's 2013 Horror Write-off:

"Persistence of Vision"

Submitted by TheGunheart and Ryusui

God help me, I love crappy cartoons - those mass-manufactured wastes of animation cels that end up shoehorned into early morning death slots, desperate to be the first thing kids see when they wake up. The kind of junk you see in the DVD bargain bins at the supermarket, most of 'em vaguely attached to some obscure toy line or video game nobody remembers twenty-something years down the road. It's amazing how (accidentally?) creative things can be when the people behind them are working under soul-crushing restrictions: maybe it's someone's idea of rebelling for art's sake, or maybe someone on the staff just took his job too seriously, but I find a lot of these shows hit this strange little sweet spot between "bland" and "bizarre," as if they'd heard of the concept of "kid-friendly" but didn't quite have a firm grasp on it.

The one that sticks with me the most came on for a few months back in the early '90s. See, I'd come down with a bad fever and couldn't sleep, so I stayed up watching TV 'til the wee hours of the morning. Lucky thing, too - I would never have caught the premiere of "Tails of the Forest" otherwise. It came on at 5 AM weekdays, and despite how objectively awful it was, it had its hooks in me from the very beginning. I'd set my alarm clock just to catch each and every new episode the minute it came on. You've probably heard the general premise a dozen times already: we've got a gang of woodland animals who talk and wear clothes, they're all friends, they have adventures, etc. This particular gang of animals called themselves the Tail Brigade, and they took it upon themselves to save their home in the Flowerdale Forest from a scenery-chewing half-man half-scrapheap by the name of Angus McIndustry. (This would've been a year or two before either of the Sonic the Hedgehog cartoons came on the air, so the whole thing was new and exciting to me.) There was Longears the rabbit, the Brigade's neurotic scout; Stripes the badger, the brains (and sometimes brawn) of the group; Rosie the skunk, the token girl and chronic damsel in distress; and Russet the squirrel, the leader of the group and (as the theme song wouldn't let me forget) the star of the show.

Every episode followed pretty much the same formula: McIndustry would rant about his newest crazy gadget for destroying the Flowerdale Forest, Longears would turn out to have been listening in on the whole thing and run off to deliver the news to the rest of the gang, Stripes would come up with the gang's "Plan A" for saving the day (the one you always know is going to fail because that's how plans work in cartoons), Rosie would repeatedly point out the obvious and get into heaps of trouble, and Russet...well, Russet would steal the spotlight from everyone else. Anything the rest of the gang could do, he could do better: rush in where Longears feared to tread, come up with a "Plan B" whenever Stripes came up short, save Rosie from the Terrorbees or Crittertraps or Mirebears or whatever other cartoon catstrophe she'd gotten herself into...yeah, he was THAT kind of hero, and the rest of the cast practically worshiped him for it. Truth be told, I hated the cocky little punk's guts: yeah, it makes sense to have a main protagonist who's "special" in some way, but what the hell was the rest of the gang good for with the Almighty Russet in play?

At this point, you're probably wondering: if the main cast was so terrible, why the hell would I sit through the whole show, connoisseur of craptoons or not? First of all, there was McIndustry himself. He talked to his robots all the time; none of them talked back, but he never quite seemed to catch on, even when his "right-hand man" Tinzor just fell apart whenever he'd start cackling at the end of his rants. He'd scream "I HAAAAATE NATURE!" in his ridiculous fake Scottish accent at least once an episode and demonstrate the fact through some petty act of eco-violence that'd always end up backfiring on him: trying to kill a potted plant with a flamethrower only to set himself on fire, dumping chemicals into the ocean only to dissolve his own boat, etc. And whenever the Tail Brigade demolished his latest robot, he'd throw a huge tantrum that'd always end in him accidentally hitting the big red button that made his factory collapse on top of his stupid metal head. This was one of those shows where the villain provided most of the actual entertainment value.

The second reason was the remaining member of the main cast: Ms. Goldbrush, a fox in a red scarf and jacket who hung around the village, always sitting somewhere within earshot with a cup of coffee in hand, never without some sarcastic remark about how the Tail Brigade was in over their heads, a bunch of kids like them should just let the grown-ups handle things, etc. In other words, she was your typical "complainer" character that every show back then had to have. Russet would always respond to her with some smart-ass remark, but that didn't stop her from throwing a dismissive comment or two at the gang every episode. It was pretty clear the writers wanted us to hate her as much as they wanted us to love Russet, but here's the thing: she was RIGHT. Longears would always spook at the slightest sign of danger, Stripes' plans always fell apart in the end, Rosie would always do something stupid and make the gang go out of their way to rescue her...if it wasn't for Russet and his overcompetence, the Brigade never would've lasted through the first episode. Ms. Goldbrush might not have been written to be sympathetic, but the way I saw it, she had the Brigade's best interests at heart all along: she was only trying to talk them out of getting themselves hurt doing something stupid, something they only thought they were GOOD at because they had that damn godmoding squirrel on their team.

