I never watched Shazzan growing up, and that is saying something from a cartoon junky like me. I would watch pretty much anything animated. I watched all of the other Hanna Barbara shows; The Herculoids, Space Ghost, Birdman, Frankenstein Jr., … but not Shazzan. I refused to watch it because I was a huge Captain Marvel fan, and the whole Shazam / Shazzan thing offended my sensibilities. (I was a true geek even as a kid, apparently).
Older and wiser now, I took the plunge and dove into this long-shunned Alex Toth production, and found an excellent, goofy, and surprisingly edgy late ‘60s cartoon.
The ‘60s and ‘70s wasn’t exactly the greatest time for American cartoons. Budgets were tight, techniques were limited, and simplistic stories were recycled over and over again. Shazzan is no different, and repeats a basic magic item / unfulfilled quest scenario for all 36 episodes. Everything you need to know about the story is summed up in the preamble that runs before every episode:
“Inside a cave off the coast of Maine, Chuck and Nancy find a mysterious chest containing the halves of a strange ring. When joined the ring forms the word Shazzan and with this magical command they are transported back to the fabled land of the Arabian Nights. Here they meet their genie, Shazzan. Shazzan presents them Kaboobie a magical flying camel and gives Chuck a magic belt and rope. Shazzan will serve them whenever they call, but he cannot return them home until they deliver the ring to its rightful owner. And thus begins their incredible journey.”
Who is that rightful owner? The story never says. It's just a MacGuffin to keep the plots churning. The saving grace for many of these ‘60s/’70s shows is design, humor, and imagination. All of which Shazzan has in spades.
It goes without saying that Alex Toth is one of the great comic designers, and he obviously had fun playing around with the world of the Arabian Nights. Some of the magic is pulled straight from the original stories, some from Toth’s imagination.
The Arabian Nights is a rich playground for the imagination, and Shazzan has everything you could want: Flying carpets, magical eggs, rocs, evil wizards—and flying camels. There is something about winged camels that is inherently cool. If you have ever read Neil Gaimen’s Sandman story Ramadan, then you know that this is the world bartered away to the king of dreams so that it could live forever in humanities’ dreams. It is a pure fantasy land. (Disney’s animators must have watching as well. The entire plot of Aladdin appears to have been lifted from an episode of Shazzan.)
And while Chuck and Nancy are typical bland white-bread heroes, Shazzan himself is awesome. He has enough magical power that he could just snap his fingers and put things to right, but this all-powerful genie has a sense of humor and cruelty. There is actually an edge to Shazzan that surprised me, and that I don’t think I would have noticed as a kid. The great genie delightfully torments the episode’s villain and plays with them like a cat with a mouse. With a hearty “Ho ho ho ho!” he re-shapes their bodies or tears down their homes or leaves them stranded in the desert to die.
This Shazzan DVD has all 36 episodes, pulled from the Warner Archives collection. Obviously they didn’t spend a lot of time and money restoring these cartoons, but everything looks nice enough to enjoy. They did actually put together a bonus feature, a short documentary called The Power of Shazzan (again with the Captain Marvel references! Grumble grumble!), which basically has a bunch of industry folks talking about working on Shazzan and watching it as a kid.
I was also surprised to find out that my wife knew Shazzan. American cartoons rarely make the leap, but apparently Shazzan was popular in Japan. My wife actually always assumed it was a Japanese cartoon. But hey, flying camels are popular everywhere, so that is entirely appropriate.
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the '90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack’s reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.