"Archer: 1999" The Unofficial Study Guide
I’ve got another confession to make:
I’m your fool.
Actually… that’s not true. I don’t know why I just sang that… or typed it out for that matter.
But I do need to confess that as of last week I didn’t know anything about Alex Toth.
As it turns out, that’s ok to admit because odds are seriously good that you hadn’t heard of him till 20 words ago (22 if you factor in contractions).
That is just bonkers.
Because it is not a stretch to say that Alex Toth is like the Jack Kirby of 60’s cartoon character design. The only real difference is Alex Toth created his beautiful designs for Hanna-Barbera shows that tended to be short lived and made cheap. Which I guess now that I’ve typed it out, it is a pretty significant difference.
Maybe it’s like. If Jack Kirby was Ron Howard, Alex Toth would be Clint Howard...
Or hmmm, lets see, if Jack Kirby is Iron Maiden, Alex Toth would be Anvil.
Any of this sticking? Well, whatever. I tried and honestly you’re the one who should feel ashamed for being so poorly cultured.
Here’s a highlight reel of Alex Toth’s television character design resume, which makes clear why I feel embarrassed to have gone this long without knowing his name.
Like me, you may have just learned a lot, but what you most certainly already knew, because you just can’t possibly be this sheltered, is that many of Alex Toth’s cartoons for Hanna-Barbera, were later “re-imagined” by Cartoon Network in the form of Adult Swim shows. It began with Space Ghost: Coast to Coast in 1994. Then later with the launch of Adult Swim as a true block of shows came Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law, The Brak Show, and of course, Sealab 2021, co-written and produced by TV’s Adam Reed.
I never worked on Sealab 2021. Adult Swim launched in 2001, so I was in high school at the time...
Holy shit, I just realized that Adult Swim launched the same week as 9/11. Shit's cray.
Though he never stated anything publicly as far as I can tell. Privately, Alex Toth was not happy about what Cartoon Network did to his shows. Michael Ouweleen, co-creator of Harvey Birdman, said as much In an interview with Atlanta’s Creative Loafing:
Creative Loafing: Do the original creators of "Birdman" or "Sealab" ever come up to you and say, "What the hell did you do to my character?"
Ouweleen: Yes, they're mad about it. They're probably like, "Those punks." And we're like, "Whatever." Joe Barbera or his lawyer sent a pretty nicely worded letter at the beginning, when he caught wind of the show, which said, "Please don't." We've heard that Alex Toth is mad at us. He was this amazing designer for "Birdman" and "Sealab" — the model sheets are freaking gorgeous. It's all designed beautifully, but then you see the final cartoon, and it's total crap. Everything got watered way down. So I'm amazed that he's mad at us, because he should be mad at what they did to the original "Birdman" cartoon.
While I’m sure Alex Toth was kind of pissed off at Adult Swim, he also definitely was mad about what they did to the original cartoons he designed.
The equally legendary character designer, Iwao Takamoto (Cinderella, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, Scooby-Doo, etc), told stories about working with Toth at Hanna-Barbera:
Working with Alex was not always easy. Even though he adapted to the way of working within “limited animation”, he frequently disagreed with it, citing what was from his perspective a lack of quality… I don’t know how many times Alex stormed in to Joe [Barbera]’s office, railing about the incompetence of some person or persons in the animation staff and threatening to quit, only to walk out again having been appeased by Joe, and with a new assignment in hand…
Seriously y’all. Take a look at some of these designs, up next to what actually got drawn for the show. It’s real sad.
Even when Toth’s designs went straight to television, without any animators to muck it up, something else would inevitably go awry. One of Toth’s earliest television gigs was a show called “Space Angel” that is just remarkably awful. It’s hard to even call it “animation”. It was really just beautiful, utterly motionless drawings, which used this “technology” called “Synchro-Vox” that was… well. You’re just gonna have to go see for yourself. It was something else.
Anyway, I am not off the mark for saying that Toth was the Jack Kirby of his trade. From the book, Genius Animated :
Preparing for 1980’s programming, Spears and Ruby teamed with comic book writer Steve Gerber (recently and contentiously separated from Marvel Comics and engaged in a legal struggle for control of his most famous creation, Howard the Duck). The result? The post-apocalyptic Thudarr the Barbarian. Alex Toth was hired to do character designs for the sunsword-wielding title character and his two companions, the sorceress Ariel and Ookla, the Mok. Toth was happy to once again depart the Hanna-Barbera animation factory, though his willingness to remain at Ruby-Spears abruptly ended when Alex learned that Jack Kirby was also being brought on to do designs. There was no personal animosity between Toth and Kirby, but Alex felt there was no need for two “alpha dogs” in the kennel, so he stepped way.
A decade later in 1990, Toth was inducted into the Jack Kirby Hall of Fame (which I also didn’t know about till just now).
Anyway, why are you reading all this? Not sure, but I’ll tell you why I’m writing it: we all need to be a better TV audience. Adam Reed writes some dense scripts, that have many overt and many more subtle references to pop-culture that make his shows rich and fulfilling and uncommonly re-watchable. This coming season is no different, and I’m here to help prepare you for Archer: 1999 by listing out a decent, but not comprehensive, list of influences to the kind of season we are making. Not everything on this list is directly referenced, but they all had a certain gravitational influence on the trajectory of this season. This is not a list of every important science fiction story. If you want that, go read all the listicles on Buzzfeed and have field day.
Without further adieu, here is your highly unofficial,
Archer: 1999 The Unofficial Study Guide
FUN FACT: this is where season 10 gets it’s subtitle. It’s public domain, go watch it y’all.
This list should probably be longer, and include a lot of pulp comics that I am just unfamiliar with… I’m not a comic-buff. I know about the Incal, but I don’t really feel like we’re riffing on that… I dunno. Maybe we are.
This isn’t exactly part of the “study guide”, but while I’ve been working on this season, I’ve put together a Spotify playlist of sci-fi related music. This isn’t a comprehensive list of space songs, because as it would turn out, every musician writes at least one space song, and some of them, even if they’re iconic, still suck. Seriously, go listen to “Solar System” by The Beach Boys. Silver Surfers they were not. Anyway. I personally think the tracks on that list are damn good no matter whether they relate to this season or not. I hope you agree.
PLAYLIST: “ARCHER: 1999” on Spotify