Friday, December 14, 2012

Law of the Urban Jungle: Marsupilami, EuroDisney and Keeping Cool

So typically this spot would be used for the show's theme song. 
Unfortunately, the only version I could find online 
was poorly upscaled and had serious audio/video sync issues.
 This is very annoying for me, as it's one of my favourite theme songs of all time. 
You can, however, find an audio version of the second, and superior, theme here
and please to enjoy this static title card.
It's the yellow-and-black sheep of the Disney Afternoon lineup. Nobody seemed to pay attention to it at the time, and it seems to have been all but forgotten; erased from history and collective memory by wistful Gen Yers, nostalgic Disneyphiles and ashamed Disney Corporate executives alike. Naturally, it's my absolute favourite of the whole bunch. For the longest time I thought I was its only fan in the entire world, and I still get that feeling not infrequently to this day.

It was one Saturday morning in early December. My family had just put up the Christmas tree and were planning to spend the weekend decorating it. I was up early that morning and, as was often the case, spent some time channel surfing for something interesting on television. As it happened I stumbled upon a bloc of Disney programming to find a show I'd never seen before called Raw Toonage. The prospect of a Disney show of which I was unaware was somewhat unusual, so I was naturally rather interested to see what this show was. It turned out to be a sort of cartoon variety show, where familiar Disney icons would come onscreen, and, as a way of “hosting” the show try to teach some lesson (nothing boring or didactic; this was stuff like how to be better pirate with Don Carnage from TaleSpin or building a Rube Goldberg machine for brewing coffee with Ludwig von Drake and Gosalyn from Darkwing Duck) while interjecting various assorted cartoon shorts in the mould of the Golden Age theatrical shorts. The shorts themselves were mostly random, one-off affairs, although there were two reoccurring series: He's Bonkers and Marsupilami. The former starred Bonkers D. Bobcat, a character I recognized from other places, while the latter I had never heard of. It would have been physically impossible for me, given my prior experiences and dealings with Disney and its style of animation, to ever come up with even the most loosely accurate, broad-strokes prediction for what Marsupilami turned out to be.

The story of Marsupilami and how he came to be a fixture, however brief, of Disney's tentpole Saturday Morning franchise is one I've told to countless people who made the unfortunate judgment call to engage me in discussion about it time and time again to the point I know it instinctively. Now that I have a blog set up to tell exactly this kind of story, I get to tell it to you in the most complex and detailed form yet! Lucky you! See, what's most immediately interesting about Marsupilami when compared to the other Disney luminaries of the time is that, in point of fact, he's not a Disney character in the slightest. And I don't mean that in the typical Disney sense where they take a fairy tale or other public domain story and turn it into an obnoxious rubbery Broadway-tinged animated blockbuster, no: Marsupilami is literally the intellectual property of another company. This means that, for quite possibly the first and only time, we're looking at Disney putting out a licensed work. Which is, to understate the obvious, somewhat unheard of. So now, in the December of the year that marks 20 years since Marsupilami first showed up on Disney-made TV and the 60th anniversary of the character himself, it seems the perfect time to tell my version of this unbelievably twisted tale.

For the benefit of readers who might not know, in Europe, Marsupilami is something of an icon. Part of a triumvirate of legendary and ubiquitous bande dessinée charactersXfranchises alongside Tintin and Asterix, he is an important cultural symbol across continental Europe and French-speaking territories. Marsupilami first appeared in the 1952 Spirou et Fantasio album Spirou et les héritiers. Spirou et Fantasio is an ongoing Belgian graphic novel serial that is an iconic part of Belgian and larger Northwestern European culture that has been published consistently since 1938. From 1947 to 1969, the series was written and drawn by André Franquin, considered one of the greatest Franco-Belgian cartoonists, and this period of the book is generally seen as something of a golden age for it. Franquin's work on Spirou et Fantasio is generally comparable to that of the more famous Adventures of Tintin series by Hergé, if only to point out how different the two are. Both are globetrotting adventure stories featuring young, noble, boyish protagonists with cynical, sarcastic companions, but where Hergé ranged from apolitical and borderline reactionary to tentative utopianism, Franquin was often righteously and very loudly angry, and spent a significant portion of his page count shouting about social injustice (though admittedly far more in his later self-published work than in his stories for Spirou et Fantasio). The contrast between the two is embodied in their differing art styles as well: While Hergé is famous for the tight linge claire approach his pioneered, Franquin's work is bright, colourful, flashy, bouncy and caricatured.

In the album Spirou et les héritiers, Fantasio learns he has been mentioned in the will of his late uncle, but must compete in a series of trials with his unscrupulous cousin Zantalfio in order to claim the inheritance. The last challenge requires Fantasio to travel to the fictional South American country of Palombia and locate the mythical jungle creature known only as the Marsupilami. Marsupilami is a curious being indeed, resembling what can best be described as a cross between a cheetah and a monkey except with a seven meter long prehensile tail that can be used in a myriad of ways, such as being coiled into a spring, tied into a lasso or as a way to quickly and nimbly swing from tree to tree. He doesn't speak, but instead vocalizes different variations of his trademark cry “houba” According to Franquin, the idea for the character came about due to the collusion of two different events: A discussion with some cartoonist friends about an overworked tram conductor who could use a prehensile tail to help with the various operations he needed to oversee, and Franquin's own nostalgia for Eugene the Jeep from Popeye. Combining the two concepts, Franquin came up with the name Marsupilami from “marsupial”, “Pilou-Pilou” (the French name for Euegene the Jeep) and ami.

