I often point towards this show when asked for evidence that children’s shows were better before, especially during the 90’s and the age of not-crappy Cartoon Network. Created by John R. Dilworth in 1999 (though a short film was made in ’97 first), Courage The Cowardly Dog is one the most creative and boldly macabre programmes ever to be put on a children’s network. Not only is it my favourite out of the classic Cartoon Network shows, but also one of my favourite shows, period.
For the unlucky ones not in the know, this series is about a pink dog named Courage (voice by Marty Grabstein) who resides in the middle of Nowhere (yes, that’s the actual name of the location) with a kind, loving old lady named Muriel Bagge (Thea White) and her grumpy husband Eustace (Lionel G. Wilson, later Arthur Anderson). Their life may seem like a wholesome and ordinary one, but is quite the contrary. They continuously have to put up with such horrors as hauntings, attacks from space, monsters, visitors from beyond the grave, mad scientists, evil anthropomorphic animals, enraged Gods, serial killers, and Eustace’s mom. Basically, life is Hell, and in spite of being scared of damn near everything, it’s up to Courage to save his home and family.
Some of the more prominent characters and foes of cowardly Courage are a red, sleazy cat named Katz, a fiendish duck named Le Quack, a chicken from outer space (the villain of the 1997 short), a chihuahua-looking Gypsy soothsayer named Shirley, a quirky Asian man who refers to everyone as “ya fool”, a zombie filmmaker named Benton Tarantella, an Indian quack of a doctor named Vindaloo, a malicious Snowman who sounds like Sean Connery, two dim-witted military officers and finally, Courage’s sarcastic computer who always gives snarky advice and speaks in a voice which resembles that of Boris Karloff.
All characters in the series seem weird, hideous, incompetent or evil to some extent. The one character that feels normal is Courage, at least as normal as a talking dog gets, even if he talks less and less as the series progresses. Yet, he is still a wonderful lead who carries the show perfectly and you truly sympathize with him as he has to put up with so much paranormal hostility. All whilst Eustace just calls him a stupid dog and Muriel just goes to find trouble somewhere else. Not fair.
This show is more than just a nostalgic little series of creative toons from my childhood. It really is a masterpiece and a unique programme to aim at a younger audiences. Most networks probably wouldn’t dare airing it, especially not today when a significant drop in maturity and morbidity has noticably occurred in the world of animated kids shows. I don’t know many of the new shows on Cartoon Network, but when I zap past the channel, I usually see lots of flashy action and lots of obnoxious puns. Something as darkly funny or strange as Courage we cannot even hope for.
One of the things that helps Courage be so compelling and lovable, aside from gorgeous animation and great characters, is the music by Jody Gray. This man creates such wonderfully dark, bombastic and haunting scores that it’s extremely hard to see why he isn’t a Hollywood household name by now.
In fact, the music of my all-time favourite episode, The Tower of Dr. Zalost, is one of the reasons that it’s so great and stands out from the rest of the episodes in the series, other aspects being the relatively long runtime, awesome artwork and exceptionally somber story. It’s just an episode that sticks out and feels like the most fantastical one. Other favourites include Freaky Fred, Courage in the Big Stinkin’ City, The Mask, Last of the Starmakers, House of Discontent and King Ramses’ Curse, all of which are some of the scariest, smartest, funniest, most touching, and above all, most creative episodes of the series (seriously, too few kids shows today have creepy CGI mummies, implied furry lesbianism, screaming demon girls, and perpetually grinning pedophile barbers that speak entirely in rhyme). For my favourite character, while we’re at it, I’m gonna have to go with the Karloff-computer.
This is one of the shows that helped me evolve into the eccentric, horror-loving chap I am today and looking back at it, I’m not too mad that it did. There is plenty of twisted creativity to be found within the genre of horror and Courage The Cowardly Dog is one of the finest examples of such creativity. It is a show that provides genuine and memorable scares, a great amount of sadistically humorous moments, an enormous cast of inventive monstrosities, brilliant animation and guaranteed nightmares, all with a wee dash of vinegar.
“The things I do for love.” – Courage