Tom Terrific, with Mighty Manfred the Wonder Dog. From a 1958 comic book.

TOM TERRIFIC

Original Medium: TV animation
Produced by: Terrytoons
First Appeared: 1957
Creator: Gene Deitch
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Each five-minute Tom Terrific episode started with Tom exuberantly exclaiming, "Terrytoons presents — the …

continued below

… real great adventures of me!" If not for that, you'd never guess this delightful gem had come out of the same studio as Little Roquefort and Dimwit Dog.

Tom Terrific was a product of Terrytoons' Deitch Era — a brief period in the studio's history during which its grizzled schlockmeisters were forced to take orders from 31-year-old Gene Deitch. Deitch, who got his start in animation at UPA, doing Gerald McBoing-Boing, became the Terrytoons creative director the year after CBS bought the company from founder Paul Terry. The first thing Deitch did was scrap all the ongoing characters, including such stars as Mighty Mouse and Heckle & Jeckle, and replace them with the likes of Gaston LeCrayon and John Doormat. Tom was typical of Deitch — in fact, he resembled the newspaper comic Terr'ble Thompson, which Deitch had done for United Feature Syndicate (Gordo, Robotman).

He also explored new venues. Tom Terrific was produced for the burgeoning television market, and ran from 1957-59 on CBS's Captain Kangaroo show. The daily episodes, replete with heroism, villainy and cliffhangers, added up to a complete five-part story every week. He was later replaced on Captain Kangaroo by Lariat Sam, but after Sam ran his course, Tom's old episodes were sporadically re-run, and were seen, on rare occasions, as recently as the early 1970s.

Tom's appeal did not lie in the cartoons' production values, which, like most early TV animation (e.g., Clutch Cargo, Col. Bleep), were nothing short of shoddy. No, it was in the clever writing, the likeable characters, and the fact that the series was just plain fun. The latter quality was considerably enhanced by the talent of voice actor Lionel Wilson, who played all the roles. As chief villain Crabby Appleton ("He's rotten to the core!"), Wilson would sneer and hiss in the best melodramatic tradition; while as Tom, his breathless enthusiasm made every little plot development seem like a Major Event.

Another possible source of the character's appeal was in his basic situation. Besides being a superhero (he could transform his body into whatever he wanted), Tom was a kid on his own. His headquarters was a tree house, where he lived with his ever-faithful companion, Mighty Manfred the Wonder Dog (possibly the world's laziest heroic sidekick), and nobody else. The only adults in Tom's life were guys he could have fun adventures with — villains like Captain Kidneybean the Pirate and weirdos like madcap inventor Isotope Feeny. What kid wouldn't want to identify with a guy like that?

Besides his Captain Kangaroo appearances, Tom held down a quarterly comic book for no less than six issues, Summer 1957 through Fall 1958, where some stories were drawn by Ralph Bakshi (later the animation producer who brought Fritz the Cat to the big screen). Sidney the Elephant, another Deitch creation, appeared in it as a back-up feature. Tom also appeared in a few Wonder Books, a knock-off of Little Golden Books.

Like the rest of the Deitch Era Terrytoons, the Tom Terrific cartoons haven't been seen in many years. But unlike most, they're very fondly recalled by their Baby Boom audience.

— DDM

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