After the events of Spirou et les héritiers, Spirou and Fantasio bring Marsupilami back to Belgium with them where he becomes something of a comic foil. His misunderstandings about the human world lead him to unintentionally cause mayhem and chaos as he doesn't understand how life works outside the jungle and certainly couldn't explain himself if pressed. Marsupilami proved to be a big hit with Spirou's fans, not to mention Franquin himself, and he became a regular in every successive Spirou et Fantasio comic Franquin wrote. After retiring from Spirou in 1969, Franquin decided to keep the rights to his original character, feeling he was too personal a creation to allow other writers to use him. After a few decades of writing one-page gags featuring Marsupilami, Franquin eventually founded his own publishing house, dubbed Marsu Productions, and began producing an ongoing graphic novel series centered around a family of Marsupilamis living in the Palombian rainforest in 1987 that continues to this day.

Fans attest the series' longevity and continued popularity to not only to the inherent endearing nature of the title character but the very socially conscious message Franquin imparted him with. As he got older, Franquin became increasingly concerned with the environmental movement and growing social inequality, and the early evolution of the Marsupilami book reflects this. Starting out as a comedy adventure series, it quickly swerves hard into social realism and satire as Franquin becomes neither subtle nor quiet about how enraged he is about deforestation, pollution and basic human pettiness and corruption. Although not quite as venomous and preachy as his Gaston Lagaffe or the shockingly morbid and lurid Idées noires, Franquin's work on Marsupilami is still completely unafraid of putting its politics front and centre. Indeed, Franquin often said the reason Marsupilami was possibly his favourite creation is that, as an innocent animal, he could be kept separate from what he perceived as a tragic, doomed human world. Marsupilami knew nothing of human strife and suffering; all he cared about was having a good time and making his friends and family happy and Franquin found a kind of solace and kinship in this.

Before we go any further, I want to take a brief detour into semantics as this is a very difficult franchise to get a hold on for the uninitiated. This is mostly due to the fact that the name “Marsupilami” can refer to several things simultaneously and accurately, and the series does not bother to explain this in any of its numerous incarnations. These include, but are not limited to, a species of legendary fictional creature discovered in the Palombian Amazon by Spirou and Fantasio, the individual of that species found by Spirou and Fantasio in Spirou et les héritiers and subsequently brought back to Belgium, the name of an unrelated individual of the same species who lives deep in the Palombian jungle with his family (who are also each known individually as Marsupilami), the title of the graphic novel series chronicling the adventures of said Marsupilami family, the title of the first season of the Marathon TV cartoon show based on that graphic novel series and, most importantly for our purposes later on, the title of a completely unrelated Disney Afternoon series from 1992 based on the franchise but set in an alternate universe and starring a character named Marsupilami who is a Marsupilami but also happens to be completely unrelated to any of the previously mentioned Marsupilamis. Follow all that? No? Good.

So the question remains, how did this distinctly European icon gain a seat at the very US-focused Disney Afternoon table? The answer to that is equal parts confusingly complex and completely ludicrous. The story goes that on a business trip to Europe in the late 1980s, Michael Eisner become infatuated with Marsupilami and, in what must have been a brief moment of psychosis, asked his Disney contacts to get in touch with Marsu Productions to see if there was some kind of cross promotion deal they could work out. As luck would have it, Marsu were looking to expand their brand name recognition to a more global level, and one of the markets they'd yet to tap and were very much interested in tapping was North America. Marsu felt, somewhat bewilderingly, that the best people to help them break into the US market and make a big name for themselves were Disney themselves. This pleased Eisner who, aside from being fixated on the character, knew Disney needed a big marquee property to help spearhead the comeback he had planned for the company and felt, equally bewilderingly, that Marsupilami was just what Disney had been looking for.

It may not be immediately clear to everyone reading this how absolutely pantslessly insane this entire business deal was. Nothing about it makes anything that could conceivably come anywhere near the vicinity of being described as a remote semblance of sense. It's worth spelling out again: Disney is fiercely protective of its intellectual property and anything that goes out under its name. Why on EARTH would they agree to promote a character they didn't own 100% of, let alone try to use him as the face of the Disney Renaissance? If they can't make every penny it is possible to make out of a property in royalties, traditionally Disney wouldn't go anywhere near it. But, under Eisner's request, they dove headlong at Marsupilami in a manner that can only be described as “impulsive”.

Those peculiarities aside though, there is the larger issue that I can't think of a property *less* compatible with late-80s Disney then late-80s Marsupilami. Though they had redefined Saturday Morning Cartoon Shows by setting a new baseline for production quality using the format to tell strong adventure serials, Disney has still never been known for embodying the most progressive values in the business and, as their film output from this era shows, they like nothing more when at the top of their game then being safe and marketable to the widest audience possible. Marsupilami, while tacitly designed for kids, is still fundamentally a very intelligent and deeply cynical series that loves finding harsh and uncomfortable things to say about the world we live in. Franquin himself was, as I've said, a fiery political activist nigh-obsessed with social justice. In fact, as I'll explain a little later, Franquin was so violently angry and bombastic in his work it may have been his own undoing. This doesn't exactly sound like it fits in Disney's wheelhouse.