Things took an unexpected turn twenty-something episodes in when Russet finally lost it with Ms. Goldbrush, grabbed that coffee mug of hers, and smashed it on the ground. By this point, I expected he'd get a round of applause from the rest of the gang, maybe a pat on the head for a job well done. I didn't expect Ms. Goldbrush to break down crying, or the rest of the Brigade to get angry and start yelling at him for doing something so mean and senseless to her. He tried to argue that Ms. Goldbrush "deserved it" after all the flack she'd given them, but in the end they convinced him to help Ms. Goldbrush gather up all the pieces and glue them back together. They actually shared a little bonding moment as Ms. Goldbrush explained the mug was a gift from her grandmother, who'd passed away long ago; her old home had been bulldozed by McIndustry, so the mug was the only thing she had left of her. I'm not sure which was more surprising: that Russet finally got called on being a smug little jerk, or that Ms. Goldbrush got so much backstory when she'd spent the entire series up to that point as a glorified background prop. When Ms. Goldbrush finally hugged Russet at the end of the episode, I couldn't help but hate the little punk a little less.

So for the next two weeks' worth of episodes, Ms. Goldbrush became an official member of the Tail Brigade, serving as the gang's mission control. I don't know where she got that briefcase computer of hers (seriously, it looked like it came out of another show entirely), but she used it to keep in touch with the Brigade and track McIndustry's robots as they rampaged through the forest. From time to time, she'd even use it to hack into McIndustry's various creations, subverting his factory's defenses or turning his own robots against him. She didn't quite manage to seize the spotlight from Russet, but I was happy there was finally a member of the cast whom he couldn't upstage outright. And then, just as suddenly as Ms. Goldbrush's change of heart (and role) had started, everything was back to the status quo: she was back in her usual seat, drinking her coffee, belittling the Tail Brigade's efforts, and Russet was back to making his not-quite-clever retorts. I wasn't sure what had happened; at first I wondered if maybe I'd somehow dreamed the entire run of episodes (I'd dreamed weirder things before then), but then I figured that maybe they just aired the episodes out of order. That thought gave me hope; maybe there would be more episodes with Ms. Goldbrush on the team afterward.

A few episodes later, the show took another turn for the weird. This time, McIndustry's plan to destroy the forest involved something he called "Agent Brown," a chemical that could turn plants into billowing plumes of noxious smoke with a single drop (as he was happy to demonstrate on a poor, innocent flower). A tiny little vial was enough to wipe out the whole Flowerdale Forest, and he'd built this robot gorilla whose entire purpose was to deliver that vial to the middle of the forest and dump it. So the gang had two things to worry about this time: stopping the robot from reaching its destination, and getting the vial away from the robot without smashing it by accident. Of course, they (and by "they" I mean Russet) managed to pull it off, though that meant they had a new problem to solve in the last five minutes of the show: how to get rid of the stuff without releasing it by accident. And just as Russet, Stripes, and Longears all agreed the best thing to do was drop it down the Windy Chasm, Rosie tripped over her own feet and sent the vial flying out of Russet's hands.

The deadly concoction ended up in Ms. Goldbrush's coffee, and the gang watched in stunned silence as she took a single, fatal sip. A beat later, her eyes went wide, and she jumped straight up, going into goofy "death throes" in midair while her pupils flashed punctuation signs and silly cartoon noises played. After a few moments of this, she crashed unceremoniously to the ground with two great big X's where her eyes used to be - the universal sign a cartoon character's bought it. An awkward moment passed, and then finally, that damn squirrel opened his big mouth: "well, I guess that takes care of TWO problems, doesn't it?" And then the others started laughing, as if that un-joke was the funniest thing they'd ever heard. The episode closed with an iris out on Ms. Goldbrush's face, still just as dead as before, to the sound of a slide whistle - as if the audience was supposed to find the whole thing just as funny as Russet and friends did.

So yeah, it bothered me that they'd kill Ms. Goldbrush for a dumb gag (one that wasn't even very funny to begin with), but I didn't think much of it at the time: I'd seen a Tom & Jerry once where Tom got his head chopped off by a guillotine at the end, but that didn't stop him from coming back in the next cartoon mad as ever. I knew death in cartoons didn't work like death in the real world: it only stuck if drama called for it, and even then you had a better-than-average chance of coming back if the writers wanted to pull a shocking twist ("he's back, and he's not happy you all left him for dead!") Which is why it surprised me when Ms. Goldbrush didn't put in any kind of appearance in the next episode. It was part of the show's formula, like I said: the gang would make their plans, and Ms. Goldbrush would be somewhere within earshot, ready and willing to shoot them down. At first I just chalked it up to the writers trying something different, just like before, but when she failed to show up in the episode after that, and the episode after THAT, I started to worry that they'd honestly killed her off. I was young enough to cry at the thought.

