When the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon hit it big in the late 80’s, the overnight sensation had an effect on Saturday morning cartoons that was similar to what we had seen with the original black and white comic. Suddenly everyone was putting together a team of anthropomorphic cartoon characters to
sell toys entertain kids with their amazing adventures! Martian mice arrived on bikes, ducks showed up to fight evil with their hockey sticks, a bunch of dinosaurs got totally extreme, Troma was somehow deemed kid-friendly enough, and a quartet of jawsome sharks found an audience with Vin Diesel.
With that last one… I need to remind everyone that it featured a character named “Moby Lick.” Why the heck am I not writing about Street Sharks?
This motley selection of “cartoons and toylines inspired by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” often includes among their ranks the ABC Saturday morning cartoon called the Wild West COWBoys of Moo Mesa. This seems a little unfair. By and large, the other ones had slang-talking kid-appeal characters trying hard to catch the lightning-in-a-bottle catchphrase that was “Cowabunga!” COWBoys, on the other hand, featured characters that talked like a bunch of old Hollywood movie stars your grandpa would watch on syndicated TV. Don’t be fooled how one of the characters is named “dude”. He’s a reference to the western version of the word. (Fun fact: “dude” originally came from “Yankee doodle”, and was originally applied to tourists who wanted to get that genuine Wild West experience. So a “dude” was basically a cowboy poser.)
Other differences: the show doesn’t take place in a recognizable modern day setting. Our anthropomorphic characters do not co-exist with humans (who is typically standing in for the audience). The COWBoys lived in their own ecosystem filled with other anthropomorphic characters. There is more in common with Sonic the Hedgehog in that sense. So isn’t it more fair to say that the COWBoys were less following in the Ninja Turtles’ footsteps and instead pioneering their own brand of funny animal stories?
The series was created by comic book artist Ryan Brown. He worked at Archie Comics. He is best known for illustration their version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja -….
Who else was responsible for this? The production history is a veritable tangle of teams. The show was produced by Greengrass Productions and Mini Mountain Productions in association with King World (back when it was independent and not CBS’ syndication wing) and Flex Television (a former oil company). The animation for the first season was handled by Gunther-Wahl. Season 2 was handled by good ol’ Ruby-Spears, the studio founded by two Hanna-Barbera vets who delighted us all with the 1980’s version of Alvin and the Chipmunks and terrified us all with Rubik, the Amazing Cube. The also did the somewhat forgotten cartoon that was a staple of El Santo’s childhood: The Police Academy animated series. Let me tell you… the movies were a huge disappointment for me because even Steve Gutenberg could not match the madcap zaniness of his cartoon avatar.
I don’t get why anyone would green light this show. The Wild West COWBoys debuted in 1992. This was a long way from when kids were playing cowboys and Indians in their backyards. The preferred play venue was now sewers, and the preferred villains were ninjas. Silverado failed ignite a passion for the genre, which was swiftly moving its way into “things parents like” with films like Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven. The references all seemed to be aimed specifically at two generations past. One episode features a character named Rooster Cogsbull.
I have no problem believing that kids would embrace a show where mice are riding some sweet hogs… hogs as the slang for motocycles, and not actual hogs… but bovine people who are riding horses? And to be clear, actual horses and not a slang for motorcycles. Not to mention that there are also horse people. The COWBoys ride horses and talk to people with horse faces.
There are also non-anthropomorphic cows. In one episode, a bovine man tells another bovine man that they’re no real COWBoy unless they’ve been on a cattle drive. Cow-men driving cows? This is madness.
It opens the door to truly uncomfortable questions. What do the COWboys herd this cattle for, anyway? Do they eat the cattle? Do they experience regret when they consume the flesh of creatures that bear the same faces as theirs, or has it become so commonplace that the existential crisis is ignored? Are the skins what they COWBoys fashion for their vests and chaps. Do they drink it’s milk? Isn’t that like humans drinking chimpanzee milk? The world of the Wild West COWboys is confusing and terrifying.
The unique situation is explained via song in the intro sequence. A comet hit the earth and caused an entire mesa —- the Moo Mesa, if you will —- to rise above the clouds. The celestial event also caused some of the creatures to evolve. While some retained their bestial nature, others gained average human intellect and buff, muscular, Adonis-like bodies.
