Sharing Copper: John K., Terry Toons and a Bag of Heads

“To My Hero, John K.!”

A true geek wearing a government-issue NSA polo, I enter the half-filled theater carrying a bag of heads.

He’s sitting right there, alone, by the entrance, as the last few fans scamper in (“Why shouldn’t I approach him?”). Leaning on the back of the seat to his left, I start, as though continuing a conversation, with, “John, I’ve got those Gandy Goose and Sourpuss copper head molds.”

Turning around, John Kricfalusi appears pleased enough to meet a fan, but momentarily confused and maybe concerned, trying to figure out what my phrasing of words meant to him at that moment. “Gandy Goose and Sourpuss” makes sense to John K., but “copper head molds” isn’t a phrase commonly overheard in a theater setting. I carefully unwrap the circa 1958 Gandy Goose head mold from its bubbled enclosure, and hand it to John K. A therapist may suggest this entire tale is one of seeking approval from a parental figure.

“Wow! This is wonderful. Are you selling these, or...?” he asks.

I can’t tell if he’s compelled and wants to buy them, annoyed that someone might be trying to sell him crap right before this retrospective of his work or something else altogether. No matter, my answer is the same: “No. If you want them, they’re yours.”

“But why would you ever give these up?” he asks, now sounding like a fanboy.

“Because Gandy Goose and Sourpuss were an inspiration for you, and you created Ren and Stimpy,” I explain bluntly.

Gandy Goose and Sourpuss were stars of the Terry Toons cartoon emirate (along with Mighty Mouse, Heckle and Jeckle, etc.), appearing in dozens of original shorts and comics throughout the 1930-1950s. Thanks to television replays, consumer-level 8mm film sales and new comic books, these characters lived well into the 1970s and helped inspire John K.’s most famous creations, Ren and Stimpy. In 2007, he wrote: “Gandy Goose is a lovable homosexual. Sourpuss was a mean curmudgeon. Gandy and Sourpuss has a funny relationship. They slept together and would invade each other’s dreams. Sourpuss was the asshole character and Gandy loves him nonetheless. Their relationship inspired Ren and Stimpy.”

Yet, there’s more personal and more recent nostalgia for John K., too. Cartoonist Ralph Bakshi (infamously, if not best, known for Fritz the Cat--the first X-rated animated film) got his start at Terry Toons in the late 1950s. In 1987, Bakshi reached out to John K. to resurrect the creator-driven art of animation that lay dormant for decades during which true cartoonists were marginalized and pushed out of the industry and cartoons were corporatized pablum, lacking all sense of entertainment, existing only as a Saturday-morning platform to sell commercial time. The seemingly innocuous maneuver of re-introducing Terry Toons characters through Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures--which also found Gandy Goose and Sourpuss literally thawed from a cryogenic limbo--saved the world of animation (at least, the world worth existing) and delivered inspiration and new dimensions of creativity to a new generation. Yes, John K. has a special place in his heart for this daft goose and angry cat.

“See me afterwards, I’ll give you a signed Jimmy the Idiot Boy Doll,” he says.

The discussion was straightforward, appreciative and just nice.

Upon first learning that John K. was coming to the Dallas International Film Festival to accept the Texas Avery Animation Award, I was excited (“Happy happy, joy joy!” repeat) but my mind quickly fell upon an earlier quest. I’d previously resolved to give these heads to John K.--someone who will appreciate them and, I envision, showcase them in his personal museum of all things demented and beautiful. In the scope of the universe, these heads belong to him.

About the Copper Heads
Years ago, I came across an antique dealer from Georgia who, with her business partner, bought the remains of the old Rushton Company toy factory, which ran from 1917 to 1983. Rushton made a lot of dolls, including those for Terry Toons’ popular puppets in the 1950s and 1960s. The latter was done by creating copper molds of characters’ heads, injecting rubber into the molds and--as soon as the material was solid-yet-flexible enough--vacuuming the inverted rubber heads out of the molds. The rubber heads were then turned right-side out and sewn onto fabric to make simple hand puppets. The antique dealer knew little about the head molds except the factory from which they originated. Her first sale of one of these was my purchase of a Gandy Goose mold. I simply thought it a cool item...then I investigated Gandy Goose and Terry Toons and found the relationship to John K., via his animation and art blog, and knew I was on to something special.

