by Rick Mazumdar
Most of us know this show as that show with the dog and the farmer and his wife and a bunch of spooky stuff that happened on their farm in the middle of "Nowhere".
Well....you're not wrong about that detail. But let's look at it a little more closely.
As most of you will agree ,"Courage the Cowardly Dog" was one of those TV shows that you couldn't live without. If you were a kid born in the early 1990's you and was probably raised by Television then it is most likely that this show would have caught your eye,I believe that if you ever watched this show then it would have definitely had some from artistic impression on you but has remained dormant since you probably have not pursued it but has influenced your character,your nature,your being in some aspect or the other.
Now you might be thinking , "What is this guy talking about?"
"I thought this show was about a dog and spooky stuff."
"Artistic influence? Is this guy even serious?"
Well I am, so lets just talk about the show a little bit ,then I'll go into detail about what I mean to say.
John R. Dilworth ( May God and H.R Giger bless this man) pitched the series to Hanna-Barbera's animated shorts showcase What a Cartoon!.The segment was nominated for an Academy Award, but lost to Wallace and Gromit's A Close Shave. Cartoon Network greenlit a series from the short, which premiered on November 12, 1999. It ended on November 22, 2002, with a total of 52 episodes and four seasons (with 13 episodes per season) produced.
"Courage the Cowardly Dog" received critical acclaim for its unusual atmosphere, humor, and themes. During its run, the series was nominated for 2 Golden Reel Awards, winning 1 additional Golden Reel Awards and 1 Annie Award. Spin-off media include comic books, DVD and VHS releases, and collectible toys.
Well let's just start from the top ,and as you all might know the show was about a dog who lived in the middle of nowhere,which was also the name of the city,raised by two loving (well one loving,one not so much) foster parents Eustace and Muriel Bagge ,the ironically named Courage fights off danger in the form of demons, radioactive cockroaches, talking gerbils,anthropomorphic cats, space chickens, demons, zombies, mummies and undead Quentin Tarantino (Benton Tarantella).
The show focused on themes you might recall such as horror or Science Fiction (but mostly horror) with splashes of Black Comedy,Horror comedy, and Supernatural fiction.What you might not know is that "Courage the Cowardly Dog" was not an ordinary show, and had plenty of art references and subliminally influenced your choices in cinema and art.
Now this is a 1948 painting by the American artist Andrew Wyeth called "Christina's World". Now if you look closely the house in the middle of Nowhere is based on this painting. Also the the color of the fields, although in the TV show it was completely arid, though it bears several similar qualities, such as the texture, the atmosphere and the whole feel of the painting.
This is the house we see in the show.
"American Gothic" is a painting by Grant Wood in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. Wood's inspiration came from what is now known as the American Gothic House, and his decision to paint the house along with "the kind of people I fancied should live in that house." The painting shows a farmer standing beside a woman that has been interpreted to be either his wife or his daughter. The figures were modeled by the artist's sister and their dentist. The woman is dressed in a colonial print apron evoking 19th-century Americana, and the couple are in the traditional roles of men and women, the man's pitchfork symbolizing hard labor, and the flowers over the woman's right shoulder suggesting domesticity.
Now doesn't this painting ring a bell?
Eustace and Muriel are undoubtedly modeled after the farmer and wife (or daughter) in the painting "American Gothic".
The season pilot which was "The Chicken from Outer Space" was nominated for best Short Film at the 68th Academy Awards.
It was followed up with "Revenge of the Chicken from Outer space" and "Son of the Chicken from Outer Space",the themes of which were reminiscent of classic science fiction alien invasion movies from the 1940's and 1950's and some from later decades,namely "It Came from Outer space","Invaders from Mars","Alien","Invasion of the Body Snatchers", and various science fiction films of that era.
A still from the film " Invaders from Mars".
Various classical science fiction movies were referred to during the progress of the series one of which is "La Planete Sauvage" or Fantastic Planet.
In the episode "Tulip's worm" we see similar images as in the film.
Courage the Cowardly Dog was also heavy on using various types of musical interludes which were generally full of suspense and comedy,most the music was provided by Dilworth himself along with Jody Gray and Andy Ezrin .It was influenced from Carl Stalling's work on Warner Brothers animated TV shows.
