The Case For Bingeing Jonny Quest (1964)

Race, Jonny, Bandit, Hadji, and Dr. Quest,
as drawn by their creator, Doug Wildey
"What is the matter, Jonny? Are you not happy?"
"Instead of traveling in a truck, I was hoping we'd get to ride camels."

Don't you wish you'd had an adventurous childhood in which transportation by camel was an everyday thing? Where you could spend your formative years circling the globe in a private airplane... with your brilliant omnidisciplinary scientist father and your adopted brother from India who wears a turban and has mystical powers, getting your education from a former spy who teaches you judo and other useful skills instead of boring old math and spelling? You’d journey to distant and exotic lands, meet interesting people, and have exciting encounters with spies, pirates, criminal masterminds, mad scientists, robots, Egyptian mummies, werewolves, and the occasional invisible energy monster.

You could live that life of adventure if you were the 11-year old protagonist of the 1964 Hanna-Barbera animated series Jonny Quest.

Jonny Quest was created by veteran comic book artist Doug Wildey, inspired by “pulp adventures” such as the radio serial Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy. (In fact, his original intent was to make an animated Jack Armstrong series, but he couldn't obtain the rights to that property.)  The show followed the exploits of Jonny, his brother Hadji, their dog Bandit, his father Dr. Benton Quest, and ex-spy Roger "Race" Bannon, the family's bodyguard-tutor-babysitter and all-round man of action.  (The first episode established that Race was assigned to them because Jonny's mother Rachel was deceased.) Each installment found them on a different adventure in a different part of the world: one week, they’re in Egypt on an archaeological dig (“The Curse of Anubis”), the next, they’re in Norway assisting an anti-gravity experiment (“The House of Seven Gargoyles”), then it’s off to Nepal to defend a mountain village against an army of abominable snowmen (“Monster in the Monastery"), and the week after that, they're up against a flying dinosaur in the Amazon jungle (“Turu the Terrible”).

The show was produced by Hanna-Barbera, animated in their usual cheap minimalist style.  However, Doug Wildey deliberately patterned the artwork and character design on Minton Caniff’s acclaimed comic strip Terry and the Pirates, and the artists went the extra mile on details such as the World War One biplanes in "Shadow of the Condor," giving the show a classier look than its contemporaries.  The writing was more in line with what you'd get in a live-action series, and even the theme music and score were a cut above the usual cartoon fare. The result was a lively, visually sophisticated “boys’ adventure” of the sort they don’t make ‘em like anymore.

Or, to put it another way, Jonny Quest is very much a product of its era.  For one thing, it was made before the issue of violence in children’s television became a mainstream concern.  Though not gory or exploitative by any means, Jonny Quest had no hesitation showing people (usually villains) being shot, poisoned, blown up, walloped with blunt instruments, thrown off of cliffs, smashed into mountainsides, crushed in cave-ins, mired in tar pits, or fed to genetically-enhanced Komodo dragons.  Exotic creatures such as the titular monster in “The Invisible Monster” were considerably more frightening than anything that would be allowed today.

The overall portrayal of non-western cultures and peoples was typical for the times.  Though not deliberately malicious, much of it would be deemed insensitive by today’s standards. Recurring supervillain Dr. Zin bears more than a passing resemblance to Fu Manchu, with all that implies, and the Chinese cook in “The Sea Haunt” is a walking, talking, cringe-inducing stereotype.

At the same time, Jonny Quest can also take credit for being ahead of the curve in the “diversity” department.  Hadji may well have been the first non-white protagonist in American animation.  He’s portrayed as intelligent and capable, and circumspect and analytical in situations where Jonny tends to be impulsive and emotional.  He even gets his own origin story in "Calcutta Adventure."

And then there’s Jade, Race Bannon’s old flame from his spy days, who appears in two episodes, "Double Danger" and "Terror Island."  She’s beautiful, intelligent, assertive, streetwise, slightly mysterious, and quite handy with a firearm.  I am not ashamed to admit that 5-year-old me had a serious crush on her.

Jonny Quest ran for 26 episodes in prime time on ABC in the 1964-65 season.  It was well-received by critics and had decent ratings, but was nonetheless canceled because of its high production costs.  Those 26 episodes were re-run endlessly on Saturday mornings for the next ten or twelve years, on all three networks, and are now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.

There was a reboot/revival series made in the 1980s, and another in the 1990s.  We will not speak of them further, as they were but pathetic shadows of the original.  In contrast, the 1986-89 comic book published by Comico, to which Doug Wildey was a contributor, is a worthy tribute to the original series.

So get up early this Saturday, get comfortable in the living room in your pajamas with your milk and cereal on the TV tray in front of you, and get ready for adventure in the remote Andes mountains (“Shadow of the Condor”) or the back alleys of Hong Kong (“Terror Island”), at the top of the world (“Arctic Splashdown”) or beneath the sea (“Pirates From Below”).

Four out of four invisible energy monsters.

Baby M is very disappointed that he had no opportunity to meet a genetically-enhanced Komodo dragon or invisible energy monster when he was 11 years old.

2 comments:

Patryk said...

I did watch it in the 90s on Cartoon Network as a kid. The golden age of cable TV in Poland when all the channel were in a foreign lanaguage. Kids these days have it harder to learn English sadly.

An Honest Fangirl said...

This article just broke into my home and whacked me upside the head with childhood memories. I also watched it on Cartoon Network as a kid. And maybe also Boomerang? It was one of the two. I also definitely had massive crushes on both Race and Dr. Quest. Oh man... I haven't thought about this show in forever.