So just how do you come up with a new cartoon character?
Not being a cartoonist, I don’t have the definitive answer. Long-time cartoon writer Mike Maltese once pointed out “no one can take the credit for the finished product.” And Maltese ought to know, though he lived into a time when some people decided taking credit wouldn’t be a bad idea.
Still, cartoons have to start somewhere. It’s pretty safe to say that, in many cases, it’s in the head of a writer whose charge is to come up with a story that’ll fill seven minutes of screen time. And in the case of the idea of the inept masked hero El Kabong, that writer was Mike Maltese.
Cartoon writers are generally anonymous people. So it’s certainly a surprise to go way-back-when and find them being interviewed about the work of the Hanna-Barbera studio. I’d like to think it was because of the respect Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera had for Maltese and Warren Foster when they were hired from Warner Bros., though one could cynically suggest that mentioning the two in interviews and letting them to talk to the press gave Joe and Bill a chance to trade off on the popularity of the Warners cartoons.
We’ve posted one old interview with Maltese given shortly after his arrival at Hanna-Barbera HERE. I’ve found another from the St. Joseph News-Press of October 31, 1959, probably the earliest interview he gave anyone outside a studio newsletter. It looks to be either a re-write of a studio hand-out or a syndicated piece, though I haven’t found it anywhere else and it’s unbylined. It was published a little over a week before El Kabong made his debut and Maltese explains how he came up with the idea, and a little about himself.
New Style in Masked Avengers
Out of the past, out of the annals of show business, comes a dark figure. The masked marvel rides again . . . and again . . . and again.
This time, when the mysterious stranger lifts his mask at the final fade out, who will be under it but Quick Draw McGraw, the newest sensation of Western TV, host and hero of the half-hour cartoon series that’s now seen each Wednesday evening at 6 on ABC-TV [sic].
“I had to put in a Zorro-type character,” explained gray-haired dignified Mike Maltese, writer of the Quick Draw McGraw series. “But I wanted him to have his own special gimmick, no sword, no bull whip, something different and all his won. Never mind how, but I finally decided to give him a guitar. With a swish and a flourish,” said Maltese demonstrating saber technique, “he’d clobber the bad guys over the noggin with a guitar.”
The masked marvel has been haunting Maltese ever since he began studying the entertainment industry, 35 years ago at the RKO Colonial on Manhattan’s upper west side. Every Saturday, Maltese and his young friends would congregate at the local theater to study all ancient forms of theater, including two features, a cartoon, travelog, two serials, community sing and prizes.
“And almost every Saturday, there’d be a masked marvel on the screen,” Maltese recalled. “By the end of the 12th chapter, we couldn’t stand the suspense anymore. The bets among the kids were running high as the sun went down behind the mountain, and the heroine looked up at the mysterious stranger and said, (falsetto) ‘But, but, who are you?’ You’d see the mask twitch a little, so you’d know he was about to speak. Then suddenly a shot rang out, he’d fall, and cut. Darn it, you’d have to come back another week to find out.”
“So who was it?” Maltese was asked.
“It turned out to be her father, who disappeared in the first episode.”
After giving Quick Draw the mask and guitar, the professional Maltese began scratching his head for a Spanish-sounding name for the mysterious stranger.
“In a cartoon storyboard, whenever you have one of the characters getting bashed over the noodle, you know how you script in the sound effect? You write ‘KABONG’. So that’s what I decided to call him: El Kabong.
When the sponsors saw the Quick Draw McGraw spoof on El Kabong, they had Maltese write the masked wonder into four more episodes.
For the record, there were four El Kabong cartoons in the first season, three in the second and three (of the six Quick Draws made) in the final season. And while a sponsor may have been partially responsible for willing cartoons into being, a sponsor can’t force people to like them. That’s a collaborative effort, a cartoon writer once intimated. But a new cartoon character has to start with an idea. And you can credit the idea for the ridiculous and funny El Kabong to one ridiculous and funny Mike Maltese.