bigger electric eyes, Jones finds opportunities for customary slapstick (does Daffy get repeatedly blasted and disintegrated? Of course!), subversions of SF concepts (who knew rocket ships had reverse gears?), and a few lashings of Cold War anxiety as Daffy’s feud with Marvin over the highly coveted Planet X (last repository of Illudium Phosdex, “the shaving cream atom”) escalates eventually to planetary annihilation. In Jones’ conversion of the Looney Tunes ethos from rampant anarchy to mordant wit (but still with tons of explosions courtesy of the Acme Company), there were clear echoes of America’s post-war acceptance that the world was perhaps more complex than we had previously allowed. “Duck Dodgers” sums that realization up in a closing shot where, after Daffy has declared primacy over the pathetic patch of rock remaining after the conflagration, Porky Pig gazes into the camera and utters a curt, “B-big deal.” The future could still be swell, but the shadows—even in space—would pursue us.
Space Angel, “The Slave World” (1962)
When you’re cranking out an animated science fiction kids show on a budget, you have to accept that certain compromises will be made. Like, you can’t always put science in your science fiction. Like, you can rarely bother to actually animate the damn thing. Like, you run the risk of traumatizing an entire generation of young viewers via your other, cost-cutting innovation: Syncro-Vox, which superimposed real human mouths onto drawn characters’ faces. Weird looking to begin with, the process wasn’t helped by a lack of integrity in registering live action to cartoon, leaving many a tyke to wonder if, in the future, they too might fall victim to the scourge of Migratory Lip Syndrome.
Still, there were compensations. There was lots of lovely Alex Toth art, bringing a comic book kick to Space Angel’s visuals. And while narrative arcs could frequently be summed up as one-damn-thing-after-another—perfect for a show that was broken up into five 5-minute chunks meant to be stripped out over five after-school afternoons—occasionally adventures could rise to something close to actual narratives. Such was the case when the titular Space Angel Scott McCloud (voiced by Ned Lefebver) and his crew of communications expert/target-of-the-occasional-sexist-joke Crystal Mace (Margaret Kerry) and engineer/Scotsman (of course) Taurus (Hal Smith) visit a pair of roving worlds that drift into our solar system every thirty years. Setting aside the question of how such an advent does not wreak havoc on the planets in our own system, what Scott & co. find is one sphere filled with committed pacifists, the other populated by a warlike race with no compunction about raiding their neighbor for slave labor.
Subtlety was not Space Angel’s strong suit: The oppressed are rendered as humanoid, dignified, and quite Caucasian, while the oppressors are presented as troll-like, imperious, and vaguely Asian. Nor was producer Cambria Productions especially obsessed with concealing their myriad cost-cutting efforts. When the slaves show via video monitor how their attempts to reach out to Earth for assistance foundered because they unfortunately always attempted contact while Earth was in the midst of a world war, the point is illustrated with glimpses of actual, documentary combat footage. Nobody in the cartoon remarks upon the incongruity, but any adults watching when this cropped up could be forgiven for having to scoop their jaws up off the floor (no intervention by Syncro-Vox necessary). Slapdash as Space Angel was, it still fired young imaginations on the potential of the future, and occasionally slipped in a bit of morality about whether humanity was truly ready for it.
Star Blazers, “We Will Return!” (1979 American airing)
The Seventies were not an especially halcyon period for weekday afternoon cartoons. Animation was frequently mediocre, and stories were hampered by the intervention of well-meaning parents groups intent on guarding tender minds from the corruption of actual entertainment. Some solace could be found in the import of Japanese anime, although by the time such shows as Battle of the Planets (née Science Ninja Team Gatchaman) made it to American screens, they too had gone through an extensive laundering process. Then came Star Blazers.
Imported, as was Battle, in the wake of Star Wars’ success, this space epic—born in Japan as Space Battleship Yamato and marking the first directorial effort of the legendary Leiji Matsumoto—ventured into conceptual areas little explored on TV screens before the sun went down. The story—centering on the crew of the spaceship Argo as they travel to the distant world Iscandar to retrieve a technology that would save a ravaged Earth from the attacks of the warlike Gamilons—was serialized, with a title card flashed at the end of each episode showing the number of days left before worldwide annihilation. Because of that, there was no reset button to push, no way to restore things back to square one for the next episode. Characters learned, and grew. People died. Let me emphasize that last point: People died. And stayed dead. For a generation raised on entertainment that rarely challenged them to consider such inconvenient concepts as consequences, this was a hammer blow.
