Junktown by Ralph Bakshi

Ralph Bakshi is an American independent animated film producer, best known as the first to create animated features exclusively meant for mature audiences. Comic fans know him best for his 1972 film adaptation of Robert Crumb's underground strip 'Fritz the Cat'. Tolkien fans may know him as the director who made the first (unfinished) attempt to adapt 'Lord of the Rings' (1978) to the big screen. Much like underground comix proved that comics could be more than just innocent children's entertainment, Bakshi did the same for animation. He made numerous pictures full with sex, drugs, graphic violence and politics ('Fritz the Cat', 'Heavy Traffic', 'Coonskin', 'Hey Good Lookin', 'American Pop'), but also more chaste fantasy films ('Lord of the Rings', 'Wizards', 'Fire and Ice'). The topics were often so controversial that he had to combat censors, executive producers and moral guardians. He chose for a grittier look with less focus on technical or aesthetical excellence. As a result they have always polarized audiences. But Bakshi never strove to be liked by everybody. He wanted to make personal films, away from the dogmatic Disney style. It has made him one of the most innovative and influential animators of all time. All adult and independent animation today, both in the cinema, on TV as well as on the Internet, can be linked to his taboo breaking accomplishments. 

Early life
Ralph Bakshi was born in 1938 in Haifa, Palestine (nowadays Israel), into a Jewish family who emigrated to New York City a year later. He grew up in the seedy heart of Brownsville in Brooklyn, where poverty, crime, prostitution and racism were an everyday thing.  As a child he cut out comic book characters from papers and books and played with them. His graphic influences were Chaim Soutine, Arthur Rackham, N.C. Wyeth, Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon, George Herriman, Al Capp, Harvey Kurtzman and naturally underground comix like Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton and Vaughn Bodé. He took many lessons from reading Gene Byrnes' 'The Complete Guide to Cartooning' (1950), and even stole the book from his library to study it. In the field of animation he was more influenced by the Max and Dave Fleischer cartoons and Looney Tunes shorts of Bob Clampett, Tex Avery, Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones, because Disney films didn't play much in his neighbourhood. As a pupil at Thomas Jefferson High School, his drawing talent was encouraged by his guidance counselor. She put him in art courses and managed to avoid him becoming a street hoodlum. The friendly woman even helped him get accepted at the High School of Industrial Arts in Manhattan (nowadays the High School of Art and Design). He graduated in 1956. As a teenager Bakshi also took an interest in literature about sleazy street life, such as the novels by Charles Bukowski and Hubert Selby, Jr. 

Bonefoot and Fudge by Ralph Bakshi
'Bonefoot and Fudge'.

Bakshi began his career at the age of 18 as a cel polisher with the Terrytoons animation studio in New Rochelle. There he worked on such TV series like 'Deputy Dawg' (1960-1961) and learned from veterans like Gene Deitch, Jim Tyer and Connie Rasinski. He also collaborated with Al Capp on an animated adaptation of his comic-within-a-comic 'Fearless Fosdick'. Eventually Bakshi worked himself up as head of the department. He first gained attention as the creator of the 'The Mighty Heroes' section in the 'Mighty Mouse Playhouse' show in 1966-1967. During this era Doug Crane also worked for Terrytoons. 

Krantz Films
In 1966 Steve Krantz established the animation studio Krantz Films, which produced various animated TV series, among them Ralph Bakshi's 'Rocket Robin Hood'. The company also produced the second and third season of the animated TV series 'Spider-Man' (1967-1970), based on Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's comics series. Bakshi also briefly ran the Paramount cartoon studios for six months in 1966, where he enlisted comic artists like Harvey Kurtzman, Wally Wood, Archie Goodwin, Jim SterankoDoug Crane and Gray Morrow to work along. 

At home Bakshi created comic strips as an outlet to his personal problems. Some of these secret drawings were purely meant to ventilate frustrations and therefore he kept them hidden. 'Dum Dum and Dee Dee' reflected troubles between him and his wife. 'Bonefoot and Fudge' featured the mishaps of a wolf and a mouse, while 'Junktown' had anthropomorphic rocks, garbage cans, mailboxes and other street junk interreacting with one another. Both centered around people who spent too much time squibbling over trivial matters, a frustration he often felt when dealing with studio heads and executives. He tried to get 'Junktown' published in The Post, but the publisher didn't understand it. According to Toonopedia Bakshi may have drawn a comics version of Gene Deitch's 'Tom Terrific' too.

