You may not recognize Joseph Barbera (pictured, left, with partner William Hanna), but you grew up on his work. The animator, who died of natural causes yesterday at 95, was half of the Hanna-Barbera duo that created countless cartoon characters you remember from misspent Saturday mornings – the Jetsons (pictured), Scooby-Doo, the Flintstones, Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, Tom & Jerry – and countless more you’ve probably forgotten. After all, Barbera and Hanna (who died in 2001) were partners for more than 60 years, generating enough toons to keep cable’s Boomerang channel running 24/7.
Critics often blame Barbera for ruining kids’ animation; his quick-sketch style and flat background work made TV animation cheap and quick to produce, but it lacked the visual richness of, say, Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes creations. His and Hanna’s TV work also lacked the sophistication of the Bullwinkle cartoons – it’s likely that Bullwinkle writer and Dudley Do-Right creator Chris Hayward, whose recent death from cancer at 81 was reported two days ago, will get far less press than Barbera. Yet critics praise the even-more-minimalist Bullwinkle toons while dismissing Barbera’s work as desultory. (And there is a certain desultory quality to the Hanna-Barbera toons that’s easily parodied: Robert Smigel does it nearly every week in his “TV Funhouse” shorts on Saturday Night Live, while the duo’s own work is twisted in self-parodic ways on Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim.”)
Then again, Hayward was writing for adults, while Hanna and Barbera were aiming strictly at kids. Barbera’s economy of gesture and instantly recognizable style helped make his characters vivid and memorable. He deserves to be remembered as a pioneer, not just for the pre-TV Tom & Jerry toons he and Hanna made in the 1940s (which won several Oscars and included the early live-action/animation mix of Anchors Aweigh), but also for such innovations as the animated primetime sitcom; yes, The Flintstones was derivative of The Honeymooners, but it paved the way for The Simpsons and South Park. At a time when kids are rejecting traditional hand-drawn animation for even more abstract computer-generated cartoons, Barbera starts to look like a master of a vanishing art form.