Wolf adds to Toon Town - Jessica Rabbit gets a story of her own

On June 22, 1988, Gary K. Wolf's creative masterpiece was unleashed as 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' was released in theaters and drew $750 million in a year. Now, on May 4, 2022, he added to the story with 'Jessica Rabbit: Xerious Business.’

Love & imagination still flow for Earlville native who created Roger Rabbit

By BRANDON LACHANCE

Staff writer

MENDOTA – Earlville doesn’t have a lot of connections with published novels, motion pictures, or Hollywood.

Except for one individual – Gary K. Wolf.

Wolf, 81, developed his creativity in the rural Illinois town before writing a novel called ‘Who Censored Roger Rabbit?’ in 1981. The novel was then turned into the June 22, 1988 hit film, ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,’ which celebrates its 34th birthday, today.

The love and imagination for his creations – Toon Town, Roger Rabbit, Jessica Rabbit, Baby Hermon, Eddie Valiant, and more – still flow today as his latest novel, ‘Jessica Rabbit: Xerious Business’ was published May 4.

“Everything really started when I was in the second or third grade. My teacher gave us a picture to color. The whole purpose of the exercise was to stay inside of the lines,” said Wolf, who also wrote ‘Who P-P-P-Plugged Roger Rabbit?’ (1991) and ‘Who Wacked Roger Rabbit?’ (2013). “That was the only requirement and there was nobody better at staying inside the lines than I was. I took the picture home and it was a farm scene with a typical fence, meadow, farmhouse, a barn, and one cow standing by itself in the middle of a field.

“I colored the farmhouse yellow, the barn red, the fence brown, and the grass green. I saw the cow by itself in the middle of the field and thought about something my mother (Hattie Wolf) had told me, ‘When people are all by themselves, they get sad, lonely, and blue.’ I saw the lonely cow and colored it blue.

“I handed it in and when they returned, everyone got theirs except for me. She told me to go to the front of the class and face my classmates. I was thinking, ‘I stayed inside of the lines better than anyone.’ She held the picture over my head and said, ‘Class, look at this stupid, stupid, stupid picture. Everyone knows cows are brown, black, white, and sometimes brown, black, and white at the same time. But never, never, never are they blue.’”

The teacher called his parents, Ed and Hattie, and then he was spoken to about the preposterous blue cow.

After Gary told them why the cow was an unorthodox hue, Ed and Hattie decided he could color any object any color he wishes. They shared their decision with the school and said he should be allowed to take full advantage of the color wheel and his outside-of-the-box thinking.

A week later, an assignment called for summer vacation stories and what the students did while not in school. Many listed lake swims, the Wisconsin Dells, and Starved Rock State Park hikes.

Gary wrote about building a rocket ship in his back yard out of tin cans and aluminum cans before he flew to the moon.

“That was my first validation that I had creativity and I could be creative. I still have the cow picture hanging over my desk,” Wolf said. “My father ran the pool hall in Earlville and my mother worked in the school cafeteria. They lived through the Great Depression and came from a tough mindset generation.

“My mother told me, ‘If you want to get out of this town and don’t want to wind up staying here for the rest of your life running your dad’s pool hall, the one thing you could do to make that happen is to read.’ She didn’t put any restriction on my reading. I read comic books at the smoke shop on the corner of Main Street. I read everything I could before the owner would kick me out. Then I would buy other comics – Donald Duck, Uncle Scrooge, early Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman ­­– with my allowance and trade those with my friends.

“I would go to the theater and watch movies every night because it was only 14 cents. They always played a cartoon. I loved cartoons like Woody the Woodpecker, Porky Pig, Heckle and Jeckle, and especially Donald Duck. He was my favorite.”

Wolf, who graduated from the University of Illinois and was an Air Commando for the United States Air Force during Vietnam, lived in Boston for three years while in the Air Force before moving to San Francisco for 14 years. After he was paid for the 1988 movie, Gary and his wife Bonnie (married in 1969) decided to move back to Boston, which is where they first met.

Living in cities has helped his Toon Town story telling as he mixes city-generated concepts with his cartoon and noire mystery background. His father had a love for true crime magazines that Wolf picked up on as he dove into noire mysteries when the comic books were closed.

His newest book, a Jessica Rabbit origin story, shows exactly how everything was manifested in print and in Wolf’s mind.

“During the pandemic, I thought Jessica Rabbit needed a book of her own, so I wrote Jessica Rabbit: Xerious Business. It tells how Jessica Rabbit turned from a poor shop girl whose working for nothing and living with an abusive mother and nasty stepsisters and stepbrothers, to becoming the Jessica Rabbit we all know and love,” Wolf said. People always want to know how she met Roger, so the story is told in this novel. It also shines light on where the toons came from and how Toon Town came to be. This book answers all of these questions.

