Even as far back as the silent era, cartoon stars like Felix the Cat and Ko-Ko the Clown were taking trips into space. One of the quirkiest of these sci-fi shorts is the stop-motion cartoon The Moon Special (1928), starring Snap the Gingerbread Man, produced by Kinex Studios specifically for the home movie market. The depiction of aliens as flat coasters with limbs who sic bizarre Jabberwocky creatures on their enemies has not been replicated since. (This print comes from Thunderbean Animation.)
The Max Fleischer Studio, famous for the Popeye, Betty Boop, and Superman shorts, sent their cartoon star Bimbo to space in the early talkie Up to Mars (1930). Not content to come up with one standard design for the Martians, the artists seem to be tossing in whatever crazy ideas pop into their heads.
Even crazier is Mars (1930) from the Walter Lantz studio, in which Oswald the Lucky Rabbit introduces himself in song to a bunch of Martian weirdos. 1930s cartoons are typically odd, but Bill Nolan’s Oswald cartoons are almost aggressively so.
One of the best outer space cartoons is Stratos-Fear (1933), made by Mickey Mouse co-creator Ub Iwerks after he split off from Disney. The film features the short-lived star Willie Whopper (a rotund teller of tall tales) who gets an overdose of gas at the dentist’s office and floats to a distant planet. You can find a beautifully restored print of this nightmarish masterpiece on Thunderbean’s excellent Willie Whopper Blu-Ray.
In Tex Avery’s classic The Cat That Hated People (1948), a fed-up feline understandably rockets himself to the moon to escape the human race. It must have been a creative challenge for Avery to come up with beings even zanier than his usual menagerie of fruitcakes.
Perhaps the most iconic animated alien is Marvin the Martian, created by Chuck Jones, who was uniquely designed with a bowling ball head, basketball sneakers, and Hoplite armor resembling the Roman god Mars. Marvin actually wasn’t given a name in any of the original Looney Tunes shorts; he was called “Antwerp” in some promotional materials (presumably because he looks like an ant and is also a twerp) until he was finally dubbed Marvin for the 1979 compilation film The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie. Here he is in what may be the ultimate outer space cartoon, Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century (1953).
You’ll notice that most of these early examples don’t conform to the now-standard depiction of aliens as bug-eyed green people with antennas (e.g. the aliens from Toy Story). In this scene from Bob Clampett’s Kitty Kornered (1946), which spoofs the mass hysteria provoked by Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, the supposed “Men from Mars” are little multi-colored oddballs.
The image of aliens as green humanoid creatures wasn’t popularized until the Kelly-Hopkinsville Encounter in 1955; two farmers from Kentucky claimed they saw extraterrestrials, and newspapers reported the incident and coined the term “little green men.” However, green aliens show up in sci-fi stories and cartoons before this. The earliest animated example I’m aware of is the Popeye cartoon Rocket to Mars (1946), where Popeye battles an army of green space beings. That merry-go-round bit (by an uncredited Jack Ozark) looks tricky to animate.
Once the “little green men” concept stuck, cartoonists had a field day with it. One of my favorite examples is Mot, the adorable and super-intelligent martian infant from Chuck Jones’ Rocket-Bye-Baby (1956).
The rise of TV animation coincided with the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957. As a result, Space Age obsessions found their way into many of the earliest TV cartoons. The Flintstones worked in a little green alien named The Great Gazoo. Deputy Dawg came up with Astronut. And the very first Rocky & Bullwinkle storyline involves Gidney and Cloyd, two Moon Men armed with “scrooch guns” who are trying to preemptively stop tourists from coming to the moon. I love the goofy artwork and barely-there animation in these early Jay Ward cartoons.
One of the all-time strangest ideas for a character is Beepin’ Tom from Beany and Cecil. He’s a little screwball alien with a sped-up voice who beeps the tune from “The Alphabet Song” and then illustrates his dialogue through visual puns in a word balloon above his head. It’s such a silly yet creatively otherworldly form of communication. He only appeared in two cartoons, but I wish there were more.
The first cartoon alien to helm his own series was Colonel Bleep from 1957, created by Robert D. Buchanan and Jack Schleh. This was the first animated TV series in color, and the mid-century futurist art style is gorgeous. Bleep’s gee-whiz adventures are marvelous Atomic Age hokum.
One cartoon alien who never managed his own series was Moko the Mischievous Martian, who was a guest star on – of all things – the live-action talking horse sitcom Mr. Ed. This 1964 episode was a “backdoor pilot” for a potential TV series that never developed. No artists are credited, although the animation was produced by the ad studio Spungbuggy Works. Beyond the corny jokes, I like the designs of the aliens as ethereal beams of light. What do you think – did Moko deserve his own series?
Aliens didn’t only appear in Hollywood cartoons. The psychedelic Yugoslavian series Professor Balthazar, created by Zlatko Grgić in 1967, features a gloppy alien egg enthusiast in the episode “Viktorov jajomat.” If you haven’t seen the show, it’s beautifully drawn, wonderfully inventive, and well worth your time.
In the 1960s, cartoon aliens were even used for advertising. Commercials for the sugary Quisp cereal by Quaker Oats featured a propeller-headed alien voiced by Daws Butler (who seems to be doing a Jerry Lewis impersonation). The ads were produced by Jay Ward of Rocky & Bullwinkle fame. Artist Bill Scott recalled, “When the cereal company approached Jay about doing this stuff – I think it was in 1961 – he said, ‘We’ll only do it as long as it’s fun.'” That’s an attitude we need more of.
And that’s about where we’ll cut it off for now, although animators certainly haven’t slowed down in coming up with great alien characters, from Stitch and Invader Zim to Kang & Kodos on The Simpsons. Because it’s so good, let’s finish off where we started with a spectacular clip from Ward Kimball’s Disney special Mars and Beyond. The bored secretary here is my favorite Disney Princess.
Some of the restorations featured here are by Steve Stanchfield at Thunderbean Animation and maxfleischercartoons.com.