I don’t think much of this is brought up again outside the intro. There is one episode where villains discover a crystal from the meteor that formed the Mesa. These crystals are used for typical Saturday-morning shenanigans. It’s when you spin the wheel of hoary cartoon plots, and the needle lands on … shrink ray! This is the one where we do the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids episode! Otherwise, the origin story can be safely ignored. In fact, it may be preferably ignored.
For example, the second episode features a character with an outrageous French accent. It turns out that they guy is a con artist. However, this introduces a conundrum: even if the guy wasn’t from France, the concept of France does exist, right? So are you telling me there’s a Cow-France somewhere on this Mesa? Is this Mesa as big as the world? This might be a bit presumptuous, though. He might be from Cow New Orleans (or “Newportleans”), which is a confirmed location on this show.
The intro also explains to pendantic smartasses why it is OK to call these guys COWBoys even though they are males. COW is an acronym for “Code of the West.” And what’s that exactly? With the way main character Marshal Moo Montana keeps quoting it, I figure it’s this universe’s equivalent of the Bible.
“Like it says in the Code of the West,” says Moo Montana, “a bull outta hang his horns where the fire is warm and the folks are friendly.”
“Like the Code of the West says,” he declares in another episode, “if you ride the same trail together, you’ll be friends ‘til the end.”
You have been blinded by the Code of the West’s heresy, Marshal! Don’t you see that by following such vague platitudes that you have been denied salvation through the Risen Lord? You have damned your fellow cow-human hybrids to be char-grilled and slow cooked in the fiery flames of Hell!
Moo Montana is joined by his two trusty deputies. One is beefy steer of few words named The Dakota Dude. He seems to bear a permanent scowl, but underneath those layers of steak and prime rib you know there beats a heart of gold. The other is an excitable young whippersnapper and singing cowboy named the Cowlorado Kid. He’s a party dude… but in the Wild West that means lasso tricks. Ryan Brown’s got a thing for State names, perhaps in a nod to the Turtle‘s Renaissance painters. They also sound awfully like the names of male exotic dancers. They wander from town to town all over the mesa, righting wrongs and chasing off all sorts of desperadoes.
Their base operation, though is a place called Cow Town. Here they are role models for the terrifying cow-children. Little Cody Calf looks up to them and wants to be a COWBoy when he grows up. He is often kidnapped for his troubles. Other characters include stand-ins for Native Americans, who are here represented as bison. Boy… the extinction of large herds of bison and the fate of Native American populations must have been too close an analogy to pass up.
Our COWBoys also woo their attractive cow-petite amies. One is tough COWGirl with the name of Cowlamity Jane, paramour of the Dakota Dude. I hope someone took an early lunch after stumbling out that pun. (The puns on this show are a different sort of madness. For example, the title of the first episode is “Bang ‘Em High.”) Cowlamity is sort of an independent businesswoman. She runs her own ranch deep in what looks like an abandoned quarry. However, she can’t cook, and our boys pull some yucky faces when served some pie.
The COWGirl who does cook is Miss Lily Bovine. Her name is not quite so delightful. Miss Lily is a former showgirl —- say no more, say no more! —- turned saloon owner. She is also in an episode where she gets into a fight with a rival showgirl named Sadie Wowcow. (More and more I am convinced everyone is named after an exotic dancer.) They start ripping up each other’s clothes as male onlookers hoot and holler. I assume that concerned parents didn’t get on ABC’s because, despite scraps of cloth flying around in the air and Moo placing his hand over Cody Calf’s cow-child eyes, the two cow-women are still wearing their skimpy mini-dresses intact when we pan back over to them. That said, I imagine many future card-carrying members of FurAffinity were born that day.
Our heroes band together to fight the desperadoes that menace the good people of Moo Mesa. Villains like the Masked Bull, a mysterious figure clad in an all black cloak and hood and mastermind to many of the crimes in Moo Mesa. Under that mask, he lives a dual identity as Cow Town’s sheriff — introducing children to the concept of corruption even within the ranks of law enforcement like a Children’s First Serpico. I don’t know why he bothers with the mask, though. The Masked Bull’s name is really Sheriff Terrorbull. You reckon that would’ve raised some red flags from the get-go.