From Marsu's perspective this deal seems equally puzzling. Why would they, then something of an upstart imprint, sign the rights to their literal trademark character (who was, I reminded you, already a beloved icon throughout Europe) and franchise away to anyone, let alone Disney? However, there's an additional wrinkle I've yet to bring up here that makes Marsu's overture a bit more credulous, and that's the fact that Disney's standing in continental Europe significantly contrasts with how it's typically thought of in the United States. This is not to say Disney is not still seen in Europe as a media conglomerate mega corporation, it definitely is, but the manifestations of this are somewhat different. Put most briefly, Disney is even more of a fundamental cultural institution in Europe then it is in the US (and I'm led to believe the UK as well, though I can't speak of it with quite the same certainty).

While in the US everyone tends to know Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy from the theatrical shorts or be intimately familiar with the animated canon, in Europe, Disney comics, particularly Donald Duck comics, are revered foundational blocks of an entire genre of media. Bandes dessinée are on the whole far more ubiquitous and accepted forms of creative outlet in Europe then comic books tend to be in the United States. That doesn't mean they're not still by-and-large considered kids' fare, but there is far more of an acknowledgment of them as a legitimate and respected art form then in the US or even the UK. And a primary reason for this is, believe it or not (and despite the unavoidable Cult of Hergé), Disney.

The key figure here is Carl Barks, a one time animator who did in-between work for Disney in the mid 1930s before becoming a writer for their comics division in the early 1940s. From 1943 until approximately 1974, Barks almost singlehandedly ran the Donald Duck comic and created much of what we now associated with the series, most notably the setting of Duckburg and the character of Scrooge McDuck. While mostly unknown in the US (where books not about superpowered runaway id complexes tend to be ignored), Barks' influence on the European comics scene and European pop consciousness on the whole was incalculable. It would be nothing short of utter madness for me to try and summarise Barks' legacy in half a paragraph, so I'll instead direct you to this fantastic project to collect and restore his entire oeuvre and give it some long-overdue serious historical media analysis. The critique is spot on and honest rather than reverential, though reverence is certainly called for in some places. The scholars in charge of that endeavour are far more capable of giving Barks the reappraisal he deserves than I could ever hope to.

If I *were* to grossly oversimplify Barks' work for the purposes of a blog post (though admittedly a rather lengthy one), I'd say the most important thing about it is its straightforward honesty. Barks made no concessions for his child audience, infusing Duckburg with a painfully bittersweet humanity, being as he was primarily interested in the oftentimes cruel and confusing realities of everyday life and the struggles an ordinary everyman must go through just to live day-to-day. These books were not cheap pratfall gags or cut-and-dry battles between heroes and villains: These were vignettes populated by real people making real mistakes and living real lives. Barks spoke from a lifetime of hardship and experience that is perfectly reflected in his stories, and his poignant musings remain utterly timeless. This is exactly the kind of keen observational sense people like Franquin inherited from him and the kind of theme that permeates books like Marsupilami. Given Barks' status in Europe, it would also go a way towards explaining why Marsu felt compelled to approach Disney to ask them to break Marsupilami into the US. However, there's a flip side to the European reverence of Carl Barks that I think Marsu may have overlooked when they signed the deal with Disney.

See, the thing about Barks is part of the reason he was able to get as good as he did is that he was most closely associated with Disney's comics division, and the European branch of it to boot. Or, in more blunt language, he worked for a branch of the company Disney Corporate didn't really care about. The fact that Barks' Donald was absolutely nothing like the character in the theatrical shorts was irrelevant because the impact and recognition the comics division had, if any, was considered somewhat negligible. Then, as now, Disney was concerned first and foremost with its blockbuster movies and mascots. Disney Corporate certainly did not expect Barks to become an artistic trailblazer and a breakout folk hero overseas. Once he did, of course, they made damn sure to keep him on the payroll and give him as much creative freedom as he needed because they're not complete idiots, but the fact remains that Barks would most likely not have been allowed to get as experimental and mature with his stories if he stayed with Disney's animation division-The trademark Disney quality control and brand uniformity fanaticism would have sunk him almost immediately. And furthermore, in the mid to late 1980s, Disney was not looking for the next Carl Barks comic book. They were looking for the next Snow White and the Seven Dwarves or Cinderella, and there's a tremendous gap between those things. Nevertheless, the deal was signed and Disney promised Marsu a 13 episode run of half-hour cartoons and a massive merchandising campaign to introduce Marsupilami to the US in style and take the country by storm.

But of course, I knew none of this when I first saw Marsupilami come bouncing toward me on Raw Toonage. All I knew is that it was like no other Disney cartoon I'd ever seen and I immediately began to praise Disney up and down for their bold creativity and for finally taking the risk on a thoroughly unique original character and world. Of course, Marsupilami was in truth anything but, though there's no way I could have known that at the time. All I knew is that it was a bloody genius show. Not, by the way, for exactly the same reasons Franquin's book was genius, for you see Disney took several...creative liberties with the source material when they adapted it for Saturday Morning TV. By this I of course mean the show is damn near unrecognizable when compared with the original comic series.