Nearly as disorienting for its young viewers were episodes that took a pause in all the action to explore the impact of the Argo’s mission on its crew. In the bittersweetly titled “We Will Return!”, as the Argo prepares to enter a space warp that will take them out of communication with Earth for the better part of a year, the crew is given one final opportunity to reach out to loved ones. Amidst all the tearful farewells, one of the lead characters, Derek Wildstar (voiced by Kenneth Meseroll)—having lost his family in Gamilon attacks—meets with Argo Captain Avatar (Gordon Ramsey), whose son similarly died in battle, to commiserate over knowledge that no one waits on the other side of a video screen for their call, and to toast the onset of their mission with a consoling glass of, ahem, spring water. (Okay, it was actually sake. You didn’t think the censorship gates had been completely thrown open, did you?)
For the show’s target audience, watching two characters share this quiet, deeply emotional moment was an unanticipated induction into meaningful, no-foolin’ drama. Not all of Space Battleship Yamato’s more mature beats made it through to American TV—among other things, an extended digression into the Yamato’s WWII history was, not surprisingly, excised—but what survived delivered a signal to its preteen audience that cartoons could present emotions far deeper than what they were accustomed to.
Heavy Metal (1981)
Not long into a viewing of this anthology film based on an American “adult” comic magazine based on a French “adult” comic magazine, audiences became aware that there were several things to be counted on from one sequence to the next. One was that if any opportunity was offered to depict gore in its splooshiest fashion, it would be eagerly embraced. Another was that by the end of the film, everyone watching would have a complete, working knowledge of metal and punk bands of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Yet another was that if a female character appeared on the screen, it would be only a matter of minutes before everyone would get a good glimpse of her tits. Things were simpler in the eighties. (No they weren’t; producers were just willing to cater to the tastes of horny teen boys to a ridiculous degree.)
HM is a decidedly mixed bag. Building their film around the framing story of an orb of pure evil and how it wields its influence across the universe, the producers—which included Ivan Reitman—recruited numerous studios to bring their own distinctive styles to each sequence. Sometimes, as with the noir-ish “Harry Canyon”—based on the work of French artist Jean “Moebius” Giraud—the result was a tight, amusing adventure that anticipates the comic likes of The Fifth Element; sometimes, as with the Frazetta-esque “Den” and “Taarna”—the former based on Richard Corben’s work, the latter, again, on Moebius—they were exercises in epic style over narrative substance; and sometimes, as in the toony “So Beautiful & So Dangerous”—Angus McKie’s tale of a secretary inadvertently abducted by drug-snorting aliens and wooed by an amorous robot—it boiled down to, “Okay. And your point is…?” Imperfect as Heavy Metal was, in a movie marketplace where Star Wars was spreading an increasingly influential shadow, the film stood out as an impertinent, raunchy counterargument. Plus it gave all those horny teen boys an excuse to tell their parents that they were just going to the movies to watch spaceships.
Batman: The Animated Series – “Heart of Steel, Parts I & II” (1992)
There may have been a half-century between the Fleischer Superman series and Warner’s successful porting of the Dark Knight to TV animation, but it’s hard to ignore the shared DNA. Save for a handful of video screens in the Batcave, Gotham is visually firmly ensconced in the Deco ‘40s, a perfect setting both for a dashing billionaire playboy to woo any available debutantes (check out Bruce Wayne’s chunky-yet-luxe limo!), and for a Dark Knight to brood amongst the towering spires. Still, the passage of fifty years is going to leave its mark: Where the Man of Steel had to battle robots whose operator’s ambitions didn’t extend far beyond bank robberies and diamond heists, by the time the Bat faced down an army of androids, their goal was nothing short of world conquest, via replacement of influential humans with their automated counterparts.