Terrorbull would not get to where he is if not for the corruprion inherent in the system, though. He receives full backing from Cow Town’s mayor, a crooked politician who fleeces his constituents every chance he gets. It’s a harsh lesson for the children that publicly elected officials don’t have your best interests at heart. It’s no wonder the “Trust No One” 90’s happened.
The other criminals are a cornucopia if anthropomorphic diversity. Scorpion-men, vulture-men, frog-men, bat-men… outcasts in a world where the bovines have deemed themselves the judge, jury, and executioners. What chose does a scorpion-man have in this society where the mammals are granted all the privilege? Also, what kind of meteor what this to grant evolutionary status to a scorpion so that it grows to be the same size as a cow?
This being a show for infants, the COWBoys must deter crime through non-lethal means. They are armed with pistols. It’s not the West without a gun and a holster, after all. But rather than fire the deadly cylindrical projectile of death, the guns fire tiny little Sheriff stars. Adorable little things that glint in the sun and have five sharp points! These stars swoop around at will, changing directory to cut ropes or knock away the non-lethal guns wielded by the enemy … but never kill!
Our trio is voiced by veteran voice actors Pat Fraley (giving Montana a folksy but stalwart voice), Jim Cummings (who’s bringing in traces of Pete from Goof Troop), and Jeff Bennett. I honestly had no idea the Cowlorado Kid was also Johnny Bravo. Cowlorado gets to do some singing, though, which gives Bennett an opportunity to work on those pipes prior to his Elvis impersonation. I imagine that fans of Moo Mesa probably liked Cowlorado best. Moo Montana and the Dakota Dude are sort of your dad and uncle, while Cowlorado was a bit of your wild older brother. He’s just beaming with young Kevin Costner energy.
The show got all of the accoutrements afforded to the shows of its type. Toys were produced by Hasbro. They looked very much nothing like the cartoon characters. Moo Montana, Dakota Dude, and Cowlorado Kid generally look like pleasant fellows. In toy form, though, they got big heads and permanent sneers on their faces like they’re those uncultured urban ruffians the Street Sharks or something.
If this show made me realize anything, it’s how inappropriate the Wild West is for children these days. You start to realize how many things they had to paper over just to pass the censors. When you have to make concessions with regards to gun violence, prostitution, alcoholism, and naming one of your good guy characters after General George Custer, perhaps the Western was best left to Academy Award nominees aimed at older audiences after all.
It also shows that the show’s creators do have a genuine fondness for the genre. Like I said in the beginning, I’m baffled by anyone who thought this concept made sense in the early ‘90’s. At the same time, I admire the passion. Yeah, it’s a strange show, but as the Code of the West says, “strange” is just another word that means “interesting.”
I enjoy the throwback atmosphere where the good townspeople are neighborly and where kids are all “Aw, shucks” and “Gee, willikers.” There’s a whole lot of charm hearing these voice actors trying out Western accents and dropping the occasional “a-yup” and “land’s sakes.” It’s wonderfully old school. You’re transported back to when Yosemite Sam and Foghorn Leghorn ruled the world.
There’s a bit of Weird West in it, too… unsurprising given the sci-for premise that formed Moo Mesa. From time to time, they’ll run into spooky ghosts, mad scientists, or cryptozoological critters. It’s like one of those odd 60’s drive-in theater films. Of these, “The Legend of Skullduggery” was probably my favorite. It’s fun watching kids wander around in an abandoned mine, searching for buried treasure, while being stalked by the re-animated skeleton of a dead miner. It’s a story that would probably make for a great live action adaptation where the characters aren’t bovine-human hybrids.
This show, by the way, does feature a “bull in a china shop” joke. It would be a disappointment if it didn’t. However, it’s a non-anthropomorphic bull that charges into a china shop, a building that looks like a large tea kettle. How hard would it have been to have the Masked Bull in there to smash things up? What is this, amateur hour?
Check out all the previous classic animation reviews under the tag #MADE ANIMATED!