Daffy Duck's Dad, Tex Avery, Part 1

This feature is a marked departure from our usual subject matter; comic books, comic strips, and their creators. This piece is devoted to an artist whose pictures moved; animation great Tex Avery. In addition to inspiring many a comic book, animation itself is very much a collector's hobby and has spawned collectible material from animation cels and posters to statues and original art. A quick check of eBay alone reveals 37 items of every description related to Tex Avery's work.

Why Tex Avery? Anyone who's ever watched one of his cartoons, from Warner Brothers' Hamateur Night (1939) to MGM's Red Hot Riding Hood (1943) can appreciate the trademark Avery style of hyperkinetic pacing, surrealistic violence, and hilarious exaggeration that places him among fellow Warner Brothers greats Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, and Bob Clampett.

Fredrick Bean "Tex" Avery, who can trace his lineage back to Judge Roy Bean, was born on February 26, 1908 in Taylor, Texas, where many a tall-tale must've provided grist for a future career that would specialize in fantastic exaggeration. After drawing cartoons all through high school and a summer of study at the Chicago Institute of Art, the artist headed for California in 1929, landing a job with the Walter (Woody Woodpecker) Lantz Studios.

While at Lantz, Tex went through a stint of collecting rejection slips before abandoning his dream of becoming a syndicated newspaper cartoonist. After working a while as background painter, Avery went on to become a storyboard artist, staying with Lantz until 1935, the year he applied for a position at a new studio that would soon rise to compete with the Walt Disney animation Goliath.

Founded in 1929 by two of Walt's old friends, Hugh Harmon and Rudolf Ising, this was the studio that would eventually become Warner Brothers Cartoons. Avery displayed his imagination by bluffing his way into a director's position with screen credits for cartoons that didn't really exist. Leo Schlesinger, who had positioned himself as the middleman between Warner Brothers and the cartoonists, had by this time assumed control of the studio. From 1933 to 1935 the studio had pinned its hopes on a rather bland and uninspired cartoon character called Buddy, although the studio's "Looney Tunes" began to liven up when Isadore "Friz" Freleng joined the staff.

Avery gave Bugs a more sophisticated look- even taking him to the opera! "I don't know how or why Schlesinger gambled on me," Avery said, years later. "Evidently he got quite desperate.... He said 'I'lll try you on one picture. I've got some boys here - they're not renegades, but they don't get along with the other two crews.' And he gave me Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, and Bob Cannon."

Armed with the frantic imaginations of Clampett and Jones and the excellent draftsmanship of Cannon, the "boys" were to begin the revolution in a separate building on the Warner Sunset lot, quickly labeled "Termite Terrace" after the majority of its inhabitants. There a new style in animation was launched, a reaction, in a way, to a certain mouse's outfit.

Avery saved the zaniest antics for the aptly named Daffy Duck.By the mid-1930s Walt Disney ruled animation. Starting out with Steamboat Willie (1928) the studio that would soon produce the classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) had already carved out a niche of wholesome and lavish cartooning aimed chiefly at children. The Termite Terrace animators began to move in other directions, specializing in a style of animation that wouldn't try to imitate reality but rather rise above it with inspired lunacy and playful exaggeration. And while the Disney studio would render detailed fairy tale woodlands, Avery's locales were more likely to be urban settings and even, with cartoons like Little Rural Riding Hood, Swing Shift Cinderella and Cinderella Meets Fella, in night clubs and "Ye Olde Beer Jointes."

For his first assignment Avery mined some past cartoons for material, coming up with the early Porky Pig and a character called Beans. In Goldiggers of '49 Beans attempts to win Porky's daughter's hand during the California gold rush. Although the animation is crude by the studio's later standards, the first touches of Avery's trademark parody had appeared in a Warner Brothers cartoon. The artist continued to direct more Porky films, making the stuttering swine the studio's first superstar, a position that was nailed down for all time when Avery developed the famous WB cartoon ending of Porky bursting through the logo to stammer out his high-pitched "T-t-t-that's all, folks!"

Avery's inspired madness would also transform Bugs Bunny from a surreal looney to the more sophisticated and cool wabbit we all admire. Inspired lunacy would be left for Bugs' main rival, Daffy Duck. And with this new comic language of impossible gags, visual outrageousness and cheeky attitudes, Avery would free animation in the later half of the 1930s. Since his career spanned decades and is too significant to compress in one feature; this will have to conclude tomorrow. In the meantime, if you'd like to learn the full story about Tex Avery and Warner Brothers animation, there are several good books out on the subject, such as Tex Avery: King of Cartoons (Joe Adamson, De Capo Press, 1985).

T-t-that's All Folks! (Until Part 2, that is!)

--Steve Stiles