I don’t know what age I was when I discovered Jonny Quest, I just know that it imprinted on me like few shows ever have. Its haunting artistic style, sense of adventure, and non-stop action were unlike any cartoon or even any other show during my childhood. Looking back I realize it was a Saturday morning cartoon equivalent of old time radio adventure. Only recently did I discover that the series was inspired by (and originally meant to be) the OTR show Jack Armstrong, Alllllllll American Boy. In my humble opinion, it greatly surpasses its inspiration, but they are two different mediums and eras, so perhaps it’s an unfair comparison.
The thing I enjoyed most (and still enjoy) about Jonny Quest was its sense of atmosphere. To a kid it felt like a true adult adventure, not a pacified kiddie story. The family faced serious threats such as dangerous locales, actual gunfire, and frightening creatures. This was not some simple kid’s program featuring ineffectual villains and harmless plots. The stories had a real sense of suspense and a fear for the heroes’ safety.
And the creatures, how I loved them, from the invisible monster to the pterodactyl. However, ask any kid who liked the show what creature they remember best and it’s good odds that it was the beast from The Robot Spy. I recently rewatched the episode, but my memory of it was strong already:
The creature arrives mysteriously, eluding interception with ease. Then it is discovered by the Quest family. What could this strange creature be and where did it come from? After the seemingly benign creature is brought into the army base, the creature secretly begins stalking about on some secret mission. Moving about like a massive spider, it strikes from the shadows, incapacitating any adversaries with its paralyzing attack.
I remember well the creature’s design, the haunting way it moved, and the way it struck out with its paralyzing antenna. Even with its simple shape and detail (it’s basically a ball, with one eye, and four stick legs), the show gave a proper eerie presence to the thing, making it seem more real than many higher-budget movie monsters.
Then there was the setting. Whether they were facing monsters or not, the Quest gang usually travelled to exotic locations, which presented new sights, features, and dangers. The world seemed that much smaller and more vibrant as they circled the globe, going places I would never see. This added variety was another way that the series kept each episode from feeling too similar, even if half of them could be categorized as monster hunts.
Although the animation itself was often crude and imperfect, the actual art (especially anything fully painted) in the series communicated the setting, the suspense, and the dangers in vivid fashion. The lavish jungles, the skulking yetis, and the futuristic vehicles all were designed and painted with a style taken straight from the covers of the best pulp magazine covers. In actuality the art for Jonny Quest has spoiled me by making me judge most pulp covers against its art and stories. Of course many pulp covers have art just as good or better, but they are usually far too distracted by trying to sell covers with half-naked women. The art of Jonny Quest is more family friendly and, to a degree, more varied, since it doesn’t need to rely on that trope.
As I research and discover more “true” pulp stories and art, I often find myself comparing it back to Jonny Quest and I often find it to be my preferred version of the pulp world. Since my desire is to create a fairly friendly pulp world of my own, I see this as combining the best of both worlds.