Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Not Plane Nor Bird, Nor Even Frog ...

image credit: screenshot by Cujo359. Underdog is copyright Classic Media, Inc.

I got a wonderful birthday present the other day. My sister sent me a set of DVDs of the old cartoon series Underdog. She recalls my fondness for the series as a boy. I seem to remember that we all liked the show, but that might be a convenient memory lapse on my part.

For those who aren't familiar, Underdog was a hero who had a humble day job ("Thanks, Shoeshine Boy, you're humble and lovable") and wore a red, white, and blue uniform with a cape. He had an unrequited love interest, reporter Polly Purebred. Sound familiar? Of course, it was a parody of Superman, and a clever one at times. Character actor Wally Cox was the voice of Underdog, and Norma McMillan was Polly Purebred, the Lois Lane to Cox's Clark Kent. The series ended abruptly with Cox's death in 1973.

Like Superman and most comic book heroes, Underdog never used his powers for personal gain. He lived in a small apartment, and couldn't get to first base with Polly. He took famous paintings home at night for safe keeping, and always brought them back to their owners in the morning. Like most cartoon and comic heroes, he did what was right and respected others because that's what you were supposed to do.

Babylon 5 and Jeremiah executive producer J. Michael Straczynski once described his view of comic book heroes:

"Which also leads to the point of comics, for me. As profoundly stupid as this may sound, I learned my sense of right and wrong, my sense of morality, from comics. When I was at Chicago ComicCon, and helped tackle a shoplifter in the dealer's room and bring him to the ground, somebody asked why I did it, since I could've been hurt. I pointed to the booth where I was standing when it happened, and a six-foot cutout of Superman. 'How could I stand here, in front of The Guy, and do nothing?' Comics have the potential not just to entertain, but also to ennoble, and enlighten, and elevate; to ask questions in need of asking. That has not changed post-9/11. It has only made that function more necessary than ever. Because comics are about heroes, and they remind us that it is important that we be heroes, not just in the shadow of tragedy, but every day.

"The man or woman coming hungry to the neighborhood homeless shelter or food bank trembles no less than someone who survived the Twin Towers. It is easy to give to the latter, but we must remember the former as well. I donated my entire salary from issue 36 to the Twin Towers Fund, but I also tithe a portion of my salary to a number of charities, local and national. Because that's what I learned in comics: that we are stewards of one another. That we must be heroes to one another.

"That function has not changed post-9/11. It has only become more vital."

One Year Later: JMS, Jemas On Comics Post-9/11

Science fiction taught me a great deal about morality, and so did comics and cartoons. In all those forms of entertainment "using your powers for good", while it's certainly a cliche, was still something to admire. From Superman to the X-Men, comic heroes have always believed that with great power comes great responsibility. Even though in the backs of our minds most of us knew it was an ideal we'd be lucky to emulate, it was still something to strive for. Kicking someone when he was down, or stealing from the less fortunate was a shameful act that only pathetic losers engaged in. Heroes helped the powerless; they didn't take advantage of them.

Now contrast that with the people we see lionized in the press and on TV. Karl Rove is considered a genius, yet has succeeded mainly because he's comfortable with assassinating the characters of others without taking responsibility. Ann Coulter, the venomous woman who accused the 9/11 widows of "enjoying" their widowhood, is invited on talk shows to this day. She recently called John Edwards a "faggot". Edwards is a former U.S. Senator who made his reputation as a lawyer fighting against large corporations for the good of poor and middle class victims, and who announced his bid for the Presidency from a poor section of New Orleans that he was helping to rebuild. This is the sort of man who merits the term "faggot" in the eyes of Coulter and her all-too-numerous admirers. The newspapers that have gone on record with their reasons for dropping her after that particular outburst mostly objected to the word, not the mean-spirited, small minded insults that emanate from her mouth and keyboard on a regular basis. Rush Limbaugh, on the other hand, can go to one of the child prostitution capitals of the world with a prescription for Viagra that wasn't even prescribed for him, and he's apparently a model of masculinity. Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity can't seem to keep a thought in their heads that doesn't involve themselves. All of these people are looked up to by a substantial portion of the population for reasons I cannot explain, nor would I want to try.

Remember "Kenny Boy" Lay and Jeffrey "My Way or the Highway - Hey What Did My Employees Do To My Company?" Skilling? They, too, were praised as "geniuses" and "innovators" by the press, yet they succeeded mostly because they were willing to lie to, steal from, and intimidate people who didn't have the resources to fight back. If New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and the U.S. Attorneys hadn't been willing to investigate them for the massive frauds they perpetrated, I'm sure much of the press would still be singing their praises.

Yet people like Edwards, President Jimmy Carter, and any one of thousands of celebrities and ordinary people who just try to make the world a better place however they can are regularly trashed by these folks, and TV and the press seem to just lap it up. You have to wonder just how pathetic they think we are out here, and how pathetic some of us really must be.

