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More Adventures In Furry Archaeology [Sep. 26th, 2012|01:04 am]
Symphonic Rock Productions
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[Mood |excitedexcited]

Last week I went to the record show and came across a strange album in a cardboard inner sleeve, missing its outer cover. I couldn’t instantly identify what it was, but it had ancient newspaper cartoons on it, which led me to think it might be the biography of a cartoonist, or something of that nature. But what really stopped me from passing it over was that it had “Notes by E.B. White” written in big print.

For those who don’t know, E.B. White is the author of such Furry classics as “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stewart Little.” Thus, even though the cartoons on the sleeve weren’t obviously Furry, I felt there was a good chance this was something of interest. So I tossed it in my pile and thought no more about it until I got home and started going through my haul.

On inspection I discovered it was every bit as old as it looked, circa 1954. And I started reading what E.B. White had written on the sleeve. And as I read I was not sure if he was talking about a fictional story contained on the record, or the actual story of a newspaper columnist in the year 1916 who turned his column over to his cockroach alter-ego (or fursona, as we would say today.)

A little research on the net revealed that the story was indeed true. Not only had there been a newspaper column credited to a cockroach, but it had been intensely popular. The author, Don Marquis, had collected stories told by Archy The Cockroach into a book in 1950. And two 78 albums had been made from this book, both of which were collected on this LP, one on each side, under the title “Archy And Mehitabel, A Back-Alley Opera.”

At first I was thinking, “Darn, it would have to be a cockroach. Cockroaches get no respect in the fandom.” But then I read that it was about a cockroach in love with a disreputable cat, and then I was starting to get excited, because this record isn’t on a children’s label. It’s on Columbia Masterworks, meaning it was marketed to adults.

As a Furry historian, I’m always on the look-out for evidence of Funny Animals being taken seriously by adults. You rarely find such evidence in animation or comics, but it’s surprising how often you find it in stage works where there was no way of portraying a cat or a cockroach believably. They had to totally anthropomorphize the characters and somehow depend on the audience to understand that this obviously human performer was supposed to be an animal.

Anyway, it seems that this record was popular in its day. Popular enough to be made into a successful stage musical, which was later still made into an animated film called “Shinbone Alley” that I had somehow never seen. And I’m glad I didn’t see it before discovering the album, because I probably wouldn’t have appreciated it as much.

Anyway, as I prepared to play the record I was totally psyched. It was indeed a significant piece of Furry history, and I had my fingers crossed that it would be good.

Five minutes into the album my head was reeling from how good this album was, particularly for its age. It’s punctuated with hot jazz rhythms, and the subject matter ranges from philosophical to sexual. It’s a totally adult Furry work – the kind of thing I’d just love to shove down the throat of anyone who suggests nothing like this existed before 1980.

Tonight I watched the movie that was made from this album on YouTube. And I was quite worried that the effect of the original album would be diminished by the film makers, as it was made in 1971 during a period where animation was in a very bad place, visually. But also in a very good place, as the success of the Fritz The Cat movie was only a year away. So there was probably not so much skepticism involved in making an animated film for adults.

Still, I was sure they’d cut stuff out to make it more kid friendly. Would the cockroach still be suicidal? Would they cut out the bit about the cat trying to drown her kittens? No, they left that all in, along with the over glorification of Mehitabel’s promiscuous lifestyle.

Mehitabel. What Kind of name is that for a cat? Well, it’s actually a T.S. Elliot type name for a cat. But, “Old Possom’s Book Of Practical Cats” came out in the 1930’s. Don Marquis came up with Mehitabel in 1916. What does that suggest? It suggests Furry creators of the early 20th century influencing each other. It suggests the existence of a Furry culture that long ago.

This is further demonstrated by the fact that they got E.B. White, yet another Furry creator, to do the album notes, and that the illustrator for the newspaper columns and early book collections was George Harriman, creator of Krazy Kat. Thus we can see here a real congregation of Furry creators - not just comic artists in general, but artists specifically noted for the creation of anthropomorphic animals. Possibly the equivalent of the Rowrbrazzle crew of their age. Or, at least showing that somebody back then recognized something in common about these people and thought it significant enough to bring them together. Possibly they wanted to show that there was an established fandom for this sort of thing.

But, were they right? Was there an established fandom for anthropomorphic animals in the early 20th century? I think the theory was born out by the fact that this album was greeted by respectible sales, rather than a resounding WTF.

The main thing that is missing from the movie is that the album has someone playing Don Marquis who tells Archy’s story. He is the “Boss” you hear Archy referring to in the movie. And it’s a little confusing now that this character is absent.

It also takes away a good bit of the historical concept. It deprives the viewer of the awareness that there actually was a real newspaper column credited to this cockroach. But otherwise, everything is there and more. It’s just as loud, irreverent and in your face.

One thing it is not is cute. It comes from an era when cuteness was considered the enemy of adult animation. It was obviously believed in the early 70’s that adults liked cartoons for their intellectual and satirical qualities. Cuteness was for attracting kids. And no one wanted to be attracting kids to adult works.

But otherwise, even though the film was made nearly 20 years after the album, you pretty much have the same cast, including Carol Channing as Mehitabel, which actually might have caused me to leave the album behind if I’d noticed, as I have never in my life had a use for Carol Channing. But she has just the perfect voice for this promiscuous feline.

If I have any real dissatisfaction with the film, it’s that I wish it had been made in an era where it might have had cuter character designs and better animation. But then, it probably couldn’t have been made in any other era. Beyond the 70’s there would have been no tolerance for the jazzy music or the deep thought provoking philosophy. Earlier there would have been no precedent for an adult animated feature.

Anyway, here’s a link to the movie on YouTube. And, as you watch it, try to bear in mind that this has no extra added crudeness for the 70’s. Archy And Mehitabel have been this racy since 1916.


[User Picture]From: c_eagle
2012-09-26 06:38 am (UTC)
The story (not the movie specifically) was one of the very favorites of a friend of mine years ago.. interesting find, and great write-up.
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[User Picture]From: huskyteer
2012-09-26 11:37 am (UTC)
I know of Archy and Mehitabel ('wotthehell wotthehell') but had no idea there were records! Exciting find.

And in one of those coincidence things, that's the second time in as many days Don Marquis has cropped up in my online reading.
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[User Picture]From: sabotlours
2012-09-26 02:43 pm (UTC)
As you were describing the plot I had a flash in my head that I might have seen this movie before. Then I clicked on the link and BINGO! "Shinbone Alley!" I happened to stumble upon it on Netflix on demand. I even showed it at a couple of furmeets.
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[User Picture]From: ungulata
2012-09-28 12:36 am (UTC)
I'm surprised you'd never heard of archie and mehitabel. The lesson of the moth is a favorite in my family and my mother might still have a quote from that bit copied by my aunt using alphabet soup noodles glued to a board.
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[User Picture]From: klepsydra
2012-09-28 05:12 am (UTC)
At least two books collect the stories; _archy and mehitabel_ and _archys life of mehitabel_. (Lower case sic; archy works the typewriter by headbutting it, so can't use the shift key.) They are both quite wonderful.

life says mehitabel is just one damn kitten after another.
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[User Picture]From: symphonic_rp
2012-09-28 05:31 am (UTC)
I just ordered this one off Ebay.


Edited at 2012-09-28 05:33 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: Juan Carlos Alamilla
2012-10-09 12:10 am (UTC)
Do you have time nos to post moré fawcett funny animals cómics with Billy the kid in them, and what about the other peter rabbit cómic, thanks!
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