The dealer and I talked numerous times on the phone, exchanged countless emails, and she sent me photos of some of the other molds she had that were stamped “TERRY TOONS” in reverse on the inner neck. Based on these images, she had at least two Sourpuss molds--each showing distinct wear due to age. I rightfully concluded that it was ridiculous to have Gandy Goose and not Sourpuss--they’re a team, just like Ren and Stimpy. I needed that damn cat.

Examining more pictures I started to see nearly the entire Terry Toons character stable (sans Mighty Mouse) in copper head mold form. I was compelled to “collect ‘em all.” These beautiful works of art were just baking in a central Georgia warehouse. I needed to save them. I needed to acquire not only Sourpuss, but Heckle and Jeckle, Kiko the Kangaroo, the Terry Bears, Little Roquefort, Hashimoto...all of them. I had to assemble a Noah’s ark of these old Terry Toons head molds. They represent not only too-often-forgotten third-rate cartoon characters, but an extinct discipline in the art of creating toys.

The mission set forth in my geek/collector mind was to amass as many distinct Terry Toons character molds as possible (I thought it an investment, too, but one that would take a lifetime to appreciate). I agreed to buy at least a dozen of the heads from the antique dealer (the actual number would depend on what else she uncovered) and we established a per-head price. She dug through piles of molds at the warehouse--an activity limited to the morning hours due to the sweltering summer heat--and continued to sporadically send new photos. Suddenly, all calls and messages to the possessor of these treasures ceased. Months passed. I still had just a lone Gandy Goose.

Out of the blue, late one night, she called. She’d been anxious for a while about getting in touch because so much time had lapsed since she last responded to my emails--she felt bad and she thought I’d be angry.

We talked for more than an hour, the heads only mentioned briefly when she brought them up to assure me that the ones I’d already wanted were set aside for me--she just needed help packaging them. The reality: She was fighting cancer and left weak by the treatment. Her husband, in his 80s, was unable to help. I assured her that I was not angry, that these were just toys, whereas she was fighting for her life, and she shouldn’t waste energy thinking about them or worrying about anyone’s perception of her related to them.

She was originally from the civilized parts of Florida (where I also grew up) and found semi-rural Georgia, where she’d relatively recently moved, to be an odd change of pace. Yet, when the people in her town learned about her illness, the strangers coming to her door were no longer trying to preach the gospel, they were bringing food and offering to help her out around the house. She had a newfound respect for rural southerners and honestly thought that she’d be able to proceed with selling and shipping out my hoard of head molds within a couple of weeks.

After a couple of months without hearing from her, I called and got a recorded “out of service” message. I never heard from her again and her sales presence online went from minimal to nonexistent.

Then a Sourpuss copper head mold appeared online for sale, but not by her. This mold was being sold by the son of her business partner. I messaged him to enquired about her health, “not good,” he said somberly to which I expressed my genuine concern. In addition, this man’s father (the partner of the antique dealer with which I’d now lost contact) had suffered a farming injury and it became his task to sell their antique inventory--including the head molds. This son-of-an-antique-dealer knew nothing about the deal I’d arranged with his father’s partner for a bulk purchase, and rebutted the topic when raised (“My father owns them, she can’t make those deals”). But I bought that Sourpuss head mold.

If nothing else came of this years-long adventure, I’d managed to get the team of Gandy Goose and Sourpuss together where their cultural value could best be appreciated. I even offered to give the current dealer information I’d learned in my research about the characters he was selling so that the most appropriate buyers (and likely more buyers) would be attracted to the sales--he never responded and his sales were minor compared to what they should have been.

After several months of marveling at the awesomeness of the Gandy Goose and Sourpuss head molds on my mantel, and giving them some face time on a shelf at work, I rationalized that there were people more suitable than I to be the holders of such historic animation-toy relics. People for whom these would bring back memories of childhood, gloriously stupid high college nights or perhaps even some of their greatest accomplishments.

