Cartoons were strange in the early aughts. It was a time when up and coming animators and writers were given free reign to create imaginative, idiosyncratic children’s shows. The best of the bunch that have survived in popular culture—your Rugrats, your PowerPuff Girls, your Dexter’s Lab—have stuck around because they experimented with visual styles and themes that made a palpable impression on children of that era.
The adults creating these shows injected a lot of themselves into their projects. Empathy and passion resulted in cartoon vignettes that taught important morals and set imaginations ablaze, but, alongside that, the life experience of being an adult in the fragile creative industry led some to delve into the dark side of their psyche, which went mostly unchecked—for better and for worse—by the broadcasting networks who hosted the content.
Enter stage left, Courage the Cowardly Dog. Created by John R. Dilworth, the cartoon centred around a perpetually terrified canine who lives in the middle of Nowhere and is haunted by all kinds of unimaginable horrors.
In the UK, the show started to air on Cartoon Network at the turn of the millennium when I was at the ripe old age of five. Over the course of the next two years, I became obsessed with it. Something about the wacky, ever-changing character designs made me want to down my tea as quickly as possible so I could dash in from of the TV and watch it.
Coward’s human guardians Muriel and Eustace love and chastise him respectively, but due to his lack of ability to communicate with his masters, there is a constant unease as they’re swindled and manipulated by evil cats, French ducks and zombie directors. All Courage can do is babble incoherently and later attempt to remedy the chaos only after it’s too late. Repeat this existential crisis every episode and things are already pretty dark, but that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of how disturbing Courage the Cowardly Dog was.
You’re Not Perfect
For such a disjointed show, it’s almost fitting to start at the end. The series finale of Courage the Cowardly Dog was easily the most bizarre ten minutes of my youth—it almost feels like the creators packed all of the nightmare fuel they could into this crescendo to send it out with a nihilistic bang. And oh boy, does it ever pop off.
It’s a pretty tame and introspective state of affairs at first. Courage can’t do anything right and is hounded by a perfectionist in his mind who continually undermines his confidence. There are no typical horror tropes, and that’s what makes the episode so unsettling. No big monster is trying to eat Muriel or destroy the homestead, it’s just a slow buildup.
The episode continues on this way until the voice in Courage’s head tells him to “sleep perfectly.” He hits the sack, suffering a series of fever dreams that were clearly visual experiments by a team on their way out.
Courage’s fitful visions range in form from claymation to a disturbing and inexplicable series of sketches flying at the screen and eventually, the kicker—a mutated 3D bugle fetus that tells Courage “you’re not perfect” as an orchestra swells.
The contextual explanation is that Courage is having a nightmare about his insecurities, and is simply drawing on the inconsequential image of Eustace’s broken bugle at the start of the episode. I doubt that school-age children were ever going to make this connection, but I feel like the creators weren’t terribly worried about that when they made this harrowing episode.
Return The Slab
Of all of the terrible moments in Courage, this appears to be the most well-known, and for good reason. The episode “King Ramses’ Curse” follows Courage as he is forced to deal with a reanimated pharaoh, whose priceless slab has been displaced from his tomb and landed just outside the Bagge farmhouse.
A series of psychological plagues descend upon Courage’s house as Eustace attempts to sell the slab for a quick buck instead of returning it to its rightful owner. One of these is a light-hearted antidote to the grim character design, a disco refrain that blares “King Ramses, The Man In Gauze” throughout the house.
Like the dream sequence, this episode demonstrates the willingness of the show’s creators to embrace new technologies, blending different styles of animation in a way we might have been able to appreciate more if it weren’t being used to scare our pants off. This is the main thing that separates Courage the Cowardly Dog from other cartoons of its time—it wasn’t afraid to embrace new technology and break away from hand-drawn normalcy. Unfortunately, it used that fearlessness to scare the hell out of its viewers.
The reason why King Ramses’ Grim Fandango-looking ass is so scary floating in the desolate landscape is that it was completely unexpected. It was jarring. We thought we knew what cartoons looked like, and then this thing comes out of nowhere. It’s a style often associated with David Lynch, but deployed here in the service of terrifying child audiences.
The Violin Girl
Speaking of Lynch, “The Big Stinkin’ City” is the Mulholland Drive of Courage episodes, in which a cockroach with a Bushwick accent diverts Muriel’s promised career-making appearance at Radio City Music Hall into a dungeon of placidity, where Courage’s parents are doomed to watch TV shows unto eternity.
To save his parents, Courage is sent to retrieve a package from a condemned apartment building which holds a nightmare in each room, including TV footage of the kaiju Ghidorah and some menacing sharks. Scary? Maybe a little. But they’re all just buildup for door number three.
What could possibly lurk behind the wooden portal? Courage knows that something awful is waiting for him. But when he swings the door open, all we see is a girl playing the violin in a pleasant room, her back turned to the door. Courage is visibly relieved, before—well, you really have to watch the clip to get the full effect. Suffice to say that it’s another effective subversion of expectations that employs the most horrifying form of animation known to man.
Despite only having 4 seasons, 52 episodes and a three-year run, Courage the Cowardly Dog had a profound effect on the landscape of cartoons in its era, and no doubt inspired many of the young minds and future artists that were engaged with its challenging world.
It feels bittersweet to write about a TV show like this, the likes of which we may never see again in modern broadcasting. Yet, if inspired cartoons like Courage can appear out of nowhere and receive a cult following, another golden age of nightmare fuel could be just around the corner.