Fritz the Cat
Bakshi debuted during a particular dark age of animation, when many of the classic film studios closed down and moved into television. All TV cartoons were made on cheap budgets and exclusively aimed at children. Dissatisfied with these restrictions he eventually founded his own studio, Bakshi Productions, in Manhattan. The studio produced commercials and educational shorts, and began working on a 'Fritz the Cat' film in 1969, based on Robert Crumb's succesful underground comic of the same name. The film was financed by a small distribution company, Cinemation, who dared to take risks. Smaller investments were made by a record company and Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner. After a long production period, the film was finally released on 12 April 1972. 

It's often said that 'Fritz the Cat' was the first animated cartoon with mature content. This is not entirely true. The 1928 anonymous black-and-white silent animated short, 'Eveready Harton in Buried Treasure', was a cartoon full with sex jokes, intended to show at private parties (according to Ward Kimball it was made by the Raoul BarréMax Fleischer and Paul Terry studios in a rare collaboration). A 1938 Looney Tunes reel by Bob Clampett which featured Porky Pig saying "son of a bitch!" after hitting his thumb with a hammer, was also made for private enjoyment. The comedy of Looney Tunes in general aimed more at adults than children, though was still acceptable for a young audience. Many of Max and Dave Fleischer's 'Betty Boop' cartoons, as well as Tex Avery's films contained sexual innuendo. During World War II various cartoon studios made propaganda shorts ridiculing Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo. John Halas and Joy Batchelor's animated version of George Orwell's 'Animal Farm' (1954) - with contributions by Harold Whitaker, Brian WhiteBill Mevin and Reginald Parlett - was a political drama. The Beatles cartoon 'Yellow Submarine' (1968) by George Dunning and Heinz Edelmann featured psychedelic imagery and rock music, aiming at youngsters. During the same decade various low-budget underground cartoons like Ward Kimball's 'Escalation' (1968), Marv Newland's 'Bambi Meets Godzilla' (1969) and Whitney Lee Savage's 'Mickey Mouse in Vietnam' (1969) were brutal in their depiction of politics and violence.

But 'Fritz the Cat' was the first feature-length adult cartoon, with a relatively big budget. Its depiction of sex, drugs, politics, vulgar language and bloody violence was so frank that all previous cartoons seemed tame in comparison. Thus it became the first animated feature to receive an X-rating. A few veteran animators who once worked for iconic cartoon studios like Terrytoons, Warner Brothers, Hanna-Barbera, Famous, Fleischer's  and even Disney, contributed to 'Fritz the Cat' and felt it was a breath of fresh air to finally make something that wasn't exclusively child-friendly. Among the more well known names in the field were Jim Tyer, John Gentilella, Nick Tafuri, Larry Riley, Cliff Augustine, Dick Lundy, Martin Taras, Rod Scribner, Volus Jones, Manuel Perez, Manny Gould, Irv Spence, Fred Abranz, Norm McCabe and Virgil Ross. Bakshi also voiced the pig cop with the dopey voice. While the subversiveness of the picture was noticed by everyone, few recognized the fact that Bakshi's style was equally innovative. Real photographs of New York City were traced with a Rapidograph pen and drawn onto cels. Occasional dialogue recorded from conversations with people in streets, bars and an actual synagogue were used on the soundtrack. It added to the film's atmosphere and realism. 

Fritz the CatWizzards by Bakshi

Impact of Fritz the Cat
Made for only 850.000 dollars, 'Fritz the Cat' earned almost 90 million (!) dollars and became the most succesful independent animated film of all time! Critics gave it good reviews and it easily became a cult movie. Audiences were surprised by its audacity. Many viewers couldn't handle such adult and vulgar topics in a medium that had nearly always been kid-friendly. 'Fritz the Cat' increased Robert Crumb's fame outside the comic world, though some fans felt the movie didn't quite capture the feel of his comics. Michael O'Donoghue and Randall Enos spoofed the film in a Crumbesque comic strip published in National Lampoon, which portrayed Crumb as a sell-out. In reality Crumb had no interest, nor involvement in the production, which predictably led to him distancing himself from the final film. He hated it so much that he tried to get his name removed from the posters. In 1972 he drew a final 'Fritz' comic strip for People's Comics, in which the cat becomes a decadent Hollywood star, exploited by caricatures of Bakshi and producer Steve Krantz, until he is murdered by a disgruntled girlfriend. Crumb never drew another 'Fritz' story again. While the animosity between Crumb and Bakshi is mutual, Bakshi did admit that through 'Fritz' he wanted make a name for himself, rather than try please someone who was utterly unpleasable. 

