Back in 1998, a company called Macromedia had just released a program called Flash 2, a platform for creating interactive websites and banner ads. It sounds so paleolithic now, but at the time, Flash 2 was the first software package to integrate digital hand-drawn animation and sound allowing, among other things, cartoonists to produce and stream animation online even through old, slow dial-up modems. It revolutionized internet content, and was a major force in the subsequent “dot-com” boom of the late 1990s.
One of the first cartoonists to successfully create and stream web cartoons — ever — was my friend of 17 years, Joe Shields, popularly known as “Joe Cartoon.” Joe started out as a t-shirt designer and, like me, began to tinker with Flash animations before anyone knew how to install the Flash plug-in on their Netscape browsers.
What happened next was nothing short of an internet phenomenon. When the history of internet-based entertainment is written, there should be at least a solid chapter dedicated to Joe’s work. His viral hits “Frog in a Blender” and “Gerbil in a Microwave” were household names — the flagship cartoons for an insane era of digital creativity, when millions of dollars were hurled in the direction of anyone who could draw and voice their own shorts. YouTube cartoons today, such as Happy Tree Friends or Baman & Piderman, grew out of the anything-goes style and in-your-face attitude that Joe almost single-handedly invented — just him and his copy of Flash in a barn in Michigan.
Now Joe is diving into music, with his first backwoods blues album debuting this year and a follow-up on the way. The following is a conversation I had with Joe about life, cartoons, music and the old dot-com days.
PHOTO: Joe at his Michigan barn, from the documentary “Cousin Joe” by Robert Thompson.
BOB CESCA: I don’t know if you know this, but you’re responsible for my career as a political writer. Back in 2005, a website called The Huffington Post had just launched, and your CEO at joecartoon.com, Mike Tuinstra, was friends with Roy Sekoff, the founding editor of Huff Post and Arianna’s second-in-command. Completely unsolicited, Mike recommended me to Roy, and within a week I was posting articles on Huffington. So, before we get into your music or cartoons or the dot-com days, I’d just like to say thank you.
JOE CARTOON: Ha! Thank you! You were the first person to share my cartoons way back in the day at Camp Chaos [Bob’s now-defunct cartoon site]… so we are even! And just so you know, I got guys coming into the barn right now to record for the second album!
BOB: Regarding the Cousin Joe Twoshacks album [“Rocks & Toads” — Order Here], your cartoons were/are one-man bands where you do everything, voices, sound effects, animation. How do you like working in a collaborative situation with the other guys in the band? Or do they just play whatever you ask them to play?
JOE: Yeah, all the joecartoon stuff is me….