It was with all of this in mind that I wrote to John K. during his “Cans Without Labels” Kickstarter campaign (August 2012), explaining that I had copper head molds of Gandy Goose and Sourpuss from the late 1950s and asked if he’d like them--perhaps in exchange for one of the campaign’s perks. He (or someone else involved with the campaign) was interested but said there was no wiggle room in the campaign for such a barter. And before I could ask for a mailing address so as to send John K. the molds, the campaign ended (successfully, at least) and my route of communication with the famed animator shut down.

Down in the Lobby
Twenty months later, I’m eager, but cool and mostly relaxed to meet John K. But the coolness of cucumbers has nothing on geek freak.

After the retrospective and Q&A, I fumble while talking to him, removing the Sourpuss head mold from its bubble wrap. (“Show him this one first, you already showed him Gandy Goose in the theater before the film. Yeah, that’s a strategy! You’re awesome at thinking!”) Once handed Sourpuss, he begins examining the 50-plus-year-old, metal sculpture of a character that meant something to him. This is an experience with the characters that he’s never had. Next, I unwrap and set Gandy Goose down on the table in front of him. He’s taken aback, I suspect because the appearance of these relics came relatively out of nowhere, and they are indeed something special to someone that appreciates the characters, the history and the art. He holds them alongside his Texas Avery Award statue with a large smile, ogles them some more and then sets them down, upon which I re-wrap and bag them for him for safe travel.

At the same time, I explain the basics about how the molds were used to make the actual heads, adding that I also have a Heckle/Jeckle head mold from the same era that had the original rubber still inside of it and how I was able to remove the rubber head from the mold and now have a brand-new-yet-50-year-old rubber puppet head of the infamous magpies as well as the exact mold from which it was made.

Perhaps oddly, I say that he can even make his own Gandy Goose and Sourpuss rubber heads from the molds if he wanted to play with that art, to which he responds, “I wouldn’t know how.” I instinctively take his brevity as some manner of disappointment...and now I’m nervous and self-doubt and irrational stupidity floods my consciousness. (“Please wife, just take my picture with him. He’s sitting down and I’m standing up, but bending over and looking stupid. This is almost over, he’s signing the top of the Jimmy the Idiot Boy Clubhouse Doll box. I just wanted to give him the fucking molds and say, ‘Hello, mad respect,’ and now I can’t even think!”)

Photos taken, hands shaken, John K. has some new treasures and I have an unforgettable experience plus a two-foot-tall doll of a mentally handicapped cartoon character too politically incorrect to ever star in a televised show (though he was in the first-ever, online-only cartoon series The Goddamn George Liquor Program, so this tale stretches from the early time of copper molds for rubber toy production to the dawn of Internet video). The inscription on the box: “To my hero, Michael!”

As I depart, pausing to speak with a Scottish man waiting in line to have his consultation with the human embodiment of Ren Höek, I start to shake my shock (though it lasts for another 20 minutes). A reality away from the encounter, I look at the photos my wife took and realize that John K. was not disappointed with the head molds or annoyed with my existence--he was geeking out in his own way. As he rotated Sourpuss, noting the odd metallic growths that decades imbued on the feline’s copper ears, there’s an intent look on his face, not a suggestion of, “What’s this shit?” His smile present in the “4 Heads” photo (Gandy Goose, Texas Avery Award, Sourpuss and John K.) is honest. Following that with his “hero” inscription” makes it all seem genuine, and that’s a nice experiential emotion to have.

John K. is a thoughtful person, a geek, an inspiration to thousands, if not millions, and has influenced the world well beyond the reach of his ridiculous, Hitler-slaying Terry Toons friends (see “The Last Roundup,” 1943).


I have not and will not be creating a Terry Toons copper head mold museum. I swear. But I did purchase another Gandy Goose mold. Externally, it’s not as fine as the one I bequeathed to John K., but it has an original rubber head still inside it...