Literary Oddities: Tumbleweed Trouble

As a Hollywood screenwriter, I am exposed to bad storytelling on a daily basis. One tributary of the river of bad storytelling is misguided adaptations of pop-culture icons. “What if Superman were a gypsy farmer?” “What if Mickey Mouse was a molecular physicist?” “What if you re-imagined the Green Lantern Corps as the team from Reservoir Dogs?” (Hey, that one’s not bad — hang on, I need to make a phone call.)

In the sweepstakes of inept pop-culture adaptations, I have, I believe, a winner. This is, I believe, as bad as it gets. This is not fanfic, this is not slash Smurfs, this is not Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. This is The Road Runner: Tumbleweed Trouble by Jack Woolgar (although apparently not this Jack Woolgar.) This is a real book, sanctioned (but apparently not read) by the creators (or at least the owners) of the Road Runner (that is, Warner Bros Inc.) and associated characters, published by a real publisher, Whitman Books (a complete list of other Whitman “Tell-A-Tale” books can be found here).

What makes this book so bad?  How does it rise above (or, rather, sink below) the ranks of all other bad pop-culture crap?

Let’s take a look inside, shall we?
(Feel free to click on the images, but be warned: it will only make them larger.)

First, we notice the first sentence: “‘Beep!  Beep!’  The familiar sound brought Wile E. Coyote rushing out of his cave.”  This, dear readers, is the ultimate “Bad First Sentence.”  This is a first sentence that a writer outgrows in sixth grade.  This trumps the former title-bearer for Worst First Sentence, Donald F. Glut’s opening salvo for the novelization of The Empire Strikes Back: “‘Now this is what I call cold!’ Luke Skywalker’s voice broke the silence he had observed since leaving the newly established Rebel base hours earlier.”

Next we notice that the off-model Coyote is clenching his fist while beholding not one, or two, but five Road Runners.  It’s a whole Road Runner family!  Did you know that the Road Runner had a family?  Neither did I!  And yet, here they are, the Road Runner family, zipping along through the dusty desert as though no other reality had ever been.  Indeed, not even Wile E. (the ostensible protagonist of the story) seems unsurprised by this shocking new development.  Okay, now we’re intrigued — the Road Runner familyThere’s a twist!  What knockabout merriment awaits us with this new, hitherto-unexplored aspect of the Coyote/Road Runner mythos?

“‘Where are those crazy birds going now?’ Wile E. wondered out loud.”  As one might.  After all, it — wait a minute!  Holy shit, Wile E. Coyote can speak!!”  This is insane!  When did that happen?  Isn’t the whole beauty of the Road Runner cartoons the fact that they play out in total silence?  But wait, wait — this is a different medium, remember, printed stories will always explore characters more fully than filmed stories, that’s just a fact of life.  So let’s go with the idea that Wile E. can speak, let’s see where it goes.

“He jumped into his car — “

Okay.  We give up.  This book has just left the rails.  We’re on page three and the book has left the rails, and it’s never coming back.  They just blew it.  Got into his car?  Where in the ever-loving blue blazes did Wile E. Coyote get a car?  And if he can get a car, why can’t he drive to a restaurant and get some food, so he doesn’t have to chase after Road Runners?  And it’s not an “Acme” car either, it’s a real car.  Wile E. Coyote drives a car.  A red convertible, no less.

Now, let’s note the illustration above.  Wile E. Coyote is “hiding behind a rock” while the “Beep family” (pause to hang head in shame) lines up “on the road in back of the depot.”  Not only is neither the “road” nor the “depot” not pictured, the illustrator (the drawings are credited to one “Leon Jason Studio” — wow, not only did Leon Jason get work, he had a studio cranking out these glib, off-model atrocities) has lined up the Beeps facing nowhere but the exact spot where Coyote is “hiding.”

“Wow — this I’ve got to see!” exclaims Wile E. Coyote.  Why?  Why does he got to see this?  If I’m not mistaken, Wile E. Coyote’s one and only motivation is to catch and eat the Road Runner.  How will watching the “Beep Family” race a train serve that mission?  Is he hoping that they will be hit by the train, and thus splattered all over the desert landscape?  Does he think that eventuality is likely in a 24-page book designed for preschoolers to read?

Here, another first — a human enters the world of the Coyote.  A human, with a face and a voice.  And, since he has a face and a voice, Coyote stops to talk to him.  So, not only does the Coyote drive a car, he speaks to humans.  And they speak to him.

Meanwhile, the Beep family “strut[s] proudly up and down.”  Really?  Hey, Coyote, remember that creature you live to catch and eat?  Well, he and his family are STRUTTING UP AND DOWN, instead of running away from you.  And your car.  Why don’t you stop chatting with the engineer and catch them?