Aside from the most superficial basics about the character and the setting, Disney changed everything. While the comic series has a strict canon set in the fictional Palombian Amazon, Disney's show is apparently set in Africa. Marsupilami has a close friend named Maurice who is a gorilla and is later joined by an elephant named Stewie (although bizarrely he also runs into a jaguar, toucan, echidna and platypus which leads me to believe the Disney Marsupilami team may actually not have known anything about basic geography, or more likely just didn't give a toss, which would make a great deal of sense now that I think about it). Another major change is that instead of being an actual species (though rarely seen and endangered), Disney's Marsupilami is apparently the last of his kind. By far the biggest break from Franquin's work, at least in terms of basic setting, is that this Marsupilami can speak fluent English, and is a fast-talking smartass to boot. Here, “houba” becomes Marsupilami's catchphrase, or his best stab at one. This, like many things in the show, goes completely unexplained and is presented entirely without context.

The other massive departure from the book series is, predictably, a dramatic reduction in the scope and frequency of Franquin's trademark social commentary to the point it's almost not even immediately visible. This is unfortunate and, like pretty much everything else about this show, sent loyal European fans into a violent uproar, but upon reflection it was probably necessary. See, there's another, altogether more troubling side to Franquin's commitment to social justice that doesn't get brought up all that often: While Franquin is to be commended for attempting distilled social realism and social commentary in Marsupilami and elsewhere, he had a tendency to make an appalling hash of it. The thing is, while Franquin was very good at spotting and calling out social injustice, his own cynicism proved more often than not to be his tragic flaw in addition to his greatest assetOn top of the unfortunate “noble savage” overtones to Marsupilami himself (in fact some critics have actually described him as exactly that) Franquin was frustrated and angry to the point of being actively misanthropic, and he frequently didn't know enough to realise not everyone was a depraved megalomaniacal evil bastard and that some people probably deserved to be spared his wrath.

I get the sense Franquin may actually have hated humanity as a basic concept, as he goes at great length to extoll and glorify nature while at the same time flat-out vilifying humans and the damage they do to themselves and the natural world. The most archetypically problematic case comes in book 3, Mars Le Noir, which concerns a project to build a superhighway through the heart of the Palombian forest. Franquin explains in minute, graphic detail the catastrophic effect this would have on the plants and animals, particularly the Marsupilamis, while completely refusing to address the similarly destructive effect it would have on the native Chahuta people who also live there, whom he relegates to comic relief. This kind of thing is uncomfortably common for Franquin, and it perfectly encapsulates his core failing as a social critic: While white male European neo-imperialists and ruthless capitalists are rightfully condemned, native peoples are also portrayed as obnoxiously backwards, ignorant gullible savages. Ironically, Franquin makes them both equally human by making them both equally horrifying.

Unfortunately, Franquin doesn't stop there and extends his lens to every country and creed to depressingly predictable results: The second book features a pair of Chinese investors, and Franquin draws them as uncanny twin yellow-tinted robot people who can't pronounce words with “r” in them and whose motives remain unknown for the majority of the story. They do eventually turn out to be heroic, but the fact they're coded as red herrings from the start is distressing. Franquin draws a tourist couple from the US; the husband is a fat, boorish, drawling bully and the wife is an equally fat, shrewish shallow and vain gold digger. Franquin draws a German cargo pilot; he's an alcoholic opportunist with terrible hygiene. And so on and so on. This kind of dirty bomb social criticism and hamfisted handle on race relations and basic decency *might* have been allowed to slide in the 1950s, but by 1987 this is was absolutely unacceptable.

The only human characters during Franquin's tenure to get a modicum of sympathy are the Forest Children Sarah and Bip, two siblings who abandoned society to live in the Palombian jungle as one with the forest (who Franquin at least had the good sense to make Ginger), and Franquin's own author avatar character Noah, a sad and lonely clown who ran away from the circus to live with the animals and frequently rants for literally pages on end about how awful humans are and how they do nothing but corrupt the purity and innocence of the natural world (who Franquin at least had the good sense to have interrupted and shut up by Sarah every time he ran the risk of taking over the book). These are actually quite compelling characters, Sarah especially: Despite his general disdain for humanity on the whole, Franquin was very concerned with the plight of women around the world on at least a conceptual moral level. As a result, Sarah is commendably and admirably strong, capable, intelligent, caring and wholly self-sufficient, although I suppose it says something that Franquin felt the only way for her to be empowered was to completely extricate her from society entirely.

Nevertheless, Sarah is probably one of the best female characters in European comics: Sarah and Bip eventually take on pseudo-Tintin and Haddock roles, and she inherits Tintin's moral sensibilities and his take-charge attitude while also being a more defined character with a more complex worldview (which, this being Franquin, is naturally jaded with cynicism). She's works very well as the series' moral compass in a way the naive, mute Marsupilamis can't. Sarah alone sets this book head and shoulders above its peers in some important areas, although much of that I have to credit to Franquin's successor Batem (in Europe there is a custom that cartoonists are known only by their pen-names), who takes over the series' day-to-day duties starting in book 4, rather than Franquin himself. Sarah aside though, the book in its early days is simply put an absolute mess of abortive social critique. While the series does rein itself in and gets notably less vicious and considerably more nuanced when Batem takes over, Disney would only have had access to the earliest books when planning the show, which were loaded with Franquin's overtly nihilistic material. There is no way in hell any of this was going out under the Disney banner.

