While the majority of his most influential films have been relegated to cult-classic status, some three decades after the height of his career few artist have had as strong an impact on their given field as Ralph Bakshi.
The animator spent the first dozen years of his career toiling away at the Terrytoons studios, animating the likes of Mighty Mouse and Heckle and Jeckle. It was when he finally managed to break free, however, that he began to shake things up. Films like Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic, and Coonskin shattered all preconceived notions about content in animated films, tackling concepts of race, sexuality, and politics that largely frightened thier live-action counterparts, tossing in a healthy diet of four-letter words for good measure.
A few months short of 70, Bakshi continues to be a formidable presence—as I take the elevator up to a meeting in his hotel room, he’s finishing up another interview, pontificating fondly in his gruffly thick Brooklyn accent about Obama’s success, lamenting Clinton’s meddling in the matter. Minutes before my turn rolls around, the conversation loudly culminates with the animator shouting, “we’re all niggers!”
It’s a quote from Heavy Traffic, incidentally, one of Bakshi’s personal favorites, and it’s a less than subtle reminder of how explosive the issues tackled in his key works continue to be today. More than three decades after its release, it’s hard to imagine anyone outside of Samuel Jackson in a Tarantino film uttering those words.
For better or worse, I take my seat with the intention of making a swift conversational pivot into the world of comics. As I soon find out, particularly at the mere mention of Fritz’s lauded creator, it’s every bit as hot button a topic for Ralph Bakshi.
Your first love was comics.
In the 40s, when I grew up, which is a long time ago, comic strips and comic books were a very big deal. I grew up in the golden age of comics. As a matter of fact, when I was growing up, the first comic came out. The first Superman was ’38, which when I was born. I read comics since I was five. It was a very big deal to me and my friends. There was no television and we couldn’t afford movies, so comics were the only thing we had—there wasn’t anything else. They smelled right, tasted right, looked right—Jack Kirby, Captain America.
From comic books, I started to love comic strips—do you know that in those days, people would wait around the corner, to find out if Dick Tracy would make it? It’s hard to believe how popular they were, back then. People waited in line to find out what happened to Terry, from Terry and the Pirates. So comics were probably one of the only mediums that was the graffiti of the streets. I grew up with that. Why would you not want to be a cartoonist?
But there was no underground. That all came later. There wasn’t Peanuts. Al Capp was there—people loved Al Capp. So yeah, I grew up adoring comics. When New York had a newspaper strike in the 1940s, the mayor read comics on the radio. The people in New York couldn’t miss the Sundays. That’s how important it was. He had to go on and read them, or else there would be riots in the streets. That’s what comics meant to us.
So part of your appreciation of the art form was that they were something of a “low” medium.
That’s interesting. I don’t think we discussed it as being “low.” The feelings we got were that they were written for us, for some reason. They were personal to us. Second of all, our parents didn’t care for them, so they were more ours. We’re talking about comic books—everyone read comic strips. [Comic] Books compared to strips was the lowlife, if you had to make the demarcation. Every comic artist wanted to be syndicated. Syndication was where the money was. Comic artists made peanuts—it was nothing. There were no royalties. They’d get five bucks a page, sometimes less. It’s very hard work.
So comic books were basically for the younger people. We didn’t mind the way they looked or felt—that they were so trashy. We didn’t call them “lowbrow,” but we felt they were for us, not our parents. We loved them. What they were saying and how they worked—we loved them. If they were bad, we might not have. The Kirbys and the Kuberts, they made them beautiful—they were wonderful to look at. Jack Kirby’s Captain America, with the shield, and The Human Torch—those images, before television and special effects movies, those were the special effects of the day. It was stunning. You stack them up in your bed at night, because there was no television, and you spend the night reading them, you’d fall asleep with all of the books all over you. Every kid did that.
At what point was it clear that you wanted to make the transition into animation?
I never wanted to make the transition into animation. I started with strips and high school was an industrial arts high school. I took a job in an animation studio to eat, and I’d come home at night and continue to do my comic strips—they’re all in my book. I kept drawing. I wanted to be syndicated. A cartoonist wasn’t worth anything in my days, unless he was syndicated, so I wanted syndication. I wanted that weekly pay check and the characters, and all of the freedom that came with your own characters. But slowly animation started to take over, with my responsibilities to the studio, but I didn’t love animation until I did Fritz or Traffic—or maybe The Mighty Heroes, because it wasn’t as good as the comics I was writing. It wasn’t saying as much as my comics.
What sorts of projects were you working on at the larger animation studios?
Heckle and Jeckle, Deputy Dawg, Mighty Mouse—The Mighty Heroes, which I created, Gandy Goose and Sourpuss. I love Gandy Goose and Sourpuss. They were Terrytoons characters that I loved. One talked like Ed Wynn, and one talked like Jimmy Durante. They were hysterical. Worst animation you’ve ever seen. It was so fucking bad that it was great.
So you didn’t have much creative input on these cartoons, early on?
No. None at all.
How did you initially gain that freedom?
I demanded it. I demanded it and they had no choice. I said I wanted to have it this way, and they had no choice. They were scared of me. I’m serious [laughs].
Scared that you would leave or scared that you would do something violent?
They weren’t sure [laughs].
In terms of when they initially gave you this freedom—
I took it.
When you initially took this freedom—potentially violently—what sort of projects were you pitching?
The Mighty Heroes. I got to do exactly what I wanted, and they paid me well for that. And then I pitched myself out of the studio and went over to Paramount Pictures and took over the place, where I created The Miniskirts and Marvin Digs and other pictures that I love very much.
How did you “pitch yourself out?”
I left. I said “hasta la vista.” I was at Terrytoons for 10, 12 years. Time is a funny thing. The transition was very slow, but when I realized there was something else that I wanted, I had to leave. I wasn’t quite sure what it was. I fought to find it—Fritz showed me it.
Was it clear that you were more interested in making cartoons for adults?
It wasn’t clear—it was clear that I was bored with the children’s thing. But it wasn’t clear exactly what I wanted to do. Now it’s very obvious—The Simpsons and Bakshi and people say, “of course.” But in those days, it was only Walt Disney and Warner Bros. Making that step to someone say, “fuck you” in a cartoon was massive. Because it wasn’t in comic books and wasn’t in comic strips. There was nothing that I grew up on that made that step. It wasn’t obvious at all.
Right now there’s a great idea sitting here, outside. It’s something that no one’s ever thought of. People are ready to make $100 million, but you don’t know what it is. Google’s sitting there, not being Google. There’s always a new idea and after the fact it becomes obvious. But they’re all out there, right now. Go think of it!
It’s virtually impossible when there’s nothing to go on, so nothing was quick about my transition. I just got to dislike the kids’ cartoons. I didn’t know what to do, though
[Continued in Part Two.]