'Fritz the Cat' was such a success that a sequel came out, 'The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat' (1974), directed by Robert Taylor. Crumb tried to sue, but since a sequel was part of the original contract he was forced to drop the suit. Set up as an anthology film with a framing device of nine individual shorts, the picture took colossal liberties with Crumb's original character. The end result was an incomprehensible mess. Audiences and critics hated it so much that the milking of the 'Fritz' franchise was sealed for good. Only years later did 'The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat' develop a small cult following of its own. Bakshi, by the way, wasn't involved with it, which explains why it became such a flop. He was already moving on to other projects...

Heavy Traffic
Still from 'Heavy Traffic'.

Heavy Traffic 
Bakshi's next picture was 'Heavy Traffic' (1973), a more personal story reflecting his own background.  The story centers around a young cartoonist of Jewish descent, Michael, in whom one could recognize a self-portrait. The viewer follows his frustrating life as a teenager in New York City: a violent and overall sleazy world full with blacks, Jews, Italians, junks, prostitutes, mobsters and transvestites. His Italian-American father is an adulterous drunk who always fights with his Jewish wife. Michael's African-American girlfriend Carol is a frequent victim of racism. More than one modern viewer has noticed that the father in 'Heavy Traffic' shows an interesting resemblance to Matt Groening's Homer Simpson, created 15 years later. Compared with its predecessor 'Heavy Traffic' was just as gritty, but with less emphasis on shock value. Fans and critics felt the picture was therefore more interesting and meaningful, although it still came across as an uneven product. Some scenes feature rotoscoping and imagery which looks like a live-action photo negative. Other scenes are plain odd, perhaps too much of an inside joke. Certain critics felt the picture could have been stronger without all this filler. Nevertheless 'Heavy Traffic' did well at the box office, making Bakshi the first cartoon director since Disney to have two financially succesful features in a row. Yet, ironically he only received 10% of what producer Steve Krantz made. As a result Bakshi deliberately distanced himself from Krantz during the production of 'Heavy Traffic' and sold his next script, 'Coonskin', to a different producer: Albert S. Ruddy, best known for 'The Godfather' (1972). Krantz suspended Bakshi for ten days and afterwards ordered him to get back to work. Bakshi refused and it took a month before an agreement was made,  'Heavy Traffic' finished and Bakshi allowed to leave his contract with Krantz. 

The success of 'Fritz' and 'Heavy Traffic' enabled Bakshi to star celebrities like Scatman Crothers and Barry White in his next project: 'Coonskin' (1975). 'Coonskin' is a controversial satire of every possible stereotype about African-Americans, particularly the ones manufactured in Hollywood. It uses some plot elements from Joel Chandler's 'Uncle Remus' stories, particularly Walt Disney's equally controversial (but for different reasons) film adaptation 'Song of the South' (1946). Just like the Disney version it stars Brother Rabbit, Brother Bear and Brother Fox in a world that blends animation with live-action. Yet Bakshi makes it a blaxploitation film set in the present day, subverting the idyllic dreamworld of Uncle Remus' happy slave life. Confronted with prejudice and exploitation by both whites as well as blacks, the trio fights back. The story is intercut with metaphorical allegories about the status of blacks in "the land of the free". Unfortunately 'Coonskin' 's provocative title led to many people assuming it was a racist film. Protest groups picketed it, which not only hurt its box office profits, but also its reputation. After failing at the box office 'Coonskin' sank into obscurity. No film theater or TV channel dared to play it. Eventually it was released on video under a different title, 'Streetfight', which helped it gain a cult following. Many of the film's biggest fans are black viewers, who praise it as an accurate depiction of what it means to be black in the U.S. Rappers sampled its dialogue and both Spike Lee as well as Quentin Tarantino have praised it as a masterpiece. It finally received a proper DVD release under its original title too. Many Bakshi fans still consider 'Heavy Traffic' and 'Coonskin' to be the director's best work. 

Still from 'Coonskin'.