So, we have a show conceived in the archetypical “You know what would be AWESOME” planning session starring a wisecracking African Marsupilami with none of the supporting cast one would expect to see him with and, thanks to Disney presumably freaking out over Franquin's sloppy social criticism, it's been heavily defanged to boot. By all accounts, this should be a spectacular disaster whose tales of magnificent failure we are destined to sing epic poetry about to future generations. But the truly remarkable thing about this whole fiasco is isn't. It's bloody fantastic. But, seeing as how I'm almost at a total loss to explain how on Earth it manages this given everything that went wrong for it, let's try and look at it piece by piece.

The first inarguable success the show ought to boast about is its Marsupilami: He's a positively charming, charismatic and electrifying crowd-pleaser and thoroughly unlike any contemporaneous character. On paper, Disney's Marsupilami doesn't sound like anything special: Fundamentally, he's very much in the spirit of fast-talking “totally radical”, “too cool for school” mascots-with-attitude like Sonic the Hedgehog and, er, Wishbone, actually, who defined children's entertainment in the early- to mid-1990s. What sets Marsupilami apart is that he's *aware* this is what he is. The writers are too, and this knowledge gets written back into his character on a regular basis. Indeed this awareness seems to permeate even further, as Marsupilami is not only aware what kind of character he is, he knows what kind of show he's on. He talks to the audience, makes occasional references to being in a cartoon and constantly cracks subtle jokes that poke merciless fun at a myriad of other Disney properties (how did those get through, I wonder?). This in and of itself is not rare for cartoon characters during this time, but it's practically unheard on Disney shows, which usually take themselves too seriously to have this sort of fun. To top it off, Marsupilami is one of the most polished and effective uses of this type of character I can think of.

Though the writing and conception of the character is quite strong, a large part of why Marsupilami works as well as he does is due to voice actor Steve Mackall who absolutely throws himself at the role with an unparalleled zeal and enthusiasm and embodies him so perfectly he all but leaps out of the screen at you. Mackall gives Marsupilami a very distinctive pattern of speech and peppers his dialogue with slang and turns of phrases that don't seem to belong to any era of youth culture, let alone that of the early '90s. However, he is also unwaveringly confidant in his delivery and doesn't seem self-conscious at all, which is even more impressive as this is one of his only voice over credits. Mackall is having *a lot* of fun here, and that translates into making Marsupilami seem really fun too (actually I daresay Larry Brantley could have learned a thing or two from him). The overwhelming impression is of someone desperately trying to be hip and cool, and who indeed thinks he's the coolest thing around. He's almost painfully not, but he's so unbelievably enthusiastic, charismatic and genuine we completely forgive him.

The remarkable thing is that this is a surprisingly fitting personality to give Marsupilami, and it only serves to make him more endearing. Marsupilami has always been first and foremost an observer into human culture. Unlike someone like Mr. Mum though, Marsupilami actively engages with society as an outsider in his own quirky, unique and unafraid way. He has the potential to bring an ethnographer's perspective to things not usually given that treatment, which is the primary thing that makes him such an attractive character to me. Furthermore, since he can now talk, Disney's Marsupilami also seems to have absorbed some of the roles and traits usually reserved for characters like Noah or Sarah. He's now in the position to directly challenge threats to his forest home on an intellectual level himself rather than simply being the sidekick or secret weapon of those who do. Delightfully, he approaches these situations as a trickster, applying a veritably Bugs Bunny-esque level of panache and cleverness towards dispatching his foes. Of course the flip side of this is that without Sarah and the rest of the supporting cast the series goes from having the ability to do strong, female-led stories or ensemble pieces to being an animated sausage fest, which is a tad unfortunate.

But as much as I miss Sarah (and I do miss her) I really can't say the same for the rest of the cast jettisoned by the adaptation. I particularly don't miss the Marsupilami family, who in a good 95% of the books show up in the first page or so and the fall off the face of the planet for the rest of the story, or at worst get kidnapped. Mrs. Marsupilami bids a tearful goodbye and waves her palm frond kerchief as she goes back to looking after the little ones and daddy goes off on another adventure. Apparently, heteronomrative values know no boundary and can be found even in the deepest, densest jungle. Ditching them was probably one of the wisest moves Disney made here and, after all, there was only one Marsupilami in Spirou et Fanatsio. Disney also swaps out the Chahutas for their own fictional natives, the Wannabes. Instead of making them uncomfortable comedy relief primitives or using them to say something intelligent about indigenous rights, both of which are paths the books take at various points, Disney turns them into...The Beatles. And I mean literally The Beatles, with Liverpudlian accents and everything. Which, I mean OK, I could jump up and down and say it would have been nice had Disney even attempted to use them thoughtfully, but, given Disney's own track record on race, especially in this period, it's probably best they didn't.

In fact, the show has a remarkably small supporting cast in general, consisting really of only one other major character (though Marsupilami's gorilla pal Maurice oftentimes comes along for the ride too): Reoccurring arch-nemesis Norman, played with impeccably charming sleaze and pomposity by veteran voice actor Jim Cummings. Norman shows up in the first short as a poacher working clandestinely for an unethical biological research firm who experiments on animals, although he has a different profession in each of the successive shorts as Disney's show operates via a system of negative continuity. Each and every time, however, he is the absolute perfect foil for Marsupilami. While Franquin's book has its own “Great White Hunter”, a disheveled, grungy, gangly impotent-looking character by the name of Bring M. Backalive who is meant to completely invert the archetype, in my view the burly, square-jawed Norman is a far more appropriate antagonist, especially for this interpretation.

