In another life I would have written a book called “Of Monsters and Mutts.” Why? Well, I can’t help my love for scaredy-cat canines who are bedeviled by the scary and supernatural. As a child, I gleefully watched every incarnation of Scooby-Doo I could find, including the original “Scooby-Doo Where Are You?” TV series. So when “Courage the Cowardly Dog,” appeared on Cartoon Network in 1999, I was already primed.
But it wasn’t love at first sight. When Courage debuted in an animated short three years earlier, I was only about 5 years old. In it, Courage, who lives in the middle of nowhere with a kind but oblivious old woman and her miserable farmer husband, tries to alert his owners that they are under attack by a red-eyed, laser-gun-toting alien chicken. It doesn’t go so well for the farmer. I was terrified.
That short, created by John R. Dilworth as part of Cartoon Network’s “What a Cartoon!” showcase, was nominated for an Oscar, and the network greenlit a full series, which ran for four seasons. One of Cartoon Network’s early original series, “Courage” mixed horror with dark absurdist humor, giving it an eclectic appeal for preteen and teen viewers.
Having recovered from nightmares of nefarious poultry, I later came to appreciate the show’s brutal and surreal comedy and even found it a comfort — one of the shows I reflexively put on in the background for years. Earlier this year, HBO Max added “Courage” to its streaming roster, and I’m grateful for the distraction. But revisiting “Courage” now, decades later, I can better appreciate all the ways the series distinguished itself in my childhood TV lineup, and the emotional depth beneath its gothic absurdity.
The pop culture references
Don’t you love a good parody? “Courage” playfully ripped off themes, characters and story lines from various regions in the cultural landscape: horror movies, mythology, classic literature and Broadway.
Some of the references I got as a kid: the recurring character, Benton Tarantella, a jeering satire of Quentin Tarantino who’s obsessed with capturing the horrors of humanity with a crude, sensationalist flair; the episode “Demon in the Mattress,” one of my favorites, which was a parody of the “Exorcist”; and the episode “The Hunchback of Nowhere,” an affectionate translation of Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” (It was another seven or eight years before I read Hugo’s beautifully bleak novel, but the 1996 Disney film gave me enough context.)
But rewatching the series now, I see references to Sondheim in a rhyming episode about a crazy barber; to the Greek myth Leda and the Swan in an episode about an amorous goose god; and to Herman Melville in an episode about a quest to find a “sand whale.” Even Shakespeare and H.G. Wells touch down in episodes of “Courage” — a literary and horror fan’s dream.
The aesthetic and tonal variety
In many ways “Courage” is a sportive grab bag of modes and forms. There’s its unpredictable mix of standard animation and C.G.I. There’s its medley of characters — conniving French ducks and butcher pigs and sneaky cats — along with the occasional human face, uncannily rendered among these animated characters. (Witness, for example, the eyeless, black-lipped floating head of the harvest moon spirit, played by Fred Melamed).
And then there are the locales: Courage mostly fights the supernatural in his little desert town, but he also ventures out to the ocean, into space, into Manhattan and into a dystopian future ruled by banana people. (Even the characters’ accents, which unfortunately veer into the stereotypical for the characters of color, are all over the place.)
But it’s this kind of variety in the show’s visuals and character styles that make it surprising, and, at times, patently scary. The landscape shots of Courage’s farmhouse home are often stunning — backlit with warm yellows and oranges or darkened with mystical violets and azures, the moon hanging low and casting shadows. The show had a remarkable handle on bold, synesthetic color palettes to evoke the horror or absurdity or tranquillity of a situation.
But as beautiful as these animated scenes are, there are also plenty of moments of the grotesque: characters and objects with purposely uneven or asymmetrical designs, scenes with projectile ectoplasm and rotting parts and disembowelment.
Even Courage’s large spectrum of scream-styles captures the show’s dedication to variety: He gasps, rolls out his tongue onto the floor, pops out his eyes “Looney Tunes”-style and once even collapses from a sudden heart attack. It’s cruel but also comedic, and it’s indicative of the final reason I love “Courage the Cowardly Dog.”
It would have been so easy to make this show a vehicle for juvenile laughs and scares, but “Courage” also frequently took the viewer to a place of pathos. Its view of humanity was often bleak: Many characters are often outcasts, or unstable, or lost, and the horrors that shadow them are the results of vice or misfortune. Not every antagonist is a villain to be vanquished; some, Courage just helps along.
The episode “Magic Tree of Nowhere,” one of the most heartbreaking of the series, shows a perverse version of Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree.” The tree, which speaks, grants wishes and has an eerie human face, is a gift that Eustace, the farmer, grows to resent because it is a better provider than he is. Courage, in turn, must take on the Sisyphean task of protecting it, even though the tree knows it will be in vain.
Eustace often abuses Courage and frequently ends up being the final landing pad of an episode’s catastrophe, punished for his selfishness, pettiness or greed. But even he is given emotional dimension in episodes like these. In others we learn that his abusive mother had a lot do with why he became the miserable curmudgeon he is.
Of course, Courage is the heart of the show, resignedly muttering, “The things I do for love” whenever he is about to march once more unto the breach. That’s the ultimate comfort: seeing a fictional world full of horror where, despite his fear, a tiny pink beagle always manages to overcome it and single-handedly save the day.
No offense to Scooby and his snacks, but Courage doesn’t need to be bribed or coerced to act, and he doesn’t resolve his frightening predicaments because of selfishness or a hero complex. He does so out of empathy and love, and whatever monsters he faces can never measure up.