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10 Literary References in Cartoons You Might Have Missed

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Used as both a teaching device and a subtle nod to adult viewers, literary references have long been a keystone feature in cartoons. Here are some you might have missed the first time around. 


In the episode, "Panic in Jerky Town," Johnny Bravo wins a trip to a beef jerky factory. Beef jerky is Johnny’s favorite food and his extensive knowledge of the food product impresses the factory owner, who decides to name him the successor of Jerky Town. After finding his companion’s clothing in the machinery, Johnny mistakenly concludes that the jerky is actually made out of humans and announces it during what would have been his inauguration. He later finds out the secret ingredient is healthy soy, which is a nod to the movie, Soylent Green. 

Watch it: DailyMotion


In its original, near-40-year run, Looney Tunes covered a lot of ground. The classic cartoon parodied everything from Richard Wagner's opera Der Ring des Nibelungen to Vincent Price. Even Bugs Bunny himself is partly based on Clark Gable’s character in It Happened One Night (1934). The episode “Hyde and Hare,” which aired in 1955, turns its sights on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The plot of the cartoon uses the basic gist of the book (doctor drinks a potion and becomes a monster), but uses it for comedic purpose. Bugs Bunny convinces a kindly doctor to bring him home, only to discover he drank a potion that turns him into a green-skinned, red-eyed monster.

After some hijinks, Bugs and the doctor decide to dump out the rest of the potion. When they discover the vial is empty, the doctor accuses Bugs of drinking it. Bugs leaves, insulted, only to turn into a monstrous rabbit as he walks away. 

Watch it: DailyMotion


For the first episode of the second season of The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, the show decided to blend the plots of Harry Potter and Animal House. The result is a fun episode called “Toadblatt's School of Sorcery.” In it, the titular characters enter a wizard’s school that closely resembles Hogwarts with some comical differences—the Sorting Hat is now a Squid Hat, the potions class also teaches Spanish, and Harry Potter is depicted as the geeky Nigel Planter. Each of the houses is treated like a competitive frat house, with one particular house considered the ire of the frog dean, reminiscent of Animal House.

Watch it: YouTube


Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe bears many similarities to Madeleine L'Engle's iconic science fiction novel, A Wrinkle in Time. As Tumblr user leeshajoy points out, the character Connie can be seen holding a copy of the book in the intro. There have also been a lot of convincing parallels between the book and the show: Both have a shy but intelligent female character and a social but misfit male character that have some romantic tension. The two team up with three supernatural beings that look like human women to fight against an alien world that values conformity. The show’s creator, Rebecca Sugar, has not gone on record to confirm or deny that the show is based on L'Engle's work, but Connie’s book has since changed to another science fiction novel—likely Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness

Watch it: Amazon


You might better know Philip Van Doren Stern's short story The Greatest Gift better for the movie it inspired: It’s a Wonderful Life. The movie has been subject to many parodies and spoofs over the years, including one by Rugrats. In the episode “Chuckie’s Wonderful Life,” the audience gets to see what life would be like without the gentlest Rugrat—and it turns out things would be pretty grim. A quick fly through town with Chuckie’s “gardening angel” shows that all the characters are in trouble without a moral compass: Phil and Lil become destructive monsters while their parents huddle in the corner, Tommy becomes homeless, and Angelica forces Tommy’s parents to continuously feed her cookies. Meanwhile, Chuckie’s dad becomes a hermit with only a sock puppet for company. By the end of the episode, Chuckie—clearly as disturbed by the scenes as the audience—learns his place among his friends and family and happily returns home.

Watch it: Amazon 


In the Pinky and the Brain episode, “Around The World In 80 Narfs,” the title characters set out to become world travelers. Because the episode takes place in 19th century England, The Brain assumes that the quickest way to take over the world is to become Prime Minister, and the easiest way to do that is to first become the president of an explorer’s club, which is how they end up attempting to circle the world in less than 80 days. The ill-fated trip leaves the mice stuck in a horse and buggy and unable to claim the presidency, leading to their usual phrase, "What are we going to do tomorrow night?"

