Saturday, 10 March 2012

NBC Comics, Part 1

So what was the first cartoon series made for television? It depends on what you mean by “cartoon.”

A number of news articles came out in 1957 stating that Hanna-Barbera’s “Ruff and Reddy” was the first made-for-TV series. Of course, that wasn’t quite the case. “Crusader Rabbit” had debuted in syndication in 1950; it first appeared on KNBH in Los Angeles on Tuesday, August 1 that year. But there was another series that gets talked about, though people know very little about it.

Billboard magazine reported in its issue of August 26, 1950:

NBC-TV Slots Four Comics in Spot Across Board
NBC-TV last week slotted a new program, “NBC Comics,” in the 5-5:15 slot across the board following Kate Smith. There will be four separate three-minute cartoons in the show—“Kid Chain,” [sic] “Space Barton,” “Danny March” and “Johnny and Mr. Do Good.” The cartoons do not use live animation but a new “stop-and-go technique.” The program begins September 18.

There isn’t a lot of contemporary information about the show. It seems to have confused some newspapers, as they listed it as “Cartoon Serials.” It was sponsored by Standard Brands through the Ted Bates agency and ran opposite “Lucky Pup” on CBS (for Bristol-Myer). It didn’t last long, and you can blame Lever Brothers. They wanted, and got, the 5 p.m. timeslot on NBC, so the network dumped the comics at the end of March 1951.

I was all set to post bits and pieces of information cobbled together about the cartoons themselves, but found researcher Jerry Beck beat me to it ages ago and discovered a lot more about them than I did. So allow me to purloin what he wrote in his book ‘Animation Art’:

Telecomics has to be considered one of the first cartoon series produced for television. However, there was virtually no animation on the show. It is just as its title suggests: a series of comic-strip style drawings filmed sequentially, with an occasional animated effect.
Early Days
Telecomics, Inc. was first formed in 1942 by a pair of Disney animators, Dick Moores and Jack Boyd. In 1945 they filmed a pilot, “Case of the Missing Finger Chapter 4, The Belt of Doom” starring Peril Pinkerton, [copyright July 31]. This led to a syndicated 15-minute television program in 1949, which consisted of four three-minute stories.
The original show contained “Brother Goose” by Cal Howard; “Joey and Jug”, a clown story by Arnold Gillespie; “Rick Rack Secret Agent,” by Miles Pike and Pete Burness, and “Sa-Lah,” an Arabian Knights fantasy drawn by A.J. Metcalf. Jack Kirkwood, Lilien Leigh and Bill Grey provided the voice-over narration. The syndicated series was distributed by Vallee Video, owned by singer Rudy Vallee, but, unfortunately, these early broadcasts have been lost.
Made-for-TV Animation
The NBC network optioned the property in 1950, re-packaging the program and hiring cartoonists Moores and Boyd to produce it. The re-named NBC Comics now earned a place in history as the first made-for-TV network cartoon program.
The NBC cartoon contained serialized of a new group of adventure comic stars. Episodes would begin with the opening of a comic book, the first page showing a silhouette of the lead character and indicating it was either part one, part two or part three of the day’s episodes. The page was then turned to show a full-screen character opening title. Each episode was approximately three-and-a-half minutes long.
“Space Barton” was the most interesting of the lot. Horace “Space” Barton, Jr. is an all-American college football star who enlists in the Army Air Corps and is chosen to test the first U.S. jet plane. He then blasts off to Mars with his brother Jackie as a stowaway a rocket ship build by Professor Dinehart, an astronomer. The adventures have them engaged in a civil war on the red planet, pitted against a faction led by a deranged Earth scientist who had preceded them to Mars.
Colorful Characters
Other Telecomics stars include Danny March and Kid Champion. Danny March was the orphaned son of a Yale man who was raised by his uncle to be one of the toughest kids in Metro City. Danny turned to detective work when he was unable to become a police officer because of his short stature. Building a reputation as a tenacious private eye, he is hired by the mayor as his personal detective to stop crime in Metro City.
“Kid Champion” is the story of Eddie Hale, a musician who was urged by his former boxing-champ father to become a boxer. When Eddie mistakenly believes that he killed killed a gas station attendant during a holdup, he teams up with a hard-luck fight manager, Lucky Skinner, changes his identity to Kid Champion and refuses to talk about his past to anyone. Johnny and Mr Do-Right" followed the exploits of a young boy and his zany dog. One hundred and sixty-five episodes ran on NBC-TV from 18 September 1950 until 30 March 1951. Voices included Robert C. Bruce, Pat McGeeham [sic], Howard McNear, Lurene Tuttle, Tony Barret and Paul DeVall. The individual adventures were not titled, and after their network run, they again entered syndication as Telecomics.
It left TV screens in the early 1960s, due mainly to the onslaught of the Hanna-Barbera-led color cartoons, and the fact that the Telecomics had been filmed in black and white.

