June Foray, inset, provides the voice for Bullwinkle's sidekick Rocky, left, as well as for Boris' companion Natasha, right.
The University of Hawaii Summer Session this year has a focus on "The Comic in the Culture," and that includes a look at how women have tickled the national funnybone. Two of the visiting dignitaries are June Foray, a voice-over legend in the animation industry, and Trina Robbins, one of the most respected female cartoonists in America. Both are giving free weekend lectures.
You might know Foray best as the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel - she can't travel without "some guy walking up and talking to me in a Bullwinkle voice. I automatically answer in Rocky's voice!" she said from her Los Angeles home.
She started in radio drama at age 15 in the '50s, graduating to Capitol comedy albums with the likes of Stan Freberg and Mel Blanc when radio was blindsided by TV. Luckily, the Disney studios discovered her vocal abilities and cast her as the cat in "Cinderella," her first animated role.
Foray continued on-camera work - 13 weeks with Johnny Carson, a reoccurring role as "a little Mexican girl on 'Green Acres'" - but eventually decided she'd had it with make-up, wardrobe, hairstylists and the rest of the visual end of show biz. She wanted to do vocal work only. Did that decision pay off?
"Well, I just bought a Jaguar with cash," she said. "Does that count?"
Foray found a niche in the boys' club of cartoon animation. She worked with the legends; Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Jay Ward, even Ross Bagdasian Jr. of "The Chipmunks." Today, she has a steady role as Granny on "Sylvester and Tweety Mysteries."
"The thing is, you have to be an actress first and a voice technician second," she said.
"It's not just a matter of changing your voice. You have to become the creation, to assume the attitude. Otherwise it's just one-dimensional. Who knows what a Smurf sounds like? A little blue guy only three apples high?
"But if you become the Smurf, go outside yourself and into the character, then you sound Smurf-like no matter what."
Curiously, Foray said she can't sing in her regular voice, but she can sing as a character.
"I love doing the cartoons because they have a sense of humor, and some even have fantastic wit, like the Simpsons," she said. "Animation is a real art form, and occasionally the work is brilliant."
Because the creators are invisible, the gender behind the cartoon doesn't matter. "But a lot of cartoons these days aren't fun. A lot of screaming and pushing people around. That seems pretty adolescent boy-like."
Although when she started, you could count the number of female animators on one hoof, women do still have one advantage over men - no testosterone. "Nancy Cartwright is Bart's voice on 'The Simpsons' because her voice isn't going to change," said Foray. "And can you imagine a man doing Rocky? Who knows what a squirrel's voice sounds like, but it doesn't sound like a man talking falsetto."
Foray has been on the Short Films board of the Academy Awards for 17 years, and has recently noticed a blossoming of features by and about women. In the comics arena, the situation for women has improved slightly, but is still so male-dominated that Robbins helped found "Friends of Lulu" recently.
"We're going to have our own comics convention, where women comic artists and comic publishers and comic buyers and distributors and fans can network," said Robbins, who lives in San Francisco. "Men network all the time, and they make women-unfriendly creations."
Little Lulu was the comic strip character who kept trying to get into the boys' clubhouse. "And (the comics industry) is still a boys' club!" said Robbins.
Robbins was first associated with "underground" comics in the late 1960s, where she is often still lumped, primarily because many of her titles are published by small houses and have limited distribution. Still, her work has a distinctive look known throughout the industry and her storytelling abilities are critically praised.
The public knows her best as a historian of women artists in the comic field, with books like "A Century of Women Cartoonists" and the upcoming "The Great Women Superheroes" as standard works. Robbins points out that the popular wisdom of women being unsuited to the medium is wrong.
"Even today, you have a consciousness rampant in the country that women just aren't suited to the visual arts. Women can't be serious artists, or cinematographers, or cartoonists. Well, that's BS!" she said, although the word wasn't BS.
"It's a male-dominated field and it still is, and the only reason women have succeeded at all in it is because we've stuck our foot in the door and kept it from being closed. Look at the newspaper comic pages - there's 'Cathy' and 'For Better Or Worse' and 'Sylvia,' and these are still thought of as 'women's comics' instead of just being comics. And how many female political cartoonists can you name?"
Robbins could only name three, and none are syndicated here. Even Ms. magazine used to run a "Mary Self-Worth" comic strip signed "Vincenzia Colletta," who was obviously - to comics cognoscente - the male Marvel Comics ink-slinger Vince Colletta.
Robbins loves the medium primarily for its power to communicate in a pure storytelling sense. More than film, comics are the work of auteurs. "Oh, you're God," she said. "All you need is ink, paper and brilliant ideas."
Robbins says she makes a "wretched living, but a living" at her art. The current spate of comic book titles spook her. Geared toward the 12-year-old hormone-crazed male-meathead market, they feature thin stories punctuated with musclebound titans with tiny heads creating maximum damage on colleagues and their surroundings. The female characters "look the same, except they have enormous breasts, are almost stark naked, and they're covered with blood," said Robbins. Calling Dr. Freud!
Ironically, Robbins thinks of the World War II era as the golden age of women comic characters. Wonder Woman! Mary Marvel! Phantom Lady!
"Even though it was mostly men creating them, they were geniuses like Will Eisner and Otto Binder and Matt Baker, guys who came out of a theatrical and storytelling background and thought of women as characters first," said Robbins. "Their creations were beautiful and sexy, but they looked - and acted - like real people.
"Today's comic artists grew up reading bad comic books, and that's all they know about the world and about human relationships. They're intellectually inbred."
What: "The Many Voices of June Foray," 7:30 p.m. Saturday in the UH Art Auditorium
What: "A History of Women Cartoonists" with Trina Robbins, 7:30 p.m. Sunday in the UH Art Auditorium.
What: Animation for Young People" and "Animation for Kids" are courses being offered during UH Summer Session, July 22 through Aug. 2 in Holmes 243. Instructor is David Ehrlich. Fee is $235