Cartoon made exclusively for television had been around since Jay Ward’s “Crusader Rabbit” in 1949, but production of TV animation didn’t really hit it’s stride until about 1960, when most of the cinematic cartoon studios had shut their doors. Bill Hanna and Joe Barbara, former MGM director and creators of Tom and Jerry, dominated the market almost from it’s inception and continued to do so through the 1970s.
Unfortunately, Hanna and Barbara never understood that just because something works once, that doesn’t mean the same thing will work again. In their 20 years together at MGM they never made anything except Tom and Jerry cartoons. But at least Tom and Jerry had been well animated and cleverly written.
The duo’s television hits are considerably lesser in quality (one gets the feeling they succeeded merely because there was downright abysmal. Despite it’s flat, one-dimensional character and campy, formulaic stories, “Scooby-Doo” proved extremely popular in 1969, so Hanna-Barbara made “Speed Buggy”, “Jabber Jaw”, and “The Clue Club”, which were all variations on the same character and theme. “The Flintstones” begat “The Jetsons”, and “The Smurfs” begat “The Snorks”. It was a process that stunted creativity, giving the artists even less of a chance to infuse life into their work.
Other TV cartoon studios like Filmation and DIC proved little better or even worse than Hanna-Barbara. Desperate to conquer as much air time as possible, the studio churned out series after series without any regard to aesthetic. The situation improved in the second half of the 1980s when the two big studios of old, Disney and Warner Bros.’ entered the market. Shows like Disney’s “Duck Tales” 1986 and Warner’s “Tiny Toon Adventures” 1989 were considerably better than anything their competitors were producing. Yet they still fell utterly short of the great cartoons made for the movies in the first half of the century. The budget restraints and hurried deadline of the television industry simply prohibited artists from crafting the kind of art their cinematic predecessors achieved.
Finally in the 1990s the artists in the television cartoon industry began to figure out how to work effectively with the limitations of the field. 1992 saw the debut of Warner Bros. “Batman: The Animated Series.” Despite the fact that the animation was contracted to various Oriental studios (by the mid 80s the practice was almost universal in television production…it continues to be so today) the show’s creators Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Eric Radomski, and others managed to infuse the series with deep characterizations and strong stories, “Batman”was a first-rate cartoon. While they did not attract as much publicity as Disney’s theatrical department, the Warner Bros. TV artists were just as important to the art of animation, demonstrating that even a television cartoon series was capable of artists achievement.
It was inevitable, in spite of Winsor McCay’s warnings, that animation would become a “trade” in the form of the studio system. The complexities of bringing moving drawing to life on the screen are too time-consuming and too expensive for it to have developed otherwise. Fortunately, through the year there have been many individuals working in the field who have been careful not to let business logistics overwhelm the artistic potential of the medium. The collective nature of the studio may prevent the artists from receiving the amount of praise an artist working solo garners, but the art attained is no less great. As long as there are creative men and women behind the drawing desk, the animated cartoon will continue to be the best of both worlds: a trade and an art.