Jerry mentioned the show was originally in syndication in 1949 but I haven’t been able to find a television station that aired it. And calling it the “first television cartoon” goes back to the definition of “cartoon.” ‘Crusader Rabbit’ had limited movement, more so than the shows Hanna-Barbera invented toward the end of the ‘50s, but there was virtually no movement of drawings at all on ‘NBC Comics.’ So, I’d probably side with the school of thought that declares Crusader the first real made-for-TV cartoon.

‘NBC Comics’ wasn’t really missed, even when it was on the air. Walter Ames of the Los Angeles Times seems to have thought mothers would like their kids to see. But another newspaper columnist, and I didn’t note the source, noted in his TV review:

The unkindest cut of the week, the scrapping of the NBC video broadcast of the U.N. General Assembly meeting with “And now it is time for the NBC comics.”

Interestingly, “Peril Pinkerton” wasn’t among the original “Telecomics” or “NBC Comics,” but it still had some life. Billboard reported, on June 9, 1951, after “NBC Comics” had left the air:

Don Dewar, prexy of Telecomics, Inc., left for a sales hop to New York, hoping to peddle TV’s first 15-minute animated five-a-week strip. He will ask for $15,000 per week for national sponsorship of the strip “Peril Pinkerton.”

It could be that Pinkerton was the cartoon Dewar was talking about in a story published by the Associated Press several months after “NBC Comics” went off the air. The old show was already in syndication, but Dewar had Moores and Boyd go back to the drawing board. And with “Crusader Rabbit” now on the air, they seem to have realised they had to up their game. In reading this, you can’t help but realise that Hanna-Barbera’s limited animation, scoffed at by many today, was a real television breakthrough in 1957 compared to what had been made for TV to that point.

Animated Subjects in Making
By Jack Quigg

HOLLYWOOD, June 9. (AP)—A new kind of cartoon—part newspaper comic strip, part animated movie feature—is being developed especially for television. It won’t be as smooth as, say, a Donald Duck film, but it’s the best TV fans can expect in the foreseeable future.
This comes from Don Dewar, former lawyer and film studio executive who now heads Telecomics, Inc., one of the few firms making cartoons for television.
Dewar and two partners, Jack Boyd, formerly with Walt Disney, and Dick Moores, veteran newspaper cartoonist, went into production a little over a year ago. Now they have a staff of 50 and are working full blast.
They found that the field wasn’t crowded. TV cartoons were virtually limited to commercials, a few silent film comedies and the Crusader Rabbit series—not much for a nation of comic book fans.
The partners started with a series for NBC. The 15-minute program was devoted to the adventures of three heroes: Danny March, private eye; Boxer Kid Champion and Rocket Man Space Barton.
It wasn't much different from a funny-paper. Characters and backgrounds were done in watercolor wash. They flashed on the screen like comic strip panels but instead of balloons with printed dialogue the lines were read by actors. Once you got interested in the story you forgot the lack of action—almost.
But the partners considered this too static. Now in a new series being readied, they think they’ve gone about as far as you can go with a TV cartoon, considering time and money limitations.
There'll be action in this one. When a character talks, his lips will move, although the rest of his face may not. He’ll walk or throw things, if necessary. Cars and trains will move. There’ll be motion, but not the continuous flowing motion of a movie cartoon.

Peril was never in peril of poor ratings. That’s because he never got on TV to begin with.

And what happened to the Telecomics? Billboard revealed in a story dated January 9, 1954 that 168 of them had been acquired for distribution by the newly-formed National Telefilms Associates, the guys who slapped an NTA logo on all your favourite Fleischer cartoons (they acquired the distribution rights to the Fleischer Superman cartoons at the same time).

But “Telecomics” wasn’t the only attempt to put cartoons on television in the 1940s. In fact, it wasn’t the only ‘telecomics,’ either. We’ll have more on that in a future post.


  1. Interesting to learn of these NBC COMICS cartoons. RUFF AND REDDY was also joined by TOM TERRIFIC within CAPTAIN KANGAROO in 1957. I was 5, but I don't recall which one was first to air. You bet I watched both, though.

  2. There was a bunch of art from it online a few years ago. Here's the couple of pieces I bought:

  3. The "Johnny and Mr. Do Right" segments- which were usually presented after "Space Barton"- were brief vignettes (narrated by Verne Smith) that were designed to teach kids good health and safety habits. Several of these were edited together into a 1950 "educational"film, "Good Health Habits".

  4. these early TV cartoons look so low-budget they actually make Jay Ward's classic "crusader rabbit" look like Disney i think. sorta sad on how obscure this series originally, going deep into the history of TV cartoons from the 20's to the 50's is like digging for gold.