Near the end of the 1970s Bakshi took a different turn and made two fantasy films which were more family friendly. They disappointed fans of his raunchier and more personal work, but did find a wider audience. The first was 'Wizards' (1977), which tells the tale of two wizards in a post-apocalyptic future who combat one another with magic vs. industrial technology / Nazi propaganda. The film features artistic contributions by Ian Miller and Mike Ploog. Unfortunately it had the bad luck of premiering around the same time 'Star Wars' came out. Soon film theaters played George Lucas' SF saga rather than provide screens for 'Wizards', which prevented it from making its money back. It nevertheless reached cult status later. 

Lord of the Rings
Bakshi's other fantasy film was 'Lord of the Rings' (1978), an ambitious adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's novel cyclus 'The Lord of the Rings' 1978). Czech animation legend Jiri Trnka, illustrator Adolf Born and cartoon director Gene Deitch had tried to make an animated version before, but never came further than one reel. Producer William L. Snyder merely wanted them to make a cartoon so he could keep the film rights to the Tolkien stories, as stipulated in his contract. Bakshi managed to make an animated feature, but only got as far as the first of the three books. His version received mixed reviews as a result. Another criticism directed at the movie was that the majority was rotoscoped. Still, for more than 20 years, Bakshi's work was the only available film version of 'Lord of the Rings' and therefore easily became a cult movie. When Peter Jackson made his live-action version in 2001-2003, he surpassed Bakshi by encompassing all three novels. 

Work in the 1980s
The 1980s saw Bakshi making two animated films which expressed his love for music: 'American Pop' (1981) and  'Hey Good Lookin' ' (1982). One of the background and character designers on 'American Pop' was comic veteran Russ Heath. 'American Pop' had a good critical reception and financial profit, while 'Hey Good Lookin' ' flopped, but became a cult film later. 'Fire and Ice' (1983) marked a return to fantasy and drew its inspiration from Robert E. Howard's sword and sorcery novel 'Conan the Barbarian'. Bakshi managed to hire 'Conan' illustrator Frank Frazetta to co-design the main characters, while comic writers Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas, from the Marvel adaptations of 'Conan', penned the screenplay. James Gurney and Thomas Kinkade painted backgrounds. The picture once again never rose above cult status. In 1985 Bakshi's studio directed the animated segments of the 'Harlem Shuffle' (1985) music video by the Rolling Stones.

Return to television
In 1987 Bakshi returned to television by supervising 'Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures' (1987-1988) on CBS, based on Paul Terry's cartoon character. The series gained good reviews, particularly thanks to one of his directors, John Kricfalusi, who tried to make the animation look more expressive and different than most other TV cartoon shows at the time. Unfortunately the series was cancelled in 1988 because religious activist Donald Wildmon objected to a scene in which the mouse apparently sniffed cocaine. In reality it was just a flower. In 1989 Bakshi Productions animated Dr. Seuss' 'The Butter Battle Book' for which the famous children's author also wrote the screenplay. Seuss paid Bakshi a huge compliment by claiming it was the best adaptation of his work he ever saw on screen.

Cool World
Bakshi's final film was 'Cool World' (1993). Originally intended as a story about a cartoon character and a real person who have sex and whose child was a mutated freak, the studio scrapped the entire idea. Instead they made a much tamer and pointless story about a cartoonist (Gabriel Byrne) chased by a detective (Brad Pitt), because of his relationship with a cartoon girl from a parallel cartoon universe. The comic strips seen in the film were drawn by Spain Rodriguez. The studio tried to sell 'Cool World' as a 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' clone and heavily implied in their tagline that there would be a sex scene. Since it failed to deliver on both premises, the picture became a colossal flop. It did inspire an official comic book adaptation, though, released by DC Comics to coincide with the film's premier. The 'Cool World' comics were scripted by Michael Eury, drawn by Stephen DeStefano, Chuck Fiala and Bill Wray, while Bakshi designed the covers. They only lasted four issues.

Later career
In 1994 Bakshi directed his first and only live-action film, the forgettable 'Cool and the Crazy'. A similar fate met 'Spicy City' (1997), an adult animated TV series set in a dystopian future. Since then he only made one animated short, 'Last Days of Coney Island' (2015), a neo-noir film set in New York City. It was released exclusively online on the video site Vimeo. He founded the Bakshi School of Animation and Cartooning in 2003, and has focused largely on painting since. Among the people who were once employed at Bakshi's productions are Jerry BriceNick Cuti, Jaime Diaz, Tim GulaCheese Hasselberger, Mike Kazaleh, John Kricfalusi, Don MorganMike Ploog, Jim Davis, Andrew Stanton, Martin B. Taras and Bruce Timm.

