John K. Looks Back at 80s’ Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures

Animation fans got a late holiday gift in January when Paramount Home Entertainment released the 3-disc Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures’The Complete Series. This influential series (1987-1988), which had its share of controversy, was a seminal one for its time and featured work by Ralph Bakshi, John Kricfalusi, Bruce Timm and Andrew Stanton. The talented and always-irreverent Mr. John K. (Ren & Stimpy) was kind enough to answer some of our questions about the show. We always get a kick out of his wonderful take on the animation scene and hope you’ll enjoy it too:

Animag: Why is it about the 1980s’ Mighty Mouse incarnation that made it such a great animated show? What stands out in your mind for the experience?

John K: It was a great experience and totally fun because it was the first cartoon in decades where cartoonists had creative control over the show. We felt like Ralph Bakshi had freed us from bondage. We wrote the stories ourselves, were allowed to experiment with visual styles, with acting, with anything that struck us creatively. This was the absolute opposite of the situation in animation in the 1980s, where cartoonists had no input and cartoons weren’t allowed to be imaginative.

It was as close as you could get to the spirit of the 1930s’although on a TV budget, so we did have to make practical sacrifices, like sending the actual animation itself overseas. As a safeguard we kept ‘layout’ in the studio and we drew all the important poses and expressions-the keys, here. That way we could at least control creatively, the acting and look of the cartoons.

The characters in Mighty Mouse seemed a lot more alive than the rest of Saturday Morning cartoons because we custom-drew every single pose. We didn’t trace model-sheets, like we were forced to do at the other studios.

Was the schedule the toughest aspect of working on the series?

John K: The budget and schedule were the biggest challenge. We were all inspired and wanted to bring back a creative cartoon renaissance ‘but within three months! We had too many ideas and wanted to stuff them all into a mere 13 half-hours over a summer, while completely restructuring the whole production system of animated TV cartoons.

Luckily I had been experimenting with this new system on previous projects especially on the new Jetsons a couple years earlier, where I used the layouts to customize all the expressions and poses to the voice actors’ inflections.

Also, a handful of us had been working with Ralph on developing shows and stories just before Mighty Mouse, and we did a fully animated rock video for the Rolling Stones, so we had some practice working together ‘ which is essential to making a good cartoon. Bob Jacques and I directed the animation, Lynne Naylor, Jim Smith worked on it and Tom Minton and Jim Reardon and I had written all this development for potential new cartoon series. Mighty Mouse just happened to be the one that sold, so we stuffed some of the ideas we had been toying with for other characters into the show and of course added a lot of new ones.

The ‘idea’ of a cartoon, to me, is not half as important as having a sensible production system and a crew that you are in synch with and have worked with before. It’s like being in a band. You gotta practice. People always ask me ‘Where did you get the idea for Ren and Stimpy?’ There is no idea. The idea was to make the cartoons fun. It’s like asking the Beatles, ‘Where did you get the idea for singing ‘yeah yeah yeah’ in your songs. The idea isn’t a particular song or cartoon. The idea is to put talented people together under a leader who knows how to get the best out of them.

How does making an animated show back then differ from making cartoons for TV today? Do you miss the old days???

John K: Well I’m not in the mainstream of making cartoons. I make commercials and rock videos. Those are pretty free and I produce them similarly to how I did Mighty Mouse or Ren and Stimpy, but with some computer coloring and compositing.

Many modern TV cartoons, I think, rely too heavily on the technology and not on the drawings or characterizations. I’m sure there are exceptions, but Flash has kind of killed a lot of good things we used to do.

Are there any particular episodes of Mighty Mouse that stand out in your mind?

John K: There are only about five cartoons that I can really say ‘worked’. That is, that they achieved what I wanted to achieve. They are all imaginative, but many are so rushed and chaotic that they aren’t all easy to follow. The ones I am most proud of are a handful of cartoons where the characters seemed motivated from within and the plot was structured around their personalities.

Many cartons start with an ‘idea’ or a plot, and just cram the characters into them. My best cartoons are the ones where the characters themselves motivate the plot.

Tom Minton wrote ‘The Littlest Tramp,’ and as crazy as the story was in its details, it was fairly traditionally structured ‘ it was about something and someone.

I also liked how ‘Mighty’s Benefit Plan,’ ‘Night on Bald Pate,’ ‘The Ice Goose Cometh’ and ‘Night of the Bat Bat’ came out. They had gripping moments where you really were with the characters. I used what I learned from Mighty Mouse and built on it in Ren and Stimpy. All the stories I did then were motivated from within the characters.

How did you get involved with the project?

John K: Like I said in a response to another question, I had been working with Ralph already, developing cartoon ideas for Saturday morning networks. MM just happened to be what sold. When it did Ralph put me in charge creatively.

A lot of people we talk to believe that we’re now experiencing a new Golden Age of Animation. What is your take on that? Do you believe that?

John K: It is? I haven’t heard that since the early to mid ’90s and didn’t believe it then! Maybe it’s a Golden Age of texture-mapping or pores, but I see many modern cartoons as being back to the old formulas, with non-cartoonists running the show again. There are a few exceptions that seem to delight in anarchy for anarchy’s sake (like some of our Mighty Mouses!). I’d like to see cartoons go back to the traditional principles of great drawing skill combined with humor and wild imagination. Or at least aim at that.

What was the animated show/movie (or animator) that made you realize you wanted to get into animation?

John K: Almost all of the cartoons made from the 1930s to the early 1960s: Disney, WB, even Hanna Barbera while they were still cartoony. The idea that really specific unique characters could do wildly impossible things that we couldn’t do in real life. That’s why I make cartoons.

I’d like to conclude with what Mighty Mouse meant for me and others who benefited from the show. Ralph is the Lincoln of cartoonists. There should be a huge marble monument to him in the middle of Burbank where all the animators can see who gave us back a few years of freedom. I’m not sure how many of the lucky young ‘creator-driven’ show-runners of today know what it was like before Mighty Mouse. Ralph made the ’90s cartoony resurgence possible.

Paramount’s Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures’The Complete Series ($45.98 is the official price, but you can buy it for $30 on amazon.com) is currently available in stores and online. To get more info and create a Mighty Mouse version of yourself, visit, www.Iammightymouse.com.