Norman is a delightfully grotesque parody of masculine power fantasy, with his ludicrous barrel chest, limbs resembling oaken logs and pear-shaped head. It's a really surprising and unorthodox design for a Disney character and Cummings' portrayal is simply fantastic, making Norman a wonderfully egotistical, ill-tempered, overblown asshole. He's not an evil mastermind or a cold, calculating psychopath, he's just a colossal dick who likes chopping down the rainforest and abusing small furry creatures for the hell of it. He's the absolutely perfect antagonist for this show because his broad-stroke dickishness means he works equally well as a poacher, a mean foreman, an obsessive chef or a sociopathic self-absorbed CEO. He's just as likable as Marsupilami, despite being unabashedly the villain. It also helps Cummings and Mackall have unbelievable chemistry together, elevating Marsupilami's and Norman's rivalry to the ranks of legends. In any fair and just world, this double act would go down in history alongside Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam.

The Marsupilami/Norman relationship can also be read as a microcosm of themes the series has dealt with in all its incarnations. Every time Marsupilami comes into contact with Norman, he starts out being nothing but friendly to him, as he bears no ill-will to any creature. When Norman inevitably betrays, offends or threatens him or takes advantage of his trust, Marsupilami switches to payback mode, just as Bugs would have, and in rare occasions doesn't even ever find out Norman had it in for him. The show adds its own twist in that Marsupilami's interactions with Norman, and thus humanity, tend to be staged in terms of his desire to fit in and prove his coolness. Typically, when Marsupilami meets Norman in a given short, he is not in initially aware of his full intentions, instead believing he's doing something really fun and exciting he'd like to be a part of. The resulting humour comes about first from Marsupilami's fumbled attempts at coolness and good-natured misunderstanding, Norman's inevitable meltdown as Marsupilami either derails his plans or simply annoys him to the point of eruption and the climactic battle of wits. In essence, Disney's Marsupilami seems at least in part to be a commentary on the nature of what it means to be a cool, popular or accepted part of society, and the title character a kind of Glam or Drag interpretation of the concept.

Despite the insistence of die-hard Franquin fans that this show is a disgrace to the franchise and an abandonment of its core identity, I feel precisely the opposite is true: It's a distillation of it. As the only real representative of the human world we get is Norman, the show can be said to have just as cynical an attitude towards society as the books, with the crucial difference that it has a sense of humour about it. Instead of wallowing in frustration and bitterness as Franquin was wont to do, the show skewers the inherent ridiculousness of privilege, imperialism and patriarchy by making its avatar of all of those things a hilariously explosive, self-destructive blowhard. As ultimately unhip as Marsupilami may be, his drag coolness presents a far better alternative approach to living life than Norman, which makes it all the more easier to cheer every time Marsupilami runs rings around him. While the world it presents may not be as lushly realised as that of the books nor does it engage with the franchise's core themes at quite the same intellectual level, it does firmly have an eye on those very themes and examines them in its own way. It's a perfect translation of Marsupilami from the medium of European graphic novels to that of Golden Age theatrical-style cartoon shorts, and one of the very, very few adaptations I'd dare to say may actually improve on the original.

And while Marsupilami may not be Disney's intellectual property and the show thus not as original and creative as I first gave them credit for, this in and of itself is incredibly bold and unique by its standards. Its format and general structure sets it far apart from its Disney Afternoon kin, and there's no precedent for a show like it anywhere else in Disney's history. One of the things that's so fascinating about Marsupilami is that it really doesn't feel like a Disney show at all. It shares far more in common with the Warner Brothers style of animation and is actually most immediately comparable with that studio's so-called Silver Age work: The Tom Ruegger and Sherri Stoner breed of show that produced things like Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs. But, unlike those shows, which all too often tried too hard to be relevant by commenting bluntly and overtly on current pop culture trends and news stories (and which ironically means they have dated painfully and the absolute worst of any shows of their time), Marsupilami remains universal and timeless because what it has to say about human nature has no sell-by date, just like Marsupilami's slang. It remains as valid now as it did in 1992 and, indeed, as Franquin's work was in the 1950s.

I couldn't leave a discussion about Disney's Marsupilami without mentioning the music. It's incredible. The composing team, consisting of Steven James Taylor, Mark Watters, Jean-Michel Bernard and Roy Braverman put out a stunningly singular and cosmopolitan soundtrack that's lush, evocative and full of life. Take the second season theme song, which starts as an African chant and than builds off of that to become a complex melody filled with ukuleles, mandolins, xylophones, bass guitar breakdowns and filled out with synth pads. Then there's the Neu!-quality variations on the main character's themes (Norman's is, wonderfully, “Ride of the Valkyries” and the suite based on Marsupilami's that opens “Mars vs. Man” is a thing of beauty). The soundtrack has elements of jazz, funk, rap, electronica, Soca and traditional African music, but really defies any effort to categorize it. It's proper fusion world music penned and played by true global citizens that comes from a place of pure love and joy and it frankly ought to put Alan Menken's bombastic pseudo-calypso Broadway stylings for The Little Mermaid to absolute shame.

