Gene Deitch, the Czech-American illustrator and animator who brought some memorable seasons of Tom and Jerry and Popeye to television, has died in Prague at the age of 95. From revelling in the thrill of the chase to promoting spinach, he was a broad-spectrum artist. His work did not earn critical acclaim at the time, but with the benefit of perspective, it was a significant departure from the smooth, Hollywood-ready work of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, who had launched the features. From around the Sixties, the American comic industry diversified out of the superheroes era in search of new leading characters like Hanna-Barbera’s Huckleberry Hound, Scooby-Doo, Yogi Bear, the Flintstones and the Jetsons. In print and on TV, Hanna-Barbera had taken an early lead with Tom and Jerry, who were conceived in 1940.
They are still on TV, and the universal theme of the chase may have assured them their longevity. The chase, a particular form of the quest, has powered storytelling for ever, from the tale of Aeneas to that of Luke Skywalker. Tom and Jerry is a chase that’s been running for 80 years, and Deitch illuminated part of the journey. He himself thought it was an echo of the David and Goliath tale, though. The feline Goliath always loses, and the mighty mouse lives to run again.
Deitch worked in the era when, long before manga, comics were perceived to be violent. A cat planning to eat a mouse does indeed offer violence, but he believed that like all other forms of art, comics held up a mirror to reality. He also produced mainstream art: His short Munro, which ran as a curtain-raiser to Breakfast at Tiffany’s, won an Academy Award. It may not be remembered well now, but the cat and mouse game lives on, ever after.
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