Watch it: Amazon 



The Simpsons have parodied a ton of classic literature, including Flowers for Algernon, The Shining, and The Crucible. Perhaps one of their best known parodies is “Das Bus,” which mirrors the story of Lord of the Flies. After a bus accident, a group of Springfield students are left stranded on an island. Bart takes on the character Ralph by blowing into a conch shell and asserting himself as the leader. The kids survive on snack food retrieved from the bus until waking up to find the remainder of it gone. Milhouse—who is possibly The Simpsons's version of Piggy—is blamed thanks to his nacho breath and large stomach.

After a trial by Bart and Lisa deems him innocent, the other children attempt to murder Milhouse and chase him into a cave where they find a boar with a bag of chips on his tusk. Milhouse is declared innocent and the stranded children decide to kill and eat the boar.

Watch it: Simpsons World


In “The Belly of the Beast,” the Disney show decides to take on the iconic tale of Moby Dick—with just a dash of Jonah and the Whale. In Danville, the town celebrates Harbor Day, where they reenact a story of a shark that terrorized the town before being driven out by the townspeople. While watching preparations, Phineas and Ferb decide they want to build a better and more advanced shark for the event. Candace sees the mechanical shark being lowered into the water and decides to chase after it to prove to her parents that her brothers were up to no good. She—along with her friend and an Ahab-like boat captain—pursue the shark. Eventually the captain gets eaten by the robotic shark, who is confused about why the interior doesn’t look more “insidey.” 

As Candace continues to chase after the shark, it becomes clear that her impossible mission to bust her brothers mirrors Ahab’s futile desire to seek revenge on an animal. Just as she’s about to expose her brothers, a vat of taffy explodes and Candace is once again left empty-handed.

Watch it: Amazon


In the episode “Back to the Past,” SpongeBob and Patrick accidentally alter their timeline using Mermaid Man’s time machine. The future looks a lot like George Orwell’s idea of it in 1984. Mermaid Man’s nemesis, Man Ray, has taken over with a number of posters that resemble the Big Brother signs, stating “He's Watching You."

Watch it: Amazon 


When Dexter’s Laboratory wasn’t following around the boy genius, it was showing us the heroic escapades of The Justice Friends and Dexter’s pet monkey. In “Dial M for Monkey,” the secret superhero is kidnapped by a lion-like alien named Huntor. Similar to the hunter in Richard Connell's The Most Dangerous Game, Huntor has grown bored of his usual game and is looking for a challenge. After stripping Monkey of his powers, he’s dropped in a game preserve. Using guerilla tactics, Monkey manages to destroy the preserve and get away. Huntor also makes a small appearance in Samurai Jack with a now robotic elephant. 

Watch it: YouTube 


As an adult-geared show, Rick and Morty isn't from anyone’s childhood. Still, it’s worth mentioning the episode “Something Ricked This Ways Comes,” which is a fun spin on Stephen King’s Needful Things. The episode plays out a little differently than the book, thanks to its self-aware characters, who quickly realize the nefarious shopkeeper is the devil. In the book, the town devolves into chaos, but in the show, Rick and Summer get ripped and beat up the shopkeeper. 

Watch it: Amazon

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Kevork Djansezian, Stringer, Getty Images
Pop Culture
LeVar Burton Is Legally Allowed to Say His Reading Rainbow Catchphrase
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Kevork Djansezian, Stringer, Getty Images

It’s hard to imagine the original Reading Rainbow without LeVar Burton, but in August, the New York public broadcasting network WNED made it very clear who owned the rights to the program. By saying his old catchphrase from his hosting days, “but you don’t have to take my word for it” on his current podcast, WNED claimed Burton was infringing on their intellectual property. Now, Vulture reports that the case has been settled and Burton is now allowed to drop the phrase when and wherever he pleases.

The news came out in an recent interview with the actor and TV personality. “All settled, but you don’t have to take my word for it,” he told Vulture. “It’s all good. It’s all good. I can say it.”

