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The Smurfs, Jay Ward, and Breakfast of the Gods
I was recently tweeting about NBC’s great lineup of cartoons from the 1980s. That decade was a high point of animated entertainment, that was embodied by the long-running TV show, The Smurfs.
The Smurfs’ TV run spanned the entire decade, starting in 1981 and wrapping production in 1989. While time-wise it is not even in the top 10 of longest-running animated shows, by episode numbers it cracks into that illustrious Simpsons-led list with a whopping 258 episodes.
While I knew which cartoons were successful, it got me wondering, what was credited as the first Saturday Morning Cartoon?
The first Saturday Morning cartoon was a show called, Crusader Rabbit, featuring the characters Crusader Rabbit and his sidekick Ragland T. Tiger. It wasn’t made specifically for that time slot, but it was the first animated show made to be shown exclusively on television, and would eventually move to Saturday mornings.
It was a big risk. Even though people knew kids were very interested in cartoons, animation was expensive to produce. But decision-makers thought two things would make them ultimately profitable:
While the animation was pricey to produce, the voice acting was not.
There was a belief that they could rerun this content more often because kids would not remember the original airings enough to lose interest.
Broadcasters identified two time slots where children watched the most television, between 10 a.m. and noon on Saturday mornings and 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays. Crusader Rabbit premiered on a Tuesday in 1950, but soon made its way to kid-friendly Saturday Morning.
Crusader Rabbit was done on the cheap, but it proved to be popular enough for everyone to see there was money to be made making television cartoons for children. It also opened up doors for one of its talented creators, who would go on to bigger and more memorable things.
Jay Ward is a legend in animation. His first successful creation was Crusader Rabbit, which he lost the rights to in a legal fight. This forced Ward to try to come up with something else, and he pushed another project he had worked on, The Frostbite Falls Revue. This show would evolve and get a new name, Rocky and His Friends.
Rocky and His Friends would premier on the ABC television network in 1959. It would become notable for two characters who would eventually skyrocket to fame, Rocket J. Squirrel and Bullwinkle J. Moose.
What does the J stand for?
The J. in Bullwinkle J. Moose and Rocket J. Squirrel stands for Jay (as in Jay Ward) and is a recurring middle initial for his creations. Matt Groening, creator of the Simpsons, would give his famous creation, Homer J. Simpson, the same middle name in honor of Ward.
Jay Ward Productions
Jay Ward Productions was an animation studio founded by Ward to produce his animation projects. It is well known for its work on Bullwinkle, Rocky, and George of the Jungle, but it also worked on another character you might also be familiar with.
In 1959, Jay Ward Productions became a part of the advertising firm, Dancer Fitzgerald Sample. It would be there that they would help to create the beloved breakfast cereal spokescharacter, Cap’n Crunch.
The Cap’n is still going strong today and has appeared in hundreds of advertisements for his cereal, but I want to point your attention to a less official look at the Cap’n and his mascot pals, Breakfast of the Gods by Brendan Douglas Jones.
Breakfast of the Gods
I stumbled across Jones’ Breakfast of the Gods when it was a work-in-progress back in 2006 and was instantly hooked. This non-canonical story is a gritty and violent tale of the struggles between the warring factions in the fictional land of Cerealia. With Count Chocula and his minions on one side and Cap’n Crunch and his allies on the other.
According to Jones,
The impetus for this project came in 1988 when, as an art school freshman at Parsons School of Design in NYC, I and my buddies Greg Lovinski and Jason Mcdonald started a very loopy conversation very late at night. They were stoned – I, perhaps sadly, was not. “What if,” one of us began, “what if the cereal cartoon characters got into a fight – who would be good and who would be bad?”
I can’t speak for Greg or Jason, but the idea of this brightly colored, vitamin-fortified Götterdämmerung never left me. Being the obsessive pop-culture alchemist I am, I kept expanding on the tale, fleshing out an actual narrative. This is the result.
It is an epic work of creativity and mascot fandom that can only be described as a labor of love.
Unfortunately, the parties who own these various characters never endorsed the work. So access to the full story has been spotty over the years. You can see various panels at the story’s original website or pick up a print copy while it is still available.