Out of the Inkwell

Wednesday’s Zippy takes us back to a delightful animated meta-comic of almost a century ago:


Check out the Koko Cartoon Factory animated short here. The character Koko comes out of an inkwell, drawn by a cartoonist, then himself creates other characters, erases some, confronts human antagonists, eventually returns to the inkwell. Dreamlike in the manner of Winsor McKay’s Little Nemo.

From Wikipedia:

(#2) Assemblage of Fleischer characters featuring Koko, Betty Boop, and the dog Bimbo

Koko the Clown is an animated character created by animation pioneer Max Fleischer.

The character originated when Max Fleischer invented the Rotoscope, a device that allowed for animation to be more lifelike by tracing motion picture footage of human movement. The use of the clown character came after two previous tests and a search for an original character. Fleischer filmed his brother Dave in a clown costume. After tracing the film footage amounting to some 2,500 drawings and a year’s work, the character that would eventually become Koko the Clown was born, although he did not have a name until 1924. “The Clown”‘s appearance owes much to The Yama Yama Man. Dave’s clown costume was clearly inspired by one worn by Bessie McCoy, with the additions of a black ruffled collar replacing the big white bow, three pom-pom front buttons, and a prominent cone-shaped cap also with three pom-poms. The white face with slit eyes was a design common among German circus clowns. Both costumes have white gloves with long fingers, white foot coverings, and a hat with the same white pom-pom as in front. A 1922 sheet music drawing makes the connection more explicit, saying “Out of the Inkwell, the New Yama Yama Clown”, with a picture of Koko.

Because of the realistic effects displayed in his sample films, the result of Fleischer’s Rotoscope, and a past relationship with John R. Bray, he was hired as production manager for John R. Bray Studios, and in 1918 they began Out of the Inkwell as an entry in the Bray Pictograph Screen Magazine released through Paramount (1919–1920), and later Goldwyn (1921). Aside from the novelty of the Rotoscoped animation, this series combined live-action and animation centered on Max Fleischer as the creative cartoonist and “Master” of “The Clown.” “The Clown” would often slip from Max’s eye and go on an adventure, pull a prank on his creator. Fleischer wrote, and animated the early shorts along with Roland Crandall, with Dave directing the live action filming, performing on camera as “The Clown” for Rotoscoping, and assisted with the animation and Roto tracings.

My 10/9/14 posting “Plato – or Woody Woodpecker?” has a section on the Fleischer studio. And Betty Boop got her own posting on 9/19/15. As for Bimbo, from the Wikipedia article:

Bimbo is a tubby, black and white cartoon dog created by Fleischer Studios. He is most well known for his role in the Betty Boop cartoon series, where he featured as Betty’s main love interest. A precursor design of Bimbo, originally named Fitz, first appeared in the Out of the Inkwell series.

… The name Bimbo was chosen because in the 1920s the word was mostly associated with men who liked to fight. [see discussion below]

He starred in several famous cartoon shorts of the 1930s, most notably Swing You Sinners!, Minnie the Moocher (film) and Bimbo’s Initiation.


The complex sense developments of bimbo are detailed at some length in my 5/9/12 posting “bimbos and himbos”; early uses mix generic reference to a man (‘fellow, chap’) with various affective tones: affectionate (compare Italian bambino and English babe), strongly masculine tending to the thuggish (the prizefighter connection), contemptuous (compare bozo). From GDoS as quoted in my earlier posting:

the earliest use of bimbo is synon. with ‘bozo’ to mean a man, prob. unintelligent; overtones of thuggery appear c. 1920. A parallel use was that to mean ‘baby’, abbr. from the Italian bambino. By the 1920s the word also meant young woman, often a prostitute; simultaneously it meant a tramp’s companion, poss. gay. The writer Jack Conway (of Variety magazine) used it spec. to mean a ‘dumb girl’. Bimbo gained a new currency during the 1980s when it came to describe a young woman, usu. something of a gold-digger and indulged as such by rich and/or powerful older men and the media to whom they tell or sell their tales. The original 1980s bimbo was a ‘model’, Fiona Wright, who delighted the press with revelations of her relationship with Sir Ralph Halpern, a millionaire businessman

And then of course the baseball connection. On the baseball player Babe Ruth, from Wikipedia:

George Herman “Babe” Ruth Jr. (February 6, 1895 – August 16, 1948) was an American professional baseball player whose career in Major League Baseball (MLB) spanned 22 seasons, from 1914 through 1935. Nicknamed “The Bambino” and “The Sultan of Swat”, he began his MLB career as a stellar left-handed pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, but achieved his greatest fame as a slugging outfielder for the New York Yankees.

To modern ears the dog’s name Bimbo sounds ridiculous; but Bambino or Babe would work today (although a pig named Babe is the protagonist of the 1995 comedy-drama film Babe — but then Babe wants to be a sheepdog).


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: