WEE PALSMedium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: The Register and Tribune Syndicate
First Appeared: 1965
Creator: Morrie Turner
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which was launched Monday, February 15, 1965, by The Register and Tribune Syndicate (The Red Knight, Jane Arden). That distributor already had a record with less stereotyped black characters as early as 1940 with Will Eisner's depiction of Ebony, in The Spirit, as caricatured, but capable and courageous. Cartoonist Morrie Turner's kid gang wasn't called "The Rainbow Club" for nothing.
From Reg'lar Fellers to Rugrats, kid gangs have a long history in comics and animation — except, of course, that the perfectly normal associations of young protagonists aren't called "gangs" anymore. But this particular ensemble cast has members who are black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Jewish, Native American and more. Nowadays, there's even a regular character who is disabled. An uncharitable commentator might sneer at it as "politically correct", and there may be some justification for that. In creating it, Turner did have an agenda — putting across the idea, rejected at the time by many people of all stripes, that since we're all in this world together, we should be able to get along. Wee Pals was multicultural before multiculturalism was cool.
But in all entertainment media, the bottom line isn't what message the work puts across, but how much people enjoy it. Turner learned how to please an audience during his freelance days, mailing submissions to magazines. Since he didn't have direct contact with the editors, the cartoons would stand or fall on their own merits. Still, when Wee Pals started, attitudes were fairly negative toward this "black cartoon", and it was syndicated to only five papers. And when it did take off, soaring to a circulation of 100 following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, its success was attributed to a national feeling of guilt.
Its continuing success, however, can only have been because people keep on getting a laugh out of it. Before long, it was adapted into a Saturday morning cartoon, Kid Power, which began Sept. 16, 1972. The producer was Rankin-Bass, which is well known for Christmas specials starring Frosty and Rudolph. It ran 17 episodes on ABC. Voices included Donald Fullilove (various voices in Mulan and Curious George), Joan Gardner (Tiny Tim, no relation, in Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol) and April Winchell (Peg in Goof Troop).
This show could be seen as a harbinger of the 1970s-80s trend toward "niceness messages" in network programming for kids. The Wee Pals stage play, available for school performances, also falls into the "niceness message" catetory. But the message doesn't come from programmers trying to please parent action groups, but from Turner's heart, and that always results in a less phoney-sounding product.