Some days I really miss Underdog.


Taylor Marsh said...

First, happy birthday, late, that is.

Secondly, you've made a very interesting point. Look at all the violent video games today. The Army is even setting up recruitment tables at paint gun places. Comics were so much different, but I, too, remember them teaching me things as well.

Lionizing Rove, or when Fox "News" props up Ann Coulter, all of it is obscene. Then there's Kenny boy, all of these people, with Bill O'Rielly and Rush thrown in too, really do play to the lowest part of humanity.

Some things, like Underdog, simply can't be replaced.

Cujo359 said...

Thanks, Taylor. It was a good birthday, as it happens.

I think what inspired this essay was the coincidence of receiving this DVD and hearing a friend, who is a lawyer, talking about how juries have changed in the last few years. He said it used to be that you could appeal to their sense of fair play and compassion, but nowadays it's better to explain how the defendants broke the rules. He said that he encounters far too many potential jurors who just want to be able to call up Rush or one of the other right wing blowhards and brag about how they kept some crybaby from getting an award.

Rules are important, and I don't think that folks are entitled to big settlements just because their back surgery didn't go as planned, but the attitude that compassion doesn't count for anything, just the rules, really bothers me. It bothers me even more that lack of compassion, generosity, or any other positive human trait, is seen as a virtue by these people.

I suppose we're really not much more than chimps with less hair and more language skills, but somehow I still think we should be doing better.

And it might help a little if their kids would unload America's Army once in a while and watch an Underdog or Superman DVD instead ;).


I won't ask your age, but I was just about to "grow out" of Under Dog, when he came a long.

Wally Cox, now there's a name I haven't seen in awhile. That's another thing, great character actors. I miss Strother Martin, next time you watch a movie with him in it, notice he steals every scene. No matter who's in the shot, you're watching him.
Col. Stonehill in True Grit.

shoephone said...

Cujo -- your birthday?? But you're ageless. Like Underdog (whom I loved.) Happy belated to you.

The theater director Dan Sullivan once told me a funny story about a conversation he had with Wally Cox on the subject of... proctologists. I kid you not. I wish I could remember the details now, but it was soemthing on the order of Wally having great admiration for his proctologist. Only Sullivan could make it funny, complete with his imitation of Cox. But never mind.

Underdog rules.

When will you be posting about Tennessee Tuxedo?

G-Natural said...

First off: happy (belated) birthday! Second: with this column, you’re speaking to something that I’ve often noticed in popular culture and the MSM…the unceasing tendency to attack people trying to help, if their personal politics are overtly left-leaning.

We saw a lot of this during the Katrina disaster. Folks like Al Gore and Sean Penn—stunned as the rest of us were by what they saw on TV—dropped everything and flew there to pitch in in any way that they could, yet their actions were sneered at as those of “limousine liberals” seeking career-enhancing photo-ops. (Oh right…wading in tropical heat through stinking muck and walking past the corpses of American citizens stacked like cordwood in the streets: yeah, that’s just the kind of photo-op I’d seek out.) Not to mention Anderson Cooper being dismissed as another ‘fag’ for having the weak-kneed inability to contain his emotions in the face of such an overwhelming, heartbreaking calamity.

Yet I didn’t see such paragons of virtue as Sean Hannity or Ralph Reed racing to get their wingtips dirty assisting in New Orleans, although I do remember Dubya joking and playing the guitar at the time—guess he’s not good-enough a fiddle player. “What Would Jesus Do”? Wellll, I remember hearing something about healing the sick, aiding the downtrodden, and not stopping to first inquire of their race or socio-economic level, either. But you’d never get these mean-spirited punks to acknowledge it; the Bible is only useful to them when they can beat someone else over the head with it.


PS: I too have fond memories of Underdog. I remember avidly watching him go up against the likes of Simon Bar-Sinister and Riff Raff, foiling attempts to steal the ‘Hopeless Diamond’ and whatnot.

Underdog may have been as dedicated and selfless a cartoon superhero as one could imagine, but he wasn’t no fool neither: after a customer delivered the classic “Thanks Shoeshine Boy…you’re humble and lovable.”--to which he dutifully responded, “Bless you sir”--I seem to recall that Shoeshine Boy would always test the proffered coin by biting it.

Cujo359 said...

Shoephone, whatever that story it is, it may be lost to time. I can't find it on the Internet. As for Tennessee Tuxedo, I'll have to get back to you.

g-natural - Yes, I'd seen some of the remarks various right wing jerks made about Sean Penn after Katrina. Stuff like this from LGF:
When Sean Penn’s life is made into a film, do you think they’ll dramatize this ridiculous episode? (Hat tip: LGF readers.)
You'll have to google that phrase yourself. I'm not going to link to those clowns when they write something like that. Better yet, anyone who wants to remember can Google a set of keywords like "Sean Penn Spicoli New Orleans" and see for yourselves. They're pitiful people.