Betty Boop, by Max Fleischer/Bud Counihan

Max Fleischer is best known as the co-founder of the famous Fleischer Studios, one of the first animation studios, which he started together with his brothers Dave and Joe. Max Fleischer emigrated to New York City at an early age, studying art at Cooper Union and the Art Students League. He worked as a commercial artist and cartoonist, but an interest in mechanics led him to animation. Specifically, he was driven to find a method to produce animation more efficiently and economically, and came up with a "method of producing moving picture cartoons" in 1915, and patented in 1917.

Max Fleischer's patent

The Fleischer Studio turned out some of the most inventive films of the period and Fleischer made the first sound cartoons of contemporary comic heroes like 'Popeye', the famous newspaper creation of Elzie Segar. At the end of the 1920s, the studio's top artist Grim Natwick came up with a new female character. It was a seductive, nameless side-character modeled after Helen Kane, a waning Hollywood star at the time, known for her high-pitched "Boop-Oop-a-doop". This character was initially the nameless girlfriend of 'Bimbo the Dog', but eventually developed into the popular and world famous Betty Boop character.

Max Fleischer and Betty Boop
Helen Kane and Max Fleischer

In July 1932, the name 'Betty Boop' was officially launched through her first title screen role in 'Betty Boop Limited'. As the fame of the cartoon character increased, the popularity of the live actress and singer Helen Kane diminished, and she threatened with lawsuits, all of which were unsuccessful. In 1933, the Fleischer Studio was negotiating a comic about Betty Boop with King Features Syndicate. They couldn't agree on a price, and Helen Kane stepped in, suggesting a comic based on her name and appearance. So it is that 'Betty Boop' first appeared in strip form as 'Boop-Boop-a-Doop Girl by Helen Kane'.

Boop-Boop-a-Doop Girl, by Helen Kane

With this feature in hand, King Features renegotiated a 'Betty Boop' comic with Fleischer. An agreement was reached, and comic artist Bud Counihan, who had created 'Little Napoleon' in the 1920s, was hired to draw the strip - which was titled 'Betty Boop by Max Fleischer'. As soon as it appeared in the newspapers, in 1934, it pushed away the Helen Kane strip. Because of the Depression and nation-wide distribution, Betty Boop's initial lurid appearance was somewhat toned down. Although Max Fleischer did not create Betty Boop, or ever draw the strip, he and his Studio were responsible for breathing life into the little sensuous girl. Another character of Fleischer-make which evolved from cartoon to comic, was 'Koko the Klown'.

In the 1930s, Fleischer's animated films were the main competition for Walt Disney's shorts, and the popularity of 'Popeye' was almost at the same height as that of 'Mickey Mouse'. But Disney got more general appreciation. Disney films were more innocent and had a more fluent animation, whereas Fleischer's films were considered a bit sleazy, with their violent and naughty characters, as well as their jazz soundtrack. It wasn't until the 1960s that the Fleischer films were rediscovered and revaluated, expecially within the underground comix movement.

Koko the Klown, by Max Fleischer

Toonopedia about Fleischer Studios
Toonoperdia about Betty Boop

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