Despite my obvious affection for it and its, to my mind at least, self-evident quality, Disney's Marsupilami is rather an ignored footnote in animation history. There's been no significant home video release (though there were a few compilation VHS tapes released late in the run), but that should be no great surprise given how Disney treats all its Saturday Morning Cartoon Shows. More damning however is the fact that Marsupilami seems to have been forgotten even among its Disney Afternoon brethren by people who tend to remember that sort of thing. You'll find no Internet memes based on Marsupilami, no references to him in comedy articles and no misty-eyed nostalgic tributes to him penned by aging Gen X and Gen Yers (I mean, besides this one). Why does everyone remember DuckTales and Adventures of the Gummi Bears and not Marsupilami? Sadly, after spending as much time with this franchise and this story as I have, I'm going to conclude this was at least partially deliberate. But why? What happened that would cause Disney to intentionally sweep the memory of one of their very best shows under the proverbial rug?

What happened was, well, The Little Mermaid. Or, to be more specific, the tidal wave of renewed mainstream interest in Disney that accompanied The Little Mermaid and the copycat Renaissance Age blockbusters that followed it. Recall a primary motivation for signing the deal with Marsu was that Disney was looking for a marquee brand to serve as the face of Eisner's revitalization campaign. Once they had exactly that in The Little Mermaid and its successors, why would Disney bother with a property that wasn't even theirs? Astute readers will have already picked up the warning signs: Disney promised Marsu 13 half-hour episodes, but instead delivered 13 7 minute shorts aired as part of a cartoon variety show comprised of odds and ends not considered good enough to headline their own shows, including Bonkers, the perpetually-delayed attempt to do an animated series based on Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

This evasion got them in trouble with Marsu for going back on the deal, which, unfortunately, is probably the main reason Marsupilami was spun off as its own show for its second season, not its perceived quality. And indeed, even there Disney cheated as the full-length Marsupilami show wasn't full length at all, but another variety show where each episode featured one new short, one short rerun from the season on Raw Toonage and a random short from a number of different series Disney couldn't put anywhere else (Incidentally, the most interesting of these was a series of shorts based on Sebastian from The Little Mermaid which humorously posited him as an actor and that everything else he was a part of was in-universe fiction. The implication becomes, of course, that Ariel is one too which delighted me, but sadly my dream Marsupilami/Little Mermaid crossover never came to pass).

Disney also failed to deliver on their contractual obligations to “make Marsupilami a worldwide star” (I'm not sure if this curious wording was the exact legalese used in the contract, but it comes up in every single article about the deal I've ever read which horrifically implies it might have been). How exactly Disney was going to do this seems lost to the mists of time, but from what I gather it had something to do with a massive merchandise campaign, which is hilarious as Marsupilami had the single most spectacularly botched promotional campaign of any franchise I have ever seen. Disney put out a flood of tie-in swag to accompany both Raw Toonage and the second season series, but almost all of it was stunningly cheap-looking: There were the predictable stuffed toys, Colourforms, magazines and plastic statuettes, but all of them felt rushed and below Disney's usual standards; the stuffed toys bore only a passing resemblance to the characters and the different plastic toys were extremely fragile and the moulds themselves looked off.

The larger immediate problem was that absolutely none of these products made any sense to anyone not already versed in the franchise, which is to say everybody in the US at the time: Whereas every bit of Little Mermaid merchandise made sure to include a brief description of Ariel or a summary of the movie (or was designed in some way to retell it), when Marsupilami came out, no-one knew what the show was about or who the main character was supposed to be. Disney didn't bother to explain the series' backstory anywhere, not even in the show itself. Perhaps they trusted that fans of the show would already be familiar with the comics (the show features quite a few in-jokes that only someone who read the books would pick up on), but since Marsu astonishingly didn't translate them into English to coincide with the show's premier anyone in English-speaking territories was completely lost. Even the actual PR materials sent around to retailers and licensing partners, which I actually do have, don't explain anything, trusting instead that puns about yellow-and-black spots, long tails and the bizarre choice to turn “houba” into a marketable catchphrase without context would be enough to sell people on the show. Even I, possibly the show's biggest cheerleader, didn't know the whole story until I got the Internet years after the fact. As a result, nobody could figure out what this show was, the franchise wasn't interested in explaining or selling itself and nobody cared. Gee, it almost sounds like Disney *wanted* Marsupilami to fail...

Marsu, by the way, was not amused and, at the end of this whole fiasco wound up suing Disney for $4.5 million for breach of contract. They won. I'd be a bit more sympathetic to them if I got the impression they were doing their best to make the deal work on their end, but I honestly don't think they were. Their decision to not translate their books for a US audience, the very audience they signed the deal with Disney to attract in the first place is completely inexplicable and, to be blunt, idiotic. It's not like Marsupilami didn't have a chance to work overseas, after all Tintin and Asterix have significant US and UK followings (although they did gain them by going through more upscale, art house channels and not Disney). Marsu has gotten much better at selling itself in recent years, with a blockbuster movie, quality products and several animated series made in partnership with Marathon TV under their belt, but it seems like in the late-80s and early-90s they just didn't have everything together yet. The sad result is that they blew the biggest chance to break Marsupilami in English-speaking regions they were probably going to get, and it doesn't look like that opportunity will ever arise again.