Ralph Bakshi won a National Cartoonists Society Division Award (1978), a Golden Gryphon (1980) at the Giffoni Film Festival for 'Lord of the Rings', an Annie Award for Distinguished Contribution to the Art of Animation (1988), a Winsor McCay Award (1988), a Maverick Tribute Award (2003) and an Inkpot Award (2008). 

Legacy and influence
Many of Bakshi's projects remain divisive to this day. His animation is seldom pitch perfect. Off-model mistakes, continuity errors or less slick or fluid actions are quite common. Some imagery and designs look downright ugly. The storylines can occasionally leave a messy, unfocused and at times incomprehensible impression. Yet he shouldn't always be accounted for this personally. Bakshi was often plagued by budget problems and time restrictions. In order to properly finish his films he often had to resort to adding photographs, live-action footage or rotoscoping. He did this so frequently that viewers have regularly wondered why he didn't just make an actual live-action film instead? Although his name is associated with rotoscoping today, he ironically never liked the way it looked. Executive meddling by producers and censors also sabotaged his works. As a result, few of his films came out the way he envisioned them. It's therefore not surprising that they all received polarizing reviews.

Bakshi also suffered from undeserved bad publicity. For decades his name was synonymous with "animated porn", mostly with people who never looked past the nudity. The success of 'Fritz the Cat' paved the way for many adult animated pictures with low-brow sexual content, like Charles Swenson's 'Down and Dirty Duck' (1974), Picha's 'Tarzoon, La Honte de la Jungle' (1975) and Gerald Potterton's 'Heavy Metal' (1981). At a certain point every cartoon with nudity or adult themes was attributed to him, even if he had nothing to do with it. Since so many of these pictures were forgettable trash to make teenage boys snicker his reputation suffered even further. Many people for whom animation was nothing but a children's medium regarded him as a sleazy pervert who wanted to corrupt young kids with "depraved sex cartoons". As a result he found it increasingly difficult to find funding and distributors for his new projects. Even when he made normal children's TV films and series, there were still people who protested, purely based on his "adults only" reputation. 

Yet as time went by Bakshi's fanbase grew. Many of his movies were rediscovered and reappreciated as one of the few original and artistically interesting works during the Dark Age of Animation (1960-1988).  When most other cartoons lacked originality or vision, Bakshi at least offered an alternative. He moved away from the idea that everything had to mimick Disney. Rather than tell child friendly stories about funny animals he made pictures about mature themes. Instead of making escapist fairy tales he presented worlds set in the harsh reality of everyday life. Contrary to most cartoon studios he didn't make a slick, uniform, bland factory product, but works with a strong, personal vision. Beauty and technical excellence weren't as important as atmosphere and attitude. By not compromising  or pandering to mass audiences, he was praised as a maverick film maker, operating outside the Hollywood system. Many of his movies have therefore stood the test of time as cult classics. 

Likewise, Bakshi's historical stature has grown too. He created a market for adult animation, paving the way for TV series like Matt Groening's 'The Simpsons' and 'Futurama', John Kricfalusi's 'Ren and Stimpy', Mike Judge's 'Beavis & Butt-head' and 'King of the Hill', Everett Peck's 'Duckman', Trey Parker and Matt Stone's 'South Park' and Seth MacFarlane's 'Family Guy' and 'American Dad'. In 'The Simpsons' episode 'The Day the Violence Died' (1996) his work was even spoofed in a segment named 'Itchy & Scratchy Meet Fritz the Cat.'  On the Internet too, many online cartoon series have also delved into mature themes. As Bakshi once said: "Baby, I'm the most ripped-off cartoonist in the history of the world, and that's all I'm going to say."

Books about Ralph Bakshi
Artwork from Bakshi's animated cartoons and comics can be read in the highly recommended book 'Unfiltered: The Complete Ralph Bakshi' (Universe, 2008) by Chris McDonnell and Jon M. Gibson, which has a foreword by Quentin Tarantino. 

Ralph Bakshi


Series and books by Ralph Bakshi in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:


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