Unpacking the lure of ‘Courage: The Cowardly Dog’ as it’s set to return on public demand

There is a fount of vintage content that 90’s kids just can’t resist the lure of bringing back. Arguable, I think 90’s was the golden age of animation. Whilst my afternoons were pash-filled with the emblematic theme song of Justice league rocking the television sets, I remember how buildings reverberated in unison with manga cartoons like Dragon Ball Z and Beyblade at soirées.

Cartoon Network offered a broad range of gripping and varied content, replete with caped crusaders and lunatic villains in those days.

John R Dilworth

One cartoon that no millennial can easily erase from the dark chambers of their mind has to be Courage the Cowardly Dog. The cartoon series hasn’t had its own animated television series since it ended in 2002, but there is a good news.

John R Dilworth has recently shared on his social media account that he and his company were “expecting to begin development” of a prequel to the classic cartoon and that it’s currently called Before Courage. Dilworth also mentioned that the show would be specifically for Boomerang rather than Cartoon Network.

There is something about being scared that is oddly appealing. Courage was always a beguilingly ghoulish show that despite inducing the horrors, offered substance in the varied animation styles, creepy music, and surreal in-depth characters. It both haunted us and had us glued to our seats at the same time.

The paradox is not just in the title but also the nature of the show. People have spent nights lying awake recapitulating the stories they had consumed, feeling the shadows creeping, imagining their closet doors creaking while holding their breath and waiting. Yet most of us would watch that all over again. 

The reason why 90’s are often branded as the golden age of animated content is because of sheer flexibility and lack of censorship in those times. A horror-comedy show with an absurdist story-line like Courage wouldn’t see the light of day in the current times. But twenty years ago, the level of reception was strikingly different in comparison.

Courage the Cowardly Dog was a show about a pink canine named Courage who lives in a farmhouse near the fictional town of Nowhere, Kansas. His parents were sent into space by an evil veterinarian. As a puppy, Courage was adopted by a good-natured Scottish woman named Muriel (Thea White). She’s married to a grumpy, greedy farmer named Eustace Bagge (Lionel G. Wilson, then Arthur Anderson) who enjoys mistreating and scaring the pooch with a bright green bug-eyed mask.

Out in the middle of nowhere, the three frequently run into all manner of monsters, aliens, demons, mad scientists, and zombies. Courage must fend off these threats to save his owners, often with them unaware of what’s really going on. Most of the creatures are scary or creepy but can also be sweet or in distress themselves.

Whenever one turns the TV over to Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon, one finds it fraught with turgid, glittery, bubblegum world of bug-eyed smiles, sanitised and politically correct dialogue. It’s a far cry from the dark, absurd, oft-nightmarish content of just 20 years ago.

Back in those times, Courage enjoyed a sizeable air-time on Cartoon Network as it snuck up on people ever so suddenly. One moment we would be enjoying the mindless buffoonery of Ed, Edd n Eddy and the next we would hear the familiar refrain: “We interrupt this program to bring you… Courage the Cowardly Dog Show, starring Courage, the Cowardly Dog!” While even the intro sequence stirred feelings of dread, one could never bring themselves to change the channel. Morbid curiosities of the viewers fueled the ratings abundantly.

Episode stories ranged from showing a tribe of bullfrogs invading Courage’s home and forcing his adopted family to dig ponds and croak to featuring a psychopathic snowman, a robotic doppelganger, a duck masquerading as a doctor that tries to swindle people out of their life savings to a friendly pig running a restaurant, who Courage learns secretly kills humans and serves their flesh.  

What made the horror of Courage the Cowardly Dog so petrifying was the sense of open-ended possibility which accompanied each misadventure. The show’s villains concocted elaborate plots and driven by compelling motives. Courage was just a scared dog, the exact opposite personality-wise of most typical children’s TV heroes, who inspire confidence and remain calm while facing danger. In most kids’ entertainment, you know that the hero will overcome all obstacles, evil will be vanquished and things will return to how they should be.

When watching Courage, on the other hand, one would get an overwhelming premonition that untoward things might actually happen. Facing impending doom against blood-curdling villains, Courage had no choice but to find a way to solve his own issues.

He thwarted his enemies, all while anxious and trembling. In retrospect, that’s what made Courage so relatable. He understood that it’s okay to be afraid and that just because you stand up against something you’re scared of, doesn’t mean it will suddenly become less terrifying. Most stories often promote this romantic idea that confronting fears allows people to automatically overcome them. Courage the Cowardly Dog asserted that fear is okay and that it is how we deal with inescapable situations that define us.

The deadliest episodes that have scared viewers out of their wits are:-

King Ramses’ Curse – Eustace Bagge being the most callous and problematic characters on the show always ends up provoking the ghosts. It’s Eustace’s greed to keep a stolen slab worth one million dollars that forces the entire family to be haunted by the ghost of King Ramses, who refuses to leave until the slab is returned to his tomb. The spooky part is the visual itself; The inventiveness of creator John R. Dilworth who has smartly used paper-style turn-over-flat animation a monotone voice eerily demanding that you “return the slab.”

The Mask

A rather light and poignant episode compared to the others on this list. The Mask about a feline looking to help a bunny escape the clutches of her overprotective, biker boyfriend. But, the fact that Kitty wore a haunting, porcelain mask during the majority of the episode.

The Black Puddle Queen –

A strange yet pretty queen with huge razor-sharp grills lives inside the puddle alone. She wants to seduce Eustace and take him to her underwater kingdom so she could eat him. Eustace eventually falls prey to her ploy as the queen starts appearing in his tea, his bathtub and whispering his name repeatedly.

In a Reddit Ask-me-anything session, Dilworth revealed that the show was inspired by Charlie Chaplin, sci-fi novels, Terror Comix, and Salvador Dali.

Commenting about the revolutionary techniques and experiments used in Courage, Dilworth once said that they would let their creative juices flow and their inventive animation styles would include stop-motion, paper cut-outs, mix media puppets and live media footage.

Excitement is soaring high with this one!