The conflict dates back to 2014, when Burton launched a Kickstarter campaign to revive the show without WNED’s consent. Prior to that, the network and Burton’s digital reading company RRKidz had made a licensing deal where they agreed to split the profits down the middle if a new show was ever produced. Burton’s unauthorized crowdfunding undid those negotiations, and tensions between the two parties have been high ever since. The situation came to a head when Burton started using his famous catchphrase on his LeVar Burton Reads podcast, which centers around him reading short fiction in the same vein as his Reading Rainbow role. By doing this, WNED alleged he was aiming to “control and reap the benefits of Reading Rainbow's substantial goodwill.”

Though he’s no longer a collaborator with WNED, Burton can at least continue to say “but you don’t have to take my word for it” without fearing legal retribution. WNED is meanwhile "working on the next chapter of Reading Rainbow" without their original star, and Burton tells Vulture he looks “forward to seeing what they do with the brand next."

[h/t Vulture]

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The Charming English Fishing Village That Inspired Dracula
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Whitby as seen from the top of the 199 Steps

The train departed King's Cross at 10:25 a.m. on July 29, 1890. Bram Stoker settled wearily into the carriage for the six-hour journey to Whitby, the fashionable and remote seaside village in North Yorkshire. The sooty sprawl of London gave way to green grids of farmland and pasture, and then windswept moors blanketed in heather and wild roses.

Stoker needed this holiday. The 42-year-old manager of London's Lyceum Theatre had just finished an exhausting national tour with his employer, the celebrated but demanding actor Henry Irving. The unrelenting task of running the business side of Irving's many theatrical enterprises for the past decade had left Stoker with little time for himself. When the curtains fell at the end of each night's performance, he may have felt that the energy had been sucked out of him.

Now he looked forward to a three-week getaway where he would have time to think about his next novel, a supernatural tale that harnessed the sources of Victorian anxiety: immigration and technology, gender roles and religion. In ways he didn't foresee, the small fishing port of Whitby would plant the seeds for a vampire novel that would terrify the world. Stoker started out on an innocent and much-deserved vacation, but ended up creating Dracula.

A photo of Bram Stoker
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As Stoker emerged from the train station in Whitby, the sounds and smell of the sea would have restored him after the long trip. He loaded his trunk into a horse-drawn cab for the journey up the West Cliff, where new vacation apartments and hotels served the crowds of holidaymakers. He checked into a flat at 6 Royal Crescent, a half-circle of elegant Georgian-style townhomes that faced the ocean.

He often felt invigorated by the seashore: "He's finally on a holiday, away from the hustle and bustle of London, the Lyceum Theatre, and Henry Irving's dominance over him," Dacre Stoker, a novelist and the author's great-grandnephew, tells Mental Floss. "The ocean and the seaside play into Bram's life, and, I believe, in stimulating his imagination."

Stoker's wife Florence and their 10-year-old son Noel would join him the following week. Now was his chance to explore Whitby on his own.

The East Cliff with Tate Hill Pier in the foreground

"A curious blend of old and new it is," wrote a travel correspondent for the Leeds Mercury. The River Esk divided the town into two steep halves known as the West and East Cliffs. Down a tangle of paths from the brow of the West Cliff, Stoker found himself on the town's famed beach, where people gathered to watch the many vessels at sea or walked along the gentle surf. At the end of the beach was the Saloon, the nucleus of Whitby's social whirl.

"The enterprising manager engages the best musical and dramatic talent procurable, whilst on the promenade a selected band of professional musicians gives performances daily," wrote Horne's Guide to Whitby. Holidaymakers could purchase a day pass to the Saloon and enjoy afternoon tea, tennis, and endless people-watching.

Next to the Saloon, the West Pier featured a long promenade parallel to the river and a three-story building containing public baths, a museum with a collection of local fossils, and a subscription library. Shops selling fish and chips, ice cream, and Whitby rock lined the winding streets. Visitors could watch all kinds of fishing vessels discharging their daily catch, and even hop aboard a boat for a night's "herringing" with local fishermen.

Whitby's East Cliff had a more mysterious atmosphere. Across the town's single bridge, tightly packed medieval cottages and jet factories leaned over the narrow cobbled streets, "rising one above another from the water side in the most irregular, drunken sort of arrangement conceivable," the Leeds Mercury reported.