“If people are going to read it looking for a 1940s noire type of thing; this isn’t it. In my mind, Toon Town is timeless. Toons can exist at any time and any place. This book is set in modern day, it’s not set in the 40s like ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ was. I justify that by the fact that Jessica, Roger, Baby Hermon, and all the characters are actors. After they came to Toon Town, they made a movie set in the 1940s.

“As the high almighty creator of Toon Town, it’s my rules. I make the rules.”

Wolf’s rule making started in 1980 when he finally had the opportunity to write something he truly cared about. His cartoon and noire mystery background hadn’t previously been fused together in his short stories or the first three books of a four-book deal.

‘Who Censored Roger Rabbit’ was the project he always envisioned.

“I was taken, not with the cartoons themselves, which were pretty simplistic back then, but with the commercials,” Wolf said. “There were cartoon characters: Tony the Tiger, Captain Crunch, Snap, Crack, and Pop (Rice Krispies), and Trix Rabbit. They were cartoon characters talking to real kids. Nobody thought that would be odd.

“A light bulb went on in my head. I said, ‘Geez, what a great idea for a book. I could write a book about a world where cartoon characters are real.’ I spent a year researching. I researched all of the conventions of cartoons that would be funny if they were translated into a real human world.”

After 110 rejections, Wolf’s novel was bought by Roy Disney of Walt Disney Productions to be turned into a film, although the author didn’t think it could become a movie because of the word balloons and other conventions he had used.

Disney had issues from 1980-85 as it didn’t have the technology or the horsepower to make a movie where cartoons interacted with human beings. The idea of having people wear character costumes (like you’d see at Disney World) for the movie was spoken, and then never spoken again.

Then things changed as Roy Disney was forced out of Disney. Michael Eisner (CEO of Disney) and Jeff Kastenberg (movie producer), who teamed together to make Jaws, were brought in.

“They threw out every movie Disney had in development except for one…Roger Rabbit. They both said, ‘We have to make this movie.’ They did something at Disney no one had done ever before,” Wolf said. “They brought in an outside producer, who of course was a little-known guy named, Steven Spielberg.

“In 1983, Roy Disney went to Warner Bros. and said, ‘We’re doing a live-action and we’re going to have all of our Disney characters in it. We would like to use Bugs Bunny in a cameo. We just want him to say, ‘What’s up doc,’ eat a carrot, and he’d be on screen for no more than 30 seconds.

“Warner Bros. told him to get lost because there was no way that Bugs Bunny is going to be in a Walt Disney picture. It’s never going to happen. In 1986, Steven Spielberg goes to Warner and makes the identical request. They looked at him and said, ‘Of course, of course. What about Porky Pig, Wile Coyote, Road Runner, Sylvester, Tweety, and Yosemite Sam. Spielberg got all of the characters.”

Although Bugs Bunny had a contract that said he must have the same amount of screen time, be in the same shots, and have the same number of lines as Mickey Mouse, the deal was done. The movie went on to make $750 million in 1988 and won four Academy Awards in 1989.

With all of his success, whether it be career, financial, marriage, knowing he sculptured a timeless classic based on Toon Town and its habitants, Wolf knows where his talents came from.

“I’m still just Ed and Hettie’s kid from Earlville. I always will be. Everything that I’ve ever done in my life – while they were alive or even after they died – I’ve done to make them proud of me. I have never developed a Hollywood attitude. I like living in the city because there is so much to do and it’s so exciting. But basically, I’m just an Earlville boy at heart.

“I never lost that small-town attitude. It hasn’t changed me as a person. I’m certainly proud of what I’ve done and what I’ve created – I can’t say I’m not – but it hasn’t changed me as a person.”

It hasn’t changed his story – the story of Gary K. Wolf ­– either.

The blue cow will forever be the symbol that gave birth to Roger Rabbit, Jessica Rabbit, and Toon Town.

“When we were making the movie, Spielberg wanted everybody to have his or her favorite cartoon character in the movie. When he asked me, I said, ‘I got Roger, Jessica, and Baby Hermon, I think I’m covered.’ He smiled and told me he was going to do something special. If you watch the movie, when Eddie Valiant is going through the tunnel the Town Town – the dark, dark, dark, tunnel – and all of a sudden, the curtain comes open and there is singing, dancing, laughter, and bloopers of happiness.

“If you freeze frame it for six frames, you got to be quick, look over to the left and you’ll see that there is a yellow farm house, a red barn, a green pasture, and a blue cow standing all by itself in the middle of a field.”

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