Oh look: a conflict presents itself.  Here comes drama.  Only one problem: it doesn’t involve the protagonist.  No, now we’re going to sit for two pages and listen to the troubles of a brand new character, one completely unrelated to to mythos of source material.  The “big redheaded engineer” has a problem.  He’s going to get in trouble with his boss, and the Coyote has taken it upon himself to help the engineer out of his jam.  So this story has stopped being about the Coyote at all, and is now about the Coyote’s service to the big redheaded engineer.

But the biggest curveball is yet to come.

What the fuck is Bugs Bunny doing in this story?  And why is he running a filling station?  Talk about a wrong turn at Albuquerque — Bugs is doing menial labor!  What happened?  How is this possible?  And why does Bugs decide to help Coyote slow down the Road Runners?  He’s not a Coyote, he’s a rabbit.  In fact, HEY!  COYOTE!  WHY DON’T YOU EAT THE RABBIT?!  He’s obviously on the lam, hiding out from the east-coast cities he usually hangs out in.  Maybe he killed a drifter and headed out west where his face isn’t so recognizable, here’s your chance!  With Bugs Bunny dead, you will rule the WB roost!

Now we learn that Coyote and Bugs have “some friends” who own trucks.  Who are these friends?  What do they look like?  Are they people or animals?  Why do they have nothing better to do than haul truckloads of big tumbleweeds from all over the desert?  And, perhaps most important, what the hell is that supposed to accomplish?

The coyote is undone.  His plan, whatever it was,is unraveled.  At least I think it is — the illustrator cannot be bothered to actually depict the action described.  Instead, a vague rush of motion is depicted.

So, okay, I’m sorry — the “five Beeps” are out-running the new express train how?  By running backwards over the tumbleweeds?  How is that supposed to work?  They “jump” from one tumbleweed to the next, and this puts them out ahead of the train?  Even though the illustration shows nothing of the sort?  Now my head just hurts and I want the story to end.

What the hell kind of railroad company is this?  Why the kind that gives out medals to birds, that’s what kind!  And it seems as though that was the Beep family’s secret plan all along!  To earn the good regard of a railroad company.  Now why didn’t Chuck Jones make a series of cartoons about a bird family who desperately seeks the approbation of a railroad magnate?  Now that’s comedy gold!

I like here how Wile E. Coyote is accosted not by the sheriff, but by “a big man in a sheriff’s uniform.”  Given the fact that he’s threatening to arrest a coyote, it’s hardly surprising that he’s not actually a law-enforcement officer.  But that doesn’t stop Coyote from obeying him.  He could, I suppose, I don’t know, run off into the desert or something, but then he’d have to abandon his convertible.  Coyote, sadly, is burdened not just by tumbleweeds but also by his possessions.

And what happened to Bugs?  Why, “the smart bunny was gone.”  What a blow!  And how is Coyote going to find him?  After all, he only runs a filling station, he must be completely off the grid by now.  This just gives credence to my “Bugs killed a drifter” scenario — he turns tail and runs at the first sign of the law, risking wandering in the harsh desert sun instead of simply sticking around to help his friend the Coyote pick up some tumbleweeds.  I can imagine a sequel to Tumbleweed Trouble where, as in Von Stroheim’s Greed, Coyote pursues Bugs into the desert on a suicidal mission of vengeance.

The final blow: Poppa Beep speaks.  In rhyme.  This is the sound of my heartstrings breaking.  I could put up with the humans, the dialogue, the pointless guest appearances, but there are rules in the Road Runner universe, and the first one is: THE ROAD RUNNER DOES NOT SPEAK, AND CERTAINLY NOT IN RHYME.  The authors intend for the reader’s heart to soar withthe final passages of this book, to exult with their triumph over the Coyote’s foolish and wasteful schemes, to imagine the gaeity that awaits them on their adventures playing in the desert, but the only logical response to this ending is to hate the Road Runner.

When one watches the Road Runner cartoons, one feels for the Coyote and his boundless optimism in the face of a harsh, cruel universe and the carefree sprite who thrives in it.  The characters are powerful archetypes and we respond to them because the universe often feels like that to us.  This book sides with that universe, gloating over the Coyote’s loss and frustration.  The Coyote wasn’t even trying to eat the Beep Family, his only hope was to help the big redheaded engineer (who, pointedly, does not make an appearance in the final act of Tumbleweed Trouble).  Never before or since have authors shown such remarkable ineptitude and contempt for their inspiration.
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26 Responses to “Literary Oddities: Tumbleweed Trouble”
  1. medox says:

    Ugh. I’m glad you took the hit and read this book, not me.