Above the ancient Tate Hill Pier, a stone stairway of 199 steps (which pallbearers used when they carried coffins) led up the cliff to St. Mary's parish church and its graveyard full of weathered headstones. Towering over the whole scene—and visible from nearly any spot in town—were the ruins of Whitby Abbey, a 13th-century pile of Gothic arches that had been built upon the remains of a 7th-century monastery.

"I think [Stoker] was struck by the setting. He's thinking, 'This is perfect. I have the ships coming in, I've got the abbey, a churchyard, a graveyard'," Dacre Stoker says. "Maybe it was by chance, but I think it just became that perfect scene."

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey

In Dracula, chapters six through eight kick the narrative into frightening action. By then, real estate agent Jonathan Harker has traveled to Transylvania to negotiate Dracula's purchase of a London property and become the vampire's prisoner. His fiancée Mina Murray, her friend Lucy Westenra, and Lucy's mother have traveled to Whitby for a relaxing holiday, but Mina remains troubled by the lack of letters from Jonathan. She confides her worries and records the strange scenes she witnesses in her journal.

On the afternoon of his arrival, according to a modern account compiled by historians at the Whitby Museum, Stoker climbed the 199 Steps to St. Mary's churchyard and found a bench in the southwest corner. The view made a deep impression on Stoker, and he took note of the river and harbor, the abbey's "noble ruin," the houses "piled up one over the other anyhow." In his novel, Mina arrives in late July on the same train as Stoker, mounts the 199 Steps, and echoes his thoughts:

"This is to my mind the nicest spot in Whitby, for it lies right over the town, and has a full view of the harbor ... It descends so steeply over the harbor that part of the bank has fallen away, and some of the graves have been destroyed. In one place part of the stonework of the graves stretches out over the sandy pathway far below. There are walks, with seats beside them, through the churchyard; and people go and sit there all day long looking at the beautiful view and enjoying the breeze. I shall come and sit here very often myself and work."

The churchyard gave Stoker a number of literary ideas. The following day, Stoker chatted there with three leathery old Greenland fisherman who likely spoke in a distinct Yorkshire dialect. They told Stoker a bit of mariner's lore: If a ship's crew heard bells at sea, an apparition of a lady would appear in one of the abbey's windows. "Then things is all wore out," one of the sailors warned.

Stoker ambled between the headstones that sprouted from the thick carpet of grass. Though most of the markers' names and dates had been erased by the wind, he copied almost 100 into his notes. Stoker used one of them, Swales, as the name of the fisherman with a face that is "all gnarled and twisted like the bark of an old tree," who begins talking with Mina in the churchyard. Mina asks him about the legend of the lady appearing in the abbey window, but Swales says it's all foolishness—stories of "boh-ghosts an' barguests an' bogles" that are only fit to scare children.

St. Mary's churchyard
St. Mary's churchyard, which Mina calls "the nicest spot in Whitby."

For the first few days in August, Stoker was occupied by the summer's social calendar. He likely enjoyed dinner with friends arriving from London, and went to church on Sunday morning. On the 5th, Stoker's wife and son joined him at 6 Royal Crescent. The next several days may have been spent at the Saloon, promenading on the pier, and making social calls, as it was the custom for newly arrived visitors to visit with acquaintances in town.

But Whitby's infamous weather had the ability to turn a sunny day somber in an instant. August 11 was a "grey day," Stoker noted, "horizon lost in grey mist, all vastness, clouds piled up and a 'brool' over the sea." With Florence and Noel perhaps staying indoors, Stoker set off for the East Cliff again and chatted with a Coast Guard boatman named William Petherick. "Told me of various wrecks," Stoker jotted. During one furious gale, a "ship got into harbor, never knew how, all hands were below praying."

The ship was the Dmitry, a 120-ton schooner that had left the Russian port of Narva with a ballast of silver sand. The ship encountered a fierce storm as it neared Whitby on October 24, 1885, and aimed for the harbor.

"The 'Russian' got in but became a wreck during the night," according to a copy of the Coast Guard's log, which Petherick delivered to Stoker. The crew survived. In a picture taken by local photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe just a few days after the storm, the Dmitry is shown beached near Tate Hill Pier with its masts lying in the sand.

