Fans of the 1988 movie "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" loved a lot of things about the movie. The story of a world where "toons" and humans could exist intrigued fans and movie critics alike, leading to four Academy Awards, and to date, grossing almost $1 billion.
But few fans realized the movie was based on a book, and even fewer local residents knew that Roger and Jessica and Baby Herman were born just down the road in Earlville.
Toontown was created by Gary K. Wolf, who spent his childhood in Earlville. Wolf credits much of his creativity to his early school days.
When Wolf was in first grade, he gave his teacher a picture of a cow he had colored blue.
“Look at this silly picture,” she told the class. “Everybody knows cows are black, brown, or white. Never, ever are cows blue.”
Fortunately for Wolf, his parents encouraged him to believe in himself and his creative vision.
"It is one of the things that I love the most about my parents," Wolf said. "I've gone out and colored a lot of cows blue since then, and I have them to thank for that."
Wolf developed an early interest in writing, but he put aside his writing when it came time to go to college.
"The people in Earlville who lived in the nice houses and got the big salaries and got all the respect were the electrical engineers working out at Marathon Electric," he said.
Fortunately the engineering classes didn't appeal to Wolf, who instead earned a degree in advertising from the University of Illinois.
Wolf turned to novel writing after college and sold his first science fiction novel "Killerball" to Doubleday in 1975. "Killerball" was followed by "Generation Removed" and "The Resurrectionist," and then Wolf decided to try something new.
"I always wanted to do something that would push the envelope, that would be different from anything anybody had done before," he said.
Wolf turned to the comic books and cartoons he had loved as a boy, and added the true crime mysteries his father had loved. It all came together one Saturday morning when Wolf was watching cartoons.
"I became fascinated, not with the cartoons, which were pretty horrible, but with the commercials," he said. "I started to see cartoon characters like Tony the Tiger, the Trix rabbit, Snap, Crackle and Pop, Cap'n Crunch. These were cartoon characters talking to real kids, and nobody seemed to think it was odd."
An idea was born.
"What kind of a world would it be if cartoon characters were real?" Wolf said.
So Wolf created that world, and wrote a book about it, which he called "Who Censored Roger Rabbit?"
"I wrote it, and it worked," Wolf said. "It was clearly the best thing I had ever done."
But not everybody thought so. Although Wolf had a contract with Doubleday for another novel, the company turned it down.
"For the first time ever, ever, I got a reject," Wolf said. "They rejected Roger Rabbit."
Wolf said the problem was with the marketing department.
"They said, 'We can't sell this. There's no category for it on bookstore shelves,'" Wolf said.
Nobody else felt they could publish it either. Wolf received a total of 110 rejections. Finally an editor at St. Martin's Press decided to give it a try, and a first printing of about only 5,000 copies was released in 1981.
But somebody — Wolf has no idea who — did something else with the book.
"They sent a copy of the manuscript to Disney and said, 'Here, we think you'd like this,'" Wolf said.
The book ended up on Roy Disney's desk, and he did like it.
One day Wolf's telephone rang.
"He says, 'Hi, this is Roy Disney, and I just read your book. Would you be interested in selling your rights to Disney and letting us make a movie?'" Wolf said.
Wolf sold his rights to Disney, but he never thought they would be able to turn the book into a movie. Nothing happened for a few years, but Disney kept working at it.
"Disney needed Roger Rabbit," Wolf said. "Their existing characters, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, had gotten kind of stale and they needed some new characters, mainly because they were just getting geared up for Disneyland and the Disney stores, and they needed characters for merchandise."
In 1984, Disney hired Michael Eisner, who brought along Jeffrey Katzenburg, who had previously worked with director Steven Spielberg. The men asked Spielberg if he would produce the Roger Rabbit movie.
It was an inspired choice.
"Without Steve Spielberg's name behind it, it would not have gotten going," Wolf said. "Steve had read the book when it came out and had always loved it and always thought it would make a great movie."
"Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" is a very different story than "Who Censored Roger Rabbit?" But despite the many changes, Wolf was pleased with the final movie.
"The things that they retained were the overall vision, a world where cartoon characters are real," he said. "They maintained all the characters and the central conceit. Everything after that is just gravy."
While Roger Rabbit cemented Wolf's reputation, he has continued to work on a number of other projects.
In 2007, he and his best friend from Earlville, John Myers, who is now the archbishop of Newark, released a book called "Space Vulture." "Space Vulture" is an homage to the science fiction books the two boys loved in grade school.
"John came to me one day with this book he'd gotten out of the library, and he said, 'You've got to read this book.' He said, 'It's science, but it's fiction. It's science fiction,'" Wolf said.
Recently Wolf bought two copies of that book, "Space Hawk" by Anthony Gilmore, so the men could relive their youth, but the book wasn't as good as they had remembered.
"One of us said, 'It's a shame we can't rewrite it the way we remember it instead of the way it actually was," Wolf said.
So they wrote "Space Vulture."
A movie and a sequel are also in the works for "Killerball," which Wolf describes as an "ultra-violent book about football being played as a blood sport with weapons on city streets."
"'Killerball' is still one of my favorites," Wolf said. "In non-Roger Rabbit circles — in science fiction circles — I am known as the guy who wrote 'Killerball.'"
In October, Wolf released "The Late Great Show," a story about Greek gods who have relocated to a mountain in Southern California. "Typical Day," a straight science fiction story with a fantasy twist, is scheduled for release in December.
Now 71, Wolf, who now resides in Brookline, Mass.,said he never tires of creating his own fantasy worlds.
"I just love spinning out things that don't exist, that may never exist, and writing them in such a way that I can make people believe," he said. "Making people laugh and entertaining people, it just gives me a lot of pleasure. I would do it even if I didn't get paid for it."