    And that Green Lanterns as Reservoir Dogs? Pure gold. I would lay money down for that gladly.

  2. greyaenigma says:

    First of all, Road Runners do not beep, they meep. Don’t show me any proof to the contrary, this is Truth.

    However, Wile E. does speak from time to time. Maybe not in the most classic Road Runner cartoons, but this is how he introduces himself as “Wile E. Coyote, suuuper genius.” Also, I have a vague recollection of Coyote chasing Bugs at some point, but this may be my insomniacal imagination.

    Did you ever read the Animal Man comic with the coyote as every-martyr? Ah, classic Morrison.

  3. dougo says:

    I wonder if “a bunch of beeping birds” was meant to suggest a deleted expletive.

  4. teamwak says:

    Fantastic article, and the comments are priceless.

    Never has the questions “WHY” been more appropriate.

  5. ndgmtlcd says:

    Seeing the bunny and the coyote so close together in that convertible I wanted to stand up and shout/sing “kill the wabbit” to the tune of the “ride of the valkyries”. The moral of this story is that you should never use Acme tumbleweeds if you want to slow down roadrunners. Or is it?

    This gross misrepresentation of the WB characters is all the more stunning since I grew up in the early 60s reading the relatively excellent (compared to the above) Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck comics put out by Dell, and later on Gold Key. The drawings were very close to the original and while they would sometimes stretch the characters you have to remember that each animation director also did a bit of stretching. When you read “Chuck Amuck” you get one view of the Bugs Id, which, quite frankly, makes me want to reach for a large wabbit-destroying bazooka and hand it over to Elmer. But when you look at the Bugs Bunny shorts directed by Fritz Freleng you see a Bunny who wants to help others against adversity, a real philantropist.

    By the way WB and/or Depatie-Freleng did more than stretch the characters when it made new shorts in the late 60s. Yes, you then had a talking coyote telling himself and the audience what a genius he was or ordering his robot to “Eat, stupid”. It destroyed the character, the plot, the drama, everything. Which is why your exposition of this dreadful 24 page adaptation was not as horrible a surprise for me as it might have been.

  6. zqadams says:

    This book appears to be based in the early-1970s “Beep Beep the Road Runner” comics, which played fast-and-loose with the RR canon. The brilliant Mark Evanier has a long piece about those comics (on which he worked) and the way characters mutated from toon to page at

    The kids, the rhyming and calling him ‘Beep Beep’ all apparently originate with those comics.

  7. ghostgecko says:

    So you’re perfectly OK with all the crap the Coyote orders from Acme – bat suits, JATOs and so on – but you blink at a perfectly ordinary red convertible?

    Kidding, kidding.

    Now I’m wondering if you’ve ever read that novelized sequel to E.T. where he builds a spaceship out of a turnip to return to earth and see Elliot again. I swear to god I’m not making that up.

    • Todd says:

      If the coyote had a red convertible that he purchased in order to more efficiently pursue the Road Runner, and it turned out to be a poorly-built deathtrap, that I’d buy. It’s the “perfectly ordinary” part that makes it such a ruinous heartbreaker.

      • ghostgecko says:

        Well, at least this predates the interweb. If this were fanfic, Coyote and Roadrunner would be having poorly described gay sex and the Coyote would have Roadrunner’s assbaby.

        • mikeyed says:

          In the back of an uncomfortable red convertable i might add, while cheating on his wife. That would make the road-runner a total douche.

  8. lesmcclaine says:

    The book seems to be following the continuity of the 70’s Gold Key comic book series. In that series, the Roadrunner was named “Beep Beep” (the title was [i]Beep Beep the Roadrunner)[/i] and he was married with three children. He spoke in rhyming couplets, while the coyote spoke in normal prose. I assume this was decided because comics where the characters don’t talk get old pretty fast. The comics also established that the “E” in Wile E. Coyote stands for “Ethelbert.”

    I am ashamed to know all this, considering the comic book ceased publication when I was five years old.

  9. Anonymous says:

    One of your better posts.
    I have to say I am in awe, both of the book’s outstanding qualities revealing the whole cartoon-licensing-kids-book-publishing system as a mess-waiting-to-happen, and the fact E. stands for something, and it’s not “Evil”.

  10. r_sikoryak says:

    Well, the book does faithfully represent two little-known Looney Tunes characters, The Big Redheaded Engineer and A Big Man in a Sheriff’s Uniform. Most people don’t remember their series of shorts, directed by Robert McKimson in the mid 1960’s. Why aren’t they out on DVD yet?

  11. I can’t believe I’m admitting this, but…

    I had this book when I was a child – however, I don’t remember actually liking it… so it’s not so bad.