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The Overlooked Flair of Bullwinkle J. Moose

If you’re like me, you might have thought a phrase like “the art of Jay Ward” was something of an oxymoron.

Darrell Van Citters’s The Art of Jay Ward Productions is the first book of its kind, in that its presentation of the art itself successfully destroys a lot of mythology surrounding some beloved animated cartoons.

Everyone knows that the accepted truth about the cartoons Jay Ward produced in the ‘50s and ‘60s is, well true. Rocky & Bullwinkle and its ilk were true TV cartoons, as deft writing and the tag-team relay performances of the voice artists did the heaviest lifting.

The actual art, the drawing and animation, was nonexistent and that was the joke: the drawing and animation didn’t get in the way of the, ah, jokes.

I spent considerable time looking at the earliest TV cartoons researching for Sick Little Monkeys, and my conclusions about that period are the same: most of the fond reverence of that material is blind nostalgia, whereas the Ward cartoons are the only TV cartoons worth taking seriously until the ‘90s boom. As historian Keith Scott said, Rocky & Bullwinkle was The Simpsons of its day.

Unfortunately, it came about thirty years too early.

As much as I love Mr. Peabody and Dudley Do-Right, though, I was put off by the idea of an art book on those cartoons. Drawings of the characters are permanently linked in my mind to wry dialogue and snappy limited animation (usually outsourced to Mexico). Take away that fun and watch the world of Ward crash as intentionally wonky cartooning meshes with genuinely incompetent drawing.

However, I’m not above being converted, and Citters has done just that by filling some 300 pages with primarily excellent artwork from the various Ward productions. The herculean task is particularly impressive considering art from the shows was largely considered lost and that readers might be prejudiced against the idea that there was any merit to the actual cartooning.

Early in the book’s text, Citters sums up the merit and skill of the studio in the best description I’ve ever read: “Design at Ward’s had a looser approach that was more akin to handwriting. The drawings seemed to spontaneously flow out of the pencil rather than being consciously shaped by the strokes of the artist’s hand.”

The Ward artists’ work was certainly hampered by the sloppy misinterpretations by foreign hands, but the prejudice against their “Farmer Alfalfa style” (as Chuck Jones is deliciously quoted calling it) was one rooted in professional jealousy. Director and designer Bill Hurtz is quoted saying that working at Jay Ward’s meant “a kind of freedom and a knocked-out style of cartooning and everything else that doesn’t fit with a corporate style.”

We can finally put the misconceptions to rest and attach other names to the work besides the rightfully celebrated writer Bill Scott and voice actress June Foray. You’ll finally see just how solid the work of Hurtz and Pete Burness (a veteran of the MGM, Warner, and UPA studios) really was, and how masterful Al Shean and Shirley Silvey were at the lost art of functional funny drawings.

Citters included everything, and I mean everything he could get his hands on, including development art, storyboards, layouts, backgrounds, and finished cels. All your pals are here: the moose and squirrel, Dudley, Peabody, Fractured Fairy Tales, George of the Jungle, Super Chicken… even the cult classic Fractured Flickers, the beloved shill Cap’n Crunch, and the misfire Hoppity Hooper get respectable spreads.

It’s the perfect companion to Keith Scott’s definitive The Moose That Roared, complementing the obsessive research of that book without competing with it and giving the reader something new to think about. Highly recommended for anyone with a passing interest in the history of animation and television in general. Order it directly from the author now. []

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