After about a week's worth of new, Ms. Goldbrush-less episodes, I finally saw her again. There was a shot of the village cafe, almost completely unchanged from how I'd seen it last. Right down to Ms. Goldbrush lying there next to the seats, still dead. The only difference was that there were flies buzzing around her now. I felt sick to my stomach. I couldn't understand why either the characters or the writers would do something like that. It wasn't funny, it didn't make a lick of sense...they'd not only killed her, they'd left her to rot. I don't remember what else happened in that episode, just that the gang seemed vaguely uncomfortable around the cafe but couldn't quite seem to figure out why. As it happened, that was the final episode, as best I can tell: like a lot of shows from the day, it didn't have a proper finale, and the next episode was the first one all over again. At first I was upset that they'd wrap up on such a stupid note, but then I realized: even if there were no new episodes with Ms. Goldbrush in them, that didn't stop me from enjoying the old ones, right? So I went ahead and watched my first rerun of the show.

At first, I thought I was having a nightmare. The first scene Ms. Goldbrush was in had been replaced with this ridiculously detailed hand-painted shot of her corpse. Her eyes weren't cartoony X's anymore; they were glassy and wide-open, staring off at nothing. The only animated part of the shot were the flies buzzing in and out of view. I turned the TV off in a panic and hid under the covers for what had to have been half an hour as I tried to rationalize what I had just seen: it couldn't have been real, right? They wouldn't really have gone to all the trouble to edit the first episode just for a stupid scare like that, would they? I mean, this was back when Spiderman couldn't even throw a punch: how could they have gotten away with shoving a rotting corpse in kids' faces, even in the name of "humor"?

I pushed the whole incident out of my mind and chalked it up to my own overactive imagination and the chili I'd had for dinner the previous evening. Still, it was a couple of weeks before I worked up the courage to try another episode. It was even worse the second time around: when Ms. Goldbrush showed up, she was showing visible signs of decay. The flies had laid maggots in her fur, which were already starting to chew through her skin. The entire scene had been animated in obsessive detail, and it was all I could do to keep from throwing up. But I couldn't tear myself away. I had to see it through. I had to know how bad it would get. It wasn't long after that when my parents noticed I was getting sick in the morning, and (bless them) they jumped to the conclusion that it was because I was sacrificing a good night's sleep to watch "stupid cartoons" early in the morning. So I was officially banned from my 5AM outings with Tails of the Forest; the threat of having my video games confiscated was enough to make the mandate stick. It's probably for the best that they never actually watched the show; I'm not sure if I could have explained the appeal back then. Hell, I'm not sure I'm doing a good job of explaining it even now.

So my brief love-hate affair with Tails of the Forest came to an end. It was years before I thought about the show again; I'd honestly forgotten all about it until it got name-dropped in a forum thread about old, obscure cartoons of the early '90s. I was glad to find out I wasn't the only one who had fond memories of the show - Ms. Goldbrush had quite a few fans (and some other things I'd rather not think about) - but the funny thing was, no one seemed to have watched anything past the part where Ms. Goldbrush became a member of the Brigade. Not really surprised the mods banned me after I started talking about episode where she died, or how she was still dead in the reruns - if I'd been hearing the story from someone else, I'd have thought they were trolling, too. I could never find any consistent info on who made the show, or even who owned the rights to it - there had never been any kind of home video release - which made me feel a bit better when I finally found a torrent of the whole series, start to finish. Someone had apparently taped the whole thing and uploaded it to the Internet.

I don't know why I wasn't surprised to see Russet, now old and gray, mumbling half-remembered lines as he stumbled through the village. The years clearly hadn't been kind to him: he was bigger, sure, but stooped with age, and it was morbidly hilarious seeing him try to run up the side of a tree only to fall flat on his ass. Ms. Goldbrush, no surprise there either, was still dead: just a dusty old pile of bones with tattered rags mixed in. I was a little surprised to see she wasn't the only one whose appearances had been replaced with lavishly-painted death scene anymore, though. Stripes' backpack was impaled on a rusty metal spike sticking out of a pit; presumably the rest of him was somewhere below. Longears' jacket was caught between two great big gears; no guesswork required to figure out what had happened there. It took me a few times to recognize the big brown heap as a long-dead Crittertrap: apparently one of Rosie's long-time nemeses had finally gotten the better of her. As for McIndustry...I'm not sure what the hell was supposed to have happened to him. All that was left was his metal skull, half-embedded in a pulsating wall in some strange, alien-looking place I'd never seen on the show. Every now and then, some kind of mechanical worm would travel from one eye socket to the other, and the whole place would shudder with a deep warbling noise.

I watched the whole thing over from the beginning like this. Russet just went along his routine, mindlessly retracing his steps every episode, trying hard to be the same little cocky wiseass he used to be and failing miserably. He'd laugh his stupid laugh, but it'd always be a bit nervous. He'd make his smartass comebacks at Ms. Goldbrush's bones, but they'd always ring hollow. He'd charge like Don freakin' Quixote at great big piles of rusting scrap that, in another viewing, had been forest-destroying engines of doom. I watched him cower as the corpses chewed him out for breaking that mug, talk wistfully to himself as he picked up the pieces all by himself, and wait awkwardly for a hug that never came. To be honest, I couldn't think of anything more perfect for the little bastard.