Director Kevin Altieri has expressed regret over having Wayne/Batman (voiced by the indispensable Kevin Conroy) make mention of “wetware”—a term that would subsequently fall into disuse—but, hey, he’s owed props for at least trying to bring in scientific concepts that were at the forefront of attention at the time. And this is another instance where the Fox Standards and Practices department showed uncommon lenience in the level of violence depicted, with the megalomaniacal AI H.A.R.D.A.C. (Jeff Bennett) incapacitating its inventor (William Sanderson) with a disturbingly fiery burst of electricity, and several machine-spawned surrogates “dying” on-screen (the rationale for the latter being that as long as they were robots, the fatalities didn’t count…never mind that the things were indistinguishable from humans). Featuring the series debut of Barbara Gordon (Melissa Gilbert), who was able to demonstrate her detective skills even before she officially donned her own cowl-and-cape, “Heart of Steel” brought a dash of modern-day paranoia to the world of old-school mechanical monsters.
How amazing was Pixar, back in 2008, back when they were still in the midst of an unprecedented run of hit films? And how profitable were they, not just in selling out theaters, but in leveraging the all-important ancillary marketplace? A decade’s-plus worth of kids had grown up in the company of Woody and Buzz action figures, cuddled Nemo and Dory plushies, steered their Lightning McQueens across imaginary finish lines, and served up perfect cassoulets in their Ratatouille casserole dishes (that last may not have actually happened, but I wouldn’t be surprised). So with all the dollars filtering in from all the Walmarts of the world, and with all the tchotchkes flowing out to all those homes, what could possibly have made more sense than for director Andrew Stanton to tell a tale centered on…the perils of malignant consumerism?
Pixar had consistently upped its production game from film to film, but WALL-E’s first act represented a quantum leap. There was an undeniable palpability to the film’s rendition of a ravaged, garbage-choked world, while its depiction of a humble robotic trash compactor courting an elegant, iPod-ish exploration probe (in other words, Lady and the Tramp with microprocessors)—enacted practically dialogue-free—was sweetly beguiling. And when the film shifted to outer space and WALL-E’s and EVE’s efforts to steer a wandering cruise liner full of comfortable, coddled, and morbidly obese humans back to Earth before they’re subsumed by their own, mass-market decadence, it managed to deliver its cautionary message with customary Pixar wit and uncommon grace. Functioning at the top of its skills, the studio demonstrated that it could make you care about both the fate of a squat, cube-shaped robot, and the destiny of humankind (literally) at large, and still leave you optimistic about the prospects for both.
World of Tomorrow (2015)
All right, calm down, Rick and Morty fans, we’ve got you covered elsewhere (but in case you want to know: “Auto Erotic Assimilation”). But while R&M was busy establishing surprisingly credible science fiction chops for a cartoon about an alcoholic super-genius and his frequently victimized nephew, maverick animator Don Hertzfeldt was delivering a glimpse into a future that was no less acidic, and dramatically more poignant.
On the eve of humanity’s extinction, a clone reaches out to the past to engage her young prototype. Teleporting the child to her time, she takes the girl on a guided tour of a personal life that features romantic dalliances with inanimate objects, a career implanting the fear of death into graceful, towering robots, and moments when the nagging sense that something is missing overwhelms all other concerns, all while humanity desperately strives for immortality, at the cost of losing track of the value the past might hold.
Hertzfeldt had long established a magical ability to invest deceptively simple line drawings with an incredible amount of soul. Casting those characters into an abstract ecology of cross-hatched structures and pulsing, all-enveloping “outernet” landscapes, the animator guided the Oscar-nominated World of Tomorrow from a standard, dystopian view of the future into something at once wryly comic, and deeply affecting. Hopefully, one hundred years hence, when the big marketing push begins to transfer human consciousness into tiny, black cubes, it will still be around to deliver a cogent warning.
So, that’s my list of ten. But, hey, I didn’t have to stop there; I can think of tons of other great examples. Like when the Terry Bears bought a robot. Or when Bugs Bunny was chased by a robot. Or when Gumby’s home was destroyed by robots. Um, I seem to be caught in a rut, here. But, you see? That’s where you come in. There has to be at least one, inspirational science fiction cartoon that grabbed your imagination, and that I didn’t bother to mention here. So go ahead, comment below—the future of humanity depends on it! (Too far? Okay, maybe it’s just a fun thing to do.)
Originally published January 2020.
Dan Persons has been knocking about the genre media beat for, oh, a good handful of years, now. He’s presently house critic for the radio show Hour of the Wolf on WBAI 99.5FM in New York, and previously was editor of Cinefantastique and Animefantastique, as well as producer of news updates for The Monster Channel. He is also founder of Anime Philadelphia, a program to encourage theatrical screenings of Japanese animation. And you should taste his One Alarm Chili! Wow!