As a kid I thought the most terrifying cartoon ever made was "Quasi at the Quackadero," by Sally Cruikshank, an incredibly talented artist and animator. Reading about this cartoon and looking at the stills from it in the old Comics Scene magazine (from the publishers of Starlog) immediately filled me with a sense of dread. Of alienation and disassociation. Existential? What was it about those strange, inhuman characters that churned my soul into a miasma of dark unease? When I finally saw the cartoon itself...
Anxiety intensified to pure terror. My eyes must have rolled back in their sockets, revealing wet whiteness, a fine tracing of curvilinear blood vessels, perhaps a pink blur from a few feet away but up close, under microscopic scrutiny, red and alive, pulsing with life. Long, sleepless intervals followed by troubled slumber and nightmares of rubber-limbed anthropomorphic ducks engaged in unspeakable horrors. I've since grown up and come to appreciate "Quasi's" deliberately naive aesthetic and weird humor. But obviously these things were beyond me at the time.
And yet... and yet... even then, this feeling was familiar. Yes, I'd felt something similar, not long before. Its source?
Along with Quasi, Clutch Cargo frightened me. Watching cartoons on WTBS or WGN while eating cinnamon toast before school, I often worried they might air a Clutch Cargo cartoon. Bugs Bunny, fine. A Little Rascals or Three Stooges. Occasionally a Tex Avery short outlandishly psychedelic in its intense and schizophrenic imagery-- I found some of those a little scary as well. And then, on random unlucky mornings, Clutch Cargo and some of the herky-jerkiest limited animation ever rendered.
But what scared me... what really and truly sent shivers down my spine and put me off my breakfast... were those mouths. The Syncro-Vox system, where the animators superimposed film of live action mouths over the illustrated faces. Those little Chicklet teeth, wormy lipsticked ropes writhing about them forming vowels and consonants. I would instantly lose my appetite.
I had no idea at the time I was seeing what amounted to filmed Alex Toth drawings. Not long after, I discovered Toth's comic book artwork in a hardcover DC war comic reprint book, America at War. I've been a huge fan of Toth's artwork ever since. The story that convinced me was the Civil War-era "The Glory Boys," and I had no idea the man who created the melancholy, lyrical linework there-- including the memorable final panels where a dying boy releases a dove into a light drizzle falling on a grassy battlefield-- was the same guy who freaked me the hell out on school mornings and caused me to waste some perfectly good cinnamon toast.
Toth or not, after re-watching Clutch, Spinner and Paddlefoot star in "Bush Pilots" on YouTube, I've decided I'd rather stare down the barrel of a loaded Glock 9mm in the sweaty, unsteady hands of a bank robber with nothing to lose and little to live for than watch another Clutch Cargo cartoon. Can you imagine the effect on my imaginative little monkey-brain if Sally Cruikshank had employed Syncro-Vox on "Quasi at the Quackadero?"