The ''Fritz the Cat'' animator spices up the small screen with ''Spicy City''

What’s that you say? Cult hero Ralph Bakshi is doing a cartoon for television? The same Bakshi who in the ’70s was cheered and jeered as the ”X-rated Disney” for his (still) wildly subversive films Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic? The guy whose ironic 1975 commentary on the African-American condition, Coonskin, instigated a dustup with protesters when it was previewed at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art? The artist who idly dreamed of one day doing an animated version of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich?

Yep, one and the same. But Bakshi’s latest undertaking — the sci-fi anthology Spicy City — isn’t as unlikely a contender for TV as it might sound. The series was created for HBO’s new animation division and late-night cartoon slot (Todd McFarlane’s Spawn just finished its six-week run Fridays at midnight; City debuts July 11). And Bakshi, 58, is actually no stranger to mainstream ‘toons; he got his start animating Mighty Mouse and Heckle and Jeckle shorts back in the ’50s.

What’s truly surprising is that Bakshi returned to animation at all. Since burnout pushed him to close his Hollywood studio more than a decade ago, the Brooklyn native has only occasionally returned to the medium, most recently to direct the personally frustrating and coolly received 1992 feature film Cool World. ”I’ve been painting for 12 straight years,” Bakshi says, a quick burst of his manic giggle filling his Westchester, N.Y., studio. ”But I love animation dearly, and I’m always getting these ideas I’d like to see happen. [The hard part is finding] a place that will allow the creator his freedom, that isn’t necessarily designed to sell toys.”

Could he be referring to Disney? ”When I was a young man, everyone thought I was anti-Disney,” says Bakshi. ”My point was, Disney should do Disney — they do it great. I was very positively saying: ‘Let’s find something else. You’ve got to go the adult route, if only because it’s never been done.’ Of course, nowadays everyone’s running around discovering adult animation,” he adds with a nod to shows like The Simpsons, ”and I think it’s great.”

Bakshi’s TV gig, then, isn’t so much a sign that he’s mellowed as that the industry may be catching up. And judging from the skin-flashing, guns-a-blazin’ edginess of Spicy, Happy Meal overkill won’t exactly be a problem. Written by a hipster posse of New York poets and novelists (characteristically sought by Bakshi for their lack of screenwriting experience), the storylines splatter his classic carny troupe of losers, hustlers, degenerates, and thugs all over Blade Runner turf.

”I think Ralph’s going to keep coming back and changing things and hopefully create another big revolution,” says John Kricfalusi, who worked for Bakshi on a Mighty Mouse revival in the late ’80s and went on to create The Ren & Stimpy Show. ”He’s great at waking up the business.”