If there's an upside to all of this, it's that the brief and tempestuous Disney/Marsu partnership produced one staggeringly good programme. But how did it possibly manage this with seemingly everything working against it? I think the biggest reason is that, like so much great Soda Pop Art, Marsupilami saw its position on the margins under duress as a strength, not a weakness. The creative team knew they were working on a show Disney Corporate had zero faith in or expectations for, but instead of using that as an excuse for apathy, it became their call to arms. They could have completely phoned it in, but instead they realised being in this situation meant they could do whatever they wanted and turned in hands-down the finest Disney adaptation and one of the greatest things to ever bear the name.

We've come full circle then: Just as, decades before, Carl Barks used his freedom and relative distance from the Disney machine to redefine the European graphic novel, one of that medium's leading luminaries gets to lend his name to a charming, side-splittingly funny, global-minded and frequently surprisingly intelligent experiment by a handful of creators in the same position who attempted a similar gamble for Saturday morning television. The fact they weren't influential in their time is almost beside the point: Marsupilami stands the test of time in a way many of its peers weren't able to. It's one of the few shows of its vintage I can unhesitatingly and unironically put on to this day and enjoy just as much, if not more so, then I did when it was on the air.

For me Marsupilami almost symbolizes the inverse of its Disney Afternoon cousin The Little Mermaid. That began life as a heavily promoted blockbuster carefully designed for maximum mass-market appeal and discreetly played it safe while taking the bare minimum of steps forward to give the illusion of being a bold reinvention. It also compelled me to rewrite it completely. Marsupilami, by contrast, was an overlooked gem of a show produced with love and care by the red-headed stepchildren of the Disney animation department. It was, and still is, a tremendous inspiration on my development as a writer and a thinker: After I first discovered Marsupilami, I immediately set to work drawing my own comics based on the show which I continued to write for years afterward. I simply could not accept only 26 shorts: I felt the show deserved so much more, and if Disney wasn't going to make any more stories set in this amazing world, then I would. In fact, I wrote so many of them Marsupilami is the only cartoon character I can draw in a reasonably professional-looking manner to this day.

Unlike my Ariel stories, which I deliberately engineered to be as unlike The Little Mermaid as possible, my Marsupilami comics were consciously designed as a challenge to myself to capture the show's humour, story structure, characterization and visual style as accurately as I could. Any handle on satire and comedic timing I might be able to claim some kind of skill with is probably due to Marsupilami and my fascination with it. If The Little Mermaid was the closed-box, top-down product of a story and idea factory I gleefully tore apart as a Disney hacker enthusiast, Marsupilami was the weird side experiment the engineers worked on in their spare time I was lucky enough to walk in on or the abandoned prototype I found dumpster diving behind the factory one night and claimed as my own.

I'm not sure how André Franquin, who died in 1997 (interestingly the same year the Marsu vs. Disney suit was settled) would feel about that considering how personal Marsupilami was to him, but I'd hope he'd be pleased with the knowledge his favourite character continues to capture the imaginations of people over sixty years after he first appeared on the comics page. I'll probably never get the chance to write for Marsupilami (and the fact my true love is the Disney show, not the actual comics, wouldn't go over too well I imagine), but if I can through my overly long reminiscence somehow introduce more people to him and his series, I think that would probably be enough for me. The spirit of the series' brash zeal, dry wit, critical edge and ultimate utopianism lives on, even if not every version of it has. That, far more than the sheer number of years it's been around, is how a work can continue to inspire people and leave its mark on history.


Below are links to four of my favourite Marsupilami shorts. Not everything the show did was an instant classic, but it claims enough of them for itself that anyone should sit up and take notice. Here are some of the very best, in my personal view-I've chosen two from each season, and they're in chronological order. Apologies for the terrible video quality: It absolutely kills the show's lush, lavish animation style and art design, but given how rare the show is we're lucky digital transfers exist at all.

Season 1 (on Raw Toonage)

In the series premier, Norman captures Maurice in an attempt to sell him off to shady research biologists who are paying him to poach animals. Marsupilami tracks Norman down believing he's invited Maurice to a party and forgotten him. The animation and matte work here is breathtakingly beautiful, possibly even on the level of the film version of The Little Mermaid, which makes it all the more maddening this has the absolute worst video transfer of the uploaded shorts I've seen. The writing, acting and comic timing is also pitch-perfect: All in all, this is my pick for the series' crowning achievement.

Foreman Norman has plans to clear the jungle to build a city designed around an ultra-modern flat of condominiums. Marsupilami thinks this means he's being asked to move to the neighbourhood. As I mentioned above, this is a great example of the amazing work done with the soundtrack on this show, the opening suite in particular.

Season 2 (as Marsupilami)

After bullying his secretary into resignation, CEO Norman needs a replacement urgently. He gets Marsupilami and Maurice, eager to learn about life in the world of 9-5 wage slaves. This is one of my favourite episodes for Norman, who I think is used exceedingly well here, and the writing and comic timing is once again superb. Probably my second favourite short overall.

Norman tricks Marsupilami into thinking he's running a pleasure cruise tour of the jungle river in order to cover up his illegal smuggling operation for valuable endangered species. Another good Norman episode, who gets quite a bit of clever dialogue, and even Maurice (who I'm usually not amazingly fond of) has some decent moments here.

1 comment:

  1. I have a LiveJournal entry on what would happen if Disney loses the rights to Marsupilami, The only Sesame Street skit we would have is a Wheel of Fortune spoof called "Squeal of Fortune." The skit was hosted by Pat Playjacks (a parody of Wheel of Fortune's Pat Sajak).