Terr'ble Thompson identifies himself. Artist: Gene Deitch.


Original Medium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: United Feature Syndicate
First Appeared: 1955
Creator: Gene Deitch
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As the creative head of UPA, the innovative cartoon studio that launched Mr. Magoo and Gerald McBoing-Boing, cartoonist Gene Deitch had a strong and lasting effect on …

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… American animation — but it may be that, like many avant-garde stylists, his influence seems exaggerated, in retrospect, by the fact that many others at the time were taking animation in a direction it would have gone, approximately at least, anyway.

If his mid-'50s foray into newspaper comics, Terr'ble Thompson, had remained in print longer than the six months it was given to leave an impression on the public, he might be known today as having had a similar influence on American comics. As it is, TT was virtually forgotten after a few years, while the plaudits for steering comics into modernity went to Charles M. Schulz for Peanuts, Mell Lazarus for Miss Peach, and other stylists whose work was more concentrated in that medium.

TT's first name, "Terr'ble", was used in the sense of "Terrible Swift Sword", not to indicate his behavior was terrible. The equivalent would be "awesome", as opposed to "awful". In fact, in a historical note in a latter-day reprint of TT's entire run by Fantagraphics Books (Prince Valiant, Complete Crumb), Deitch speculated that in a later linguistic environment, the boy's name might have been "Little Awesome Andy" (no relation). Still later, tho he didn't mention the possibility, it might have included the word "extreme".

And in that sense, TT was certainly "terrible". He was, as he put it, "the bravest, fiercest, most-best hero of history." Not in history, but of history. His specialty was rescuing past personages, such as Napoleon and Cleopatra, from any difficulty they might have had in making history turn out the way it was supposed to. They, who all knew TT from excursions into their milieu that pre-dated the start of the strip (among other things, he was Nero's hero, who made Alexander great), would seek him out at his "Werld Headquarters" (a tree house), and sometimes be surprised at the lack of recognition from his family and friends. They didn't use time-travel devices to reach the adventure site. They just went there.

The combination of fame abroad with obscurity at home was similar to ACG's Herbie Popnecker, a few years later. But Herbie utterly lacked flamboyance in his personal style, whereas TT was boisterous and enthusiastic at all times (a favorite expression was "Wowee-Boom!), and all he lacked was false modesty. The only thing holding him back was that he usually had to be home in time for dinner. He was only 7½ years old; and his Mom (Honey-Pot) and Dad (Tugwell), who called him "Thaddeus", weren't very sympathetic to excuses they didn't even believe.

TT's heroic deeds were usually opposed by Mean Morgan, a slithery, fluidly-designed villain. You could tell he was a bad guy just looking at him. MM usually had some nefarious purpose in keeping Columbus from discovering America or pinning Washington down at Valley Forge — but what really made him evil was that he just plain hated fun.

Deitch created TT in the early '50s. His UPA connections led to a skit about him being recorded by Little Golden Records, using such talent as Art Carney and Mitch Miller; and that led to the comic being picked up by United Feature Syndicate (Twin Earths, Garfield), which was Deitch's ambition for it. The strip began on a seven-day basis, on Sunday, October 16, 1955.

From the beginning, however, juggling the comic with his duties at UPA was causing problems for his family. He was forced to hire an assistant, Ruby Davidson, right off the bat. A few months later, he was offered a dream job running Terrytoons, where he traded out Little Roquefort and The Terry Bears for the likes of Sidney the Elephant and Clint Clobber. That made it impossible to support his family while giving TT time to find his audience. He ended it as of April 14, 1956. Since there was nothing left to adapt, the record was never produced.

But one of Deitch's best-remembered Terrytoons characters is Tom Terrific, who was strongly reminiscent of TT. And in 1966, his production company, Rembrandt Films (Nudnik, post-Famous Popeye), made a pilot for a TV series called Terr'ble Tessie. Deitch later said he liked TT even better as a girl, but Tessie made an even smaller impression on the world.


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Text ©2008 Donald D. Markstein. Art © United Feature Syndicate.