Washington Post PC Note

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The following appeared in the Washington Post on May 29, 1996. The citation is Iverem, Esther. The real villains of 'Jonny Quest'. The Washington Post: Style, p. F01.

The Real Villains of 'Jonny Quest'

It's a signature trailer shot for classic "Jonny Quest" episodes: Africans, in skins and feather head wear, gesture with crude instruments and murmur unintelligibly, something like "wooga-booga-ayaa-agaa." Their hurled spears clink futilely against the door of the sleek jet spiriting away 11-year-old Jonny; his scientist father, Dr. Benton Quest; bodyguard Roger "Race" Bannon; young Hadji; and miniature bulldog, Bandit.

The scene flashes on the television screen for only a matter of seconds -- but that is ample time for the cartoon images, in classic "Quest" fashion, to paint the dark natives as both evil enemies and foolish savages. It is also enough time for post civil-rights parents, who are not having any of that, to grab and click the remote, especially if there is a young child in the house.

But what if, instead, we crank up the volume? What if we treasure our nostalgia? After all, 200,000 videotapes of classic "Jonny Quest" shows have been snapped up since their re-release nine weeks ago, according to Dan Capone, director of marketing for Turner Home Entertainment.

Judo student Jonny tosses "lizard men" three times his size. Hadji, adopted by Dr. Quest from the streets of Calcutta, performs magic with the evocation "Sim sim sala bim!" Dr. Quest triumphs over villains with his high-tech inventions. For many of us, "Jonny Quest" was the first modern science-fiction adventure, a prequel to "Indiana Jones." And it had a slammin' musical score.

This is our heritage, these are our memories. Some of us wouldn't dream of clicking the remote. We say, of course it's racist. Of course, of course. The series was launched in 1964 (and aired on and off until 1980), before it was incorrect to be so blatantly imperialist. It was during the Cold War, so Russian accents are thick among the few white villains. After all, it's not as if our peers in Hollywood's new wave of black filmmakers have provided many alternatives for our or their children, other than Robert Townsend's brilliant, underrated 1993 effort, "Meteor Man."

Most important, we don't watch vintage television shows the way we used to. By watching a show like "Jonny Quest," we can also wrestle it to the ground. We can have a big laugh at television benighted enough to present the world in such a screwed-up fashion. We can choose to take from shows what we want, while struggling over the issue of how old but powerful images will be presented to our children.

It seems like a lot of back-flipping over just a cartoon. But black folks have been back-flipping for a long time, adjusting sensibilities to the dynamics of American popular culture. Earlier generations of African Americans were initiated into popular culture by shows such as "Amos 'n' Andy," "Tarzan," "Our Gang," Shirley Temple movies or Looney Tunes. Similarly, "Jonny Quest" required then and now an unconscious but sophisticated and computer-quick series of calculations. We want to tune in and enjoy the hero and adventure fantasy but survive the racial assault and insult. That survival, the victory, is one of those earth-moving, quiet miracles not picked up by the radar of racial progress.

It is a miracle that we can survive sour images and still claim them. Lots of artists have, for example, claimed Aunt Jemima. They've painted, acted and danced her in a different role, using the spatula in her hand to liberate her from her passive pose on the pancake box. New York composer Fred Ho has taken the inscrutable Charlie Chan and made him into a revolutionary.

And an important reason we can survive them is all the work done by the generation before us that demanded the media take responsibility for cleaning up the international image of blacks as subhuman. The last three decades have offered images of black people that weren't all negative -- beginning, roughly, with the 1968 series "Julia," going through "The Cosby Show," hero movies like "Glory" and the obligatory appearance of everyday blacks in commercials. With some positive representation out there, each television or film image does not have to carry the weight of being "positive." We can accept black villains and bad guys -- and even the occasional feathered headdress.

The creators of "Jonny Quest" are not unaware of these issues. Preparing for a new "Jonny Quest" series that will start in the fall, the Turner Entertainment Group in Atlanta had cablecast a "Jonny Quest Farewell Weekend" at the end of April, showing the classic episodes on the Cartoon Network and then taking them off the air for good, according to Capone. From now on, they'll be available only on videotape.

Capone said that he gauged consumer interest in the Quest classics by noting requests to the network, putting feelers out on the Internet and researching what had been written about the series. "Quest" fans told the Cartoon Network that they like the cartoon's action and think that: Jonny is spirited, brave and has adventures in foreign lands; "Race" is strong, sturdy and "a perfect figure of protection"; Hadji is mysterious and has special powers; Dr. Quest is intelligent and able to use his intellect instead of violence. Bandit is adorable. And they luuuv to hate Dr. Zin, an evil Asian scientist.

Those offering such descriptions clearly separate the good guys from the bad guys, and most of the bad guys are dark-skinned. Dr. Zin is always hatching some evil scheme. An East Indian man attempts to murder Dr. Quest. Hadji is brown; he's not a villain but he is made into a compliant exotic. Except for him, the people of color wind up shot, exploded, electrocuted, buried under an avalanche, snatched by a giant crab. . . . The list goes on.

Female characters are nearly nonexistent. Jonny's mother is dead. The only regularly appearing female is Jade. She is equipped with a gun and has some adventure-hero credentials, but she is conniving and a vamp.

In 1993 producers Hanna-Barbera eliminated most such racial and sexual stereotypes in the feature-length "Jonny Quest vs. the Cyber Insects." Hadji is more assertive. Dr. Zin doesn't look brown and evil as much as ugly and evil. And a young girl, Jesse, is an important part of the Quest Team. In addition, the Quest Team in the movie works for a military-intelligence outfit that has a black man in charge and a well-integrated staff. Capone says that in the new series, "The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest," care was also taken with such matters.

The old stereotypes, Capone said, "are part of the reason why it's been updated. Jonny Quest is great. But it includes some things that you just can't do now, things that you could do 30 years ago. We definitely want a series that makes improvements upon that."

Sometimes it seems that the war over "political correctness" has a sound bite quality and rhetorical content that misses an important consideration -- the children. Why should any child, anyone, have to be denigrated by a cartoon? Or ignored?

"I want to see Dr. Zin in 'Master of Evil,' " a 3-year-old tells his mother.

She pops in the tape. One of two episodes on that tape is a favorite of hers, with a Zin-made spy robot that looks like a giant spider. Later she asks her son who is the bad guy and he says, "Dr. Zin." She tells him that, yeah, Dr. Zin is bad but not everyone who looks like Dr. Zin is a bad person. You know, Julie from [the PBS show] "The Puzzle Place" looks like Dr. Zin and Julie is cool. Yeah, he says, he likes Julie.

She asks him why Zin is bad. The boy says, "because he has a giant bad spider and some giant ants."

The mother feels a slight sense of relief. But she wonders if today, at this very moment, her son were given one of those tests with Caucasian dolls and Asian dolls and asked to pick the good guys and bad guys, what he would do.

She hopes he would say, "I don't know" and ask, "Who has the giant bad spider and some giant ants?

And what is his favorite thing about the cartoon, she asks. No. It's not Jonny, or Race or Hadji or Dr. Quest, or any human, he answers.

"The pterodactyl, that's what I like," he says, referring to the prehistoric flying creature on the show's intro sequence.

She is relieved again, thinking that at least for now, in his dinosaur-fever stage, he is not overly concerned with how people are painted, or with heroes who never look like him.

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