'The Wreck of the Dmitry' (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
The Wreck of the Dmitry (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
Courtesy of the Sutcliffe Gallery

Petherick's account gave Stoker the means for his vampire's arrival in England, the moment when the mysterious East disrupts the order of the West. Mina pastes a local newspaper article describing a sudden and ferocious storm that hurled Dracula's ship, the Demeter from Varna, against Tate Hill Pier. The Coast Guard discovered the crew had vanished and the captain was dead. Just then, "an immense dog sprang up on deck and … making straight for the steep cliff … it disappeared in the darkness, which seemed intensified just beyond the focus of the searchlight," the article in Mina's journal reads. The dog was never seen again, but townsfolk did find a dead mastiff that had been attacked by another large beast.

Mina describes the funeral for the Demeter's captain, which Stoker based on scenes from an annual celebration he watched on August 15 called the Water Fete. In reality, thousands of cheerful spectators lined the quays as a local band and choir performed popular songs and a parade of gaily decorated boats sailed up the river, with banners fluttering merrily in the breeze, according to the Whitby Gazette's report. But through Mina, Stoker transformed the scene into a memorial:

"Every boat in the harbor seemed to be there, and the coffin was carried by captains all the way from Tate Hill Pier up to the churchyard. Lucy came with me, and we went early to our old seat, whilst the cortege of boats went up the river to the Viaduct and came down again. We had a lovely view, and saw the procession nearly all the way."

The final week of Stoker's holiday elicited some of the most important details in Dracula. On August 19, he bought day passes to Whitby's museum library and the subscription library. In the museum's reading room, Stoker wrote down 168 words in the Yorkshire dialect and their English meanings from F.K. Robinson's A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighborhood of Whitby, which later formed the bulk of Mr. Swales's vocabulary in his chats with Mina.

One of the words was "barguest," a term for a "terrifying apparition," which also refers specifically to a "large black dog with flaming eyes as big as saucers" in Yorkshire folklore, whose "vocation appears to have been that of a presage of death," according to an account from 1879.

"I do think Stoker meant for that connection," John Edgar Browning, visiting lecturer at the Georgia Institute of Technology and expert in horror and the gothic, tells Mental Floss. "Moreover, he probably would have meant for the people of Whitby in the novel to make the connection, since it was they who perceived Dracula's form as a large black dog."

Downstairs, Stoker checked out books on Eastern European culture and folklore, clearly with the aim of fleshing out the origins of his vampire: Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, a travelogue titled On the Track of the Crescent, and most importantly, William Wilkinson's An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldovia: with Various Observations Relating to Them.

The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
Courtesy of Dacre Stoker

From the latter book, Stoker wrote in his notes, "P. 19. DRACULA in Wallachian language means DEVIL. Wallachians were accustomed to give it as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous by courage, cruel actions, or cunning."

The Wilkinson book gave Stoker not just the geographical origin and nationality for his character, but also his all-important name, redolent of mystery and malice. "The moment Stoker happened upon the name of 'Dracula' in Whitby—a name Stoker scribbled over and over on the same page on which he crossed through [the vampire's original name] 'Count Wampyr,' as if he were savoring the word's three evil syllables—the notes picked up tremendously," Browning says.

By the time Stoker and his family returned to London around August 23, he had developed his idea from a mere outline to a fully fledged villain with a sinister name and unforgettable fictional debut.

"The modernization of the vampire myth that we see in Dracula—and that many contemporary reviewers commented upon—may not have happened, at least to the same degree, without Stoker's visit to Whitby," Browning says. "Whitby was a major catalyst, the contemporary Gothic 'glue', as it were, for what would eventually become the most famous vampire novel ever written."

Bram Stoker visited Whitby only once in his life, but the seaside village made an indelible mark on his imagination. When he finally wrote the scenes as they appear in Dracula, "He placed all of these events in real time, in real places, with real names of people he pulled off gravestones. That's what set the story apart," Dacre Stoker says. "That's why readers were scared to death—because there is that potential, just for a moment, that maybe this story is real."

Additional source: Bram Stoker's Notes for Dracula: A Facsimile Edition, annotated and transcribed by Robert Eighteen-Bisang and Elizabeth Miller


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