Besides relying heavily on art and popular culture,it presented themes that were often lacking in other animated TV shows,it presented a realists view of the world,while bordering on the absurd,it presented humor where it seemed out of place in a heavily surreal environment.
If one might recall there was an entire episode dedicated to the art museum The Louvre in France where the paintings came alive (the episode in question is So in Louvre are we two,episode 3 season 8),the story of the episode was that at a certain position of the moon the light reflected from it brought the art in the Museum to life,the sub plot was "The Thinker" and Mona Lisa falling in love (absurd of course,but in good taste).Various paintings were featured in that episode ,to name a few,"American Gothic","Nighthawks","Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte","The Scream","The Birth of Venus","The Mona Lisa" and several other paintings and sculptures as well.
Coming now to the main theme of the show which was Horror ,the show was heavily dependent on this genre classics like "Dawn of the Dead","Night of the living dead", "The Exorcist" etc were a regular feature on the show,drawing from the essentials such as fear,helplessness and gore it managed to capture the audiences attention.
One of the best features were in fact the production design of every episode,though similar in most cases,each episode had a tinge of uniqueness,some episodes had animation that was completely different from the rest,some featured heavy 3D effects,some had realistic features,while some others had stop motion. For example the "King Ramses Curse" episode featured 3D animation,where as the series finale "The Remembrance of Courage Past " features stop motion and realistic effects.
Beyond this,the show dealt,human imperfection,fear,loathing and hatred,but it also featured simple acts of kindness,love ,faithfulness and fear of loss.
It was heavily influential on myself,because of all these broad themes,and it definitely different from most other run of the mill animated shows,which basically had crises which were dealt with perfect precision by perfect people who were flawless in every way,thus the recurring theme of realism and pain and fear mirrored everyday life,though cryptic in its outlook,it did feature an immense amount of brilliant storytelling.
The show went on to win the Golden Reel Award in 2001 for best sound editing for the episode "Courage in the Big Stinkin' City" and John R.Dilworth received an individual recognition for "Outstanding Individual Achievement in Production Design in an Animated Television Production in the year of 2000 at the Annie awards.
Art has this great way of revealing itself at various points of our life, it stays hidden,subliminally. I believe that the discovery of art is the most important factor,no matter what the medium may be. Pastiche versions of art exist not to ridicule the original but to draw the attention to the original. This show does it with a lot nonchalance so much so that we never acknowledged it while watching it. We were too busy focused on the story while the background was this plethora of design containing all these beautiful references. I for one am always more interested on the production design and the background, many-a-times the artist hides a reference to some great piece most people won't even realize.
Some viewers might feel that they can't relate to the show because of the slapstick humor and the running gags or it maybe too creepy at times to view. But some episodes in the series is completely stand alone and they have so much heart and character that one would be forced to acknowledge the magnitude of the work. The last episode for example would be the most apt to corroborate this point. "The Remembrance of Courage's past" Courage's mysterious past comes to light, when his parents were sent to space by a veterinarian. When Muriel and Eustace notice he is not responding, still haunted by that treacherous event, they take him to the same vet that sent his parents into space, unaware that the vet is now going to send the first humans to the moon, which will be Muriel and Eustace (actually, the first man on the moon was Neil Armstrong). Courage must save them after realizing that Muriel has become a major character in his life, besides his parents. And the follow up episode
When Courage cannot do anything correctly, the "Teacher" approaches him, who is the manifestation of Courage's own doubts and insecurities that have plagued him. She trains him strictly into becoming a perfect dog, but in the end, Courage learns that there is no such thing as perfect.
The themes of the show are all open to interpretation, various fan theories exist. Some suggest that Courage might have dreamed up his entire life and that Eustace and Muriel are figments of his imagination. Hence the entire series is open to this interpretation.
Thus Courage The Cowardly dog isn't your average run of the mill show,it's very left-of-center and has a huge artistic quotient which is a different reason to watch the show altogether.
So if you have a taste in the arts,in science fiction or horror fiction,your earliest recollections might in fact be Courage the Cowardly Dog,secretly and subliminally your interests might have grown and made you the person you are today.
Always remember,Courage did the things he did for love, and probably y'all should do it too.