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Category: Cartoons

Cartoons by the Foot
Perhaps I am not the best person to sound the alarm over the abuse of cartoon characters. I have done some pretty nasty things to my creations over the years, including instances of degradation, maiming, and death.

But that was all for art’s sake. The pain that they suffered served a higher truth, or at least got a cheap laugh. Their lives had meaning. It is not so with the poor animated creatures who have been enlisted to sell drugs on TV. I won’t judge the characters themselves; they probably needed the gig. Their advertising masters, though, should have a special niche reserved for them in cartoon Hell.

The most flagrant example, in my view, are the ads for Jublia, a treatment for toenail fungus. A cartoon foot is the hero of their ads. Its big toe has a face, and around its neck is a white collar and a purple bow tie. It sports a jaunty, purple porkpie hat labeled “Jublia,” a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, and an expression of sardonic combativeness. Two purple fists float menacingly in front of it. Some of the toes, including the big toe face, seem to be afflicted with toenail fungus.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with dressing up your characters in goofy, humiliating costumes. That’s part of the deal when you sign up to be a cartoon character. And sometimes, as a part of being in this tough business, you may be called upon to shill for Big Pharma just to keep ink and paper together. Even so, you’re a professional, and if you’re expected to perform, you have a right to demand that your character’s identity makes sense. This Jublia monstrosity, though…it looks like a fool, it’s relentlessly violent, and worst of all for the animated actor, its motivations are unfathomable. Is it supposed to represent my foot, or is it the product itself? If it’s the product, and it spends its time battering the words “Toenail Fungus” (as spelled out in a repulsive fungoid font) into submission, then why does it still have that fungus on its face?

My heart goes out to that poor cartoon. It is not even given the dignity of bringing its own thespianic magic to this sorry project. And what kind of future will it have after this? One can imagine that it might read for the role of the Jolly Green Giant’s foot, but who’s going to hire a foot with fungus on it? No, this creation will be discarded after this job. It will end up, I am sure, in an unmarked grave and with no trace of meaning to show for its short, brutal life.

Its hereafter, I assume, will be spent in cartoon Limbo. I can only hope that its creators will burn forever in cartoon Hell.
Dreadpan Humor
Newspapers are shrinking. That is a reason for concern for all of us. One of the many ramifications of this phenomenon is the sad withering of another cultural institution: the comics page. As a cartoonist, I am filled with existential dread by this development.

On the up side, as a cartoonist, I find existential dread kind of funny.
Dead and Deader
I drew a dead guy in a cartoon recently, in my 4/2/15 Deep Cover, and the experience has stuck with me. I’m not feeling remorse, exactly. His death was necessary to the creation of my cartoon; he had to die so that I could get my point across. What I am experiencing is more like a sense of loss at his passing, as if I had failed him somehow.

I’m not certain what put me in this mood, but I did see some paintings around the same time by a young artist named Sarah Honan. Using photographs from morgues all over the country, she has painted the likenesses of women who had died without a next-of-kin, without a history, and without a name… Jane Does, in other words. They are collected in Blink., her showing of the paintings. The pictures are grim and haunting.

My dead guy was not a real person like those Jane Does, but like them, he neither had a story nor anyone to remember him. He was composed only of a few sketchy lines, and he was mostly obscured by other elements in the drawing. I’ll bet that most people who saw the cartoon didn’t even notice him lying there. He is dead, though, just like the women. In a way, his fate is even lonelier than theirs. Not only is he dead, he has never lived at all. You don’t get much deader than that.

I do feel some responsibility for the dead guy. I created him, just as Dr. Frankenstein created his monster. I have to answer for what he does and what happens to him. I haven’t drawn a lot of dead people over the years (unless you count graveyards). I can’t remember them all, but most were probably bit players like this guy. None of them had a history, either, and no future except as corpses in a cartoon. Even so, I bear a responsibility for them, too.

I am not certain what my duties are to my dead guy. I sentenced him to death and executed him; perhaps I could give him a backstory… a life to go with his death. So here goes: since the cartoon is set in the Middle East, I say that he was a young Muslim caught up in the cycle of violence that seems to sweep endlessly through that region. He was probably killed by other young Muslims.

The women in Sarah Honan’s Blink. all seem to have died violent or ignominious deaths. “I thought of all of the victims of sexual and physical abuse, of women deemed disposable by society, ” she says. “I realised how much they had to say about women all over the world.” Honan wanted to give those women a voice and a legacy.

My dead guy was a willing participant in the violence that killed him, but he is no less a victim than those Jane Does. His imaginary death makes me think of all the real young men deemed disposable by society, as are all casualties of war. In my cartoon, he is a character playing one of those young men.

I feel guilty in having used him so roughly. In doing so, I’ve treated my own character as disposable, and that seems wrong — as if I were taking the real deaths in the Middle East lightly. I should have used more care in drawing him, perhaps, but I can’t go back and change it now. I guess I’ll just have to do better. The next time I draw a dead guy (and there will be more of them — life is cheap in the comics), I promise to give him the artistic respect he is due. That ought to be my responsibility as a cartoonist in any case, and he deserves better as a stand-in for all those real John Does.
Save the Fool
I get a little nervous when they start murdering cartoonists. I’d feel that way even if I weren’t a cartoonist, but it’s reassuring that so many other people seem to feel that there is something especially wrong with the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

Cartoonists, I think, enjoy a special reputation, even among their fellow satirists. They are the modern incarnation of the Fool, or close to it. Like that archetype, they are often seen as innocents and as truth-tellers. In fact, the reliability (and forgivability) of their truthfulness is rooted in that innocence.

In his purest form, the Fool acts as a mirror to the world around him. He blurts out what he sees in the way that madmen do — without regard to manners or custom. He simply reflects the unvarnished, often painful truth right there in front of us. Sometimes that truth is so obvious that the rest of us miss it. It catches us by surprise, and it makes us laugh.

The Fool is not reasoned, nor earnest, nor moral, but he does have an eye for absurdity and a nose for bullshit. He adds no analysis of his own; that is left to those who are foolish enough to call themselves wise.

The reaction to the French terrorists has become a little more diffuse since the Charlie Hebdo story. Since then, a kosher market and some unlucky hostages have been added to the list of bloody outrages in France. The sharpest sting for me, though, remains the murder of the cartoonists. I take it personally. It forces me to examine my own efforts as a satirist.

My first reaction was something like guilt. Those cartoonists were brave; I am a coward. I should be making drawings that push the edge and challenge the darkest, most dangerous forces in this world. Cartoonists in much more threatening surroundings than mine do it all the time, so why can’t I? I should be doing work, in other words, that makes people want to kill me.

I have since backed off that position. I am a coward, after all. Instead, I’ve decided to try and be a better Fool. Of the host of cartoons drawn in sympathy with Charlie Hebdo, my favorites have been the least angry. R. Crumb also labeled himself a coward, but he did draw “the hairy ass of Mohamid” (as only Crumb could), noting it belonged to his friend Mohamid Bakhsh of L.A. And I especially liked Charlie Hebdo’s first cover after the shooting: a head shot of Mohammed shedding a tear and holding a sign reading “Je Suis Charlie.” Innocent, simple, human, real. Defiant, yet sympathetic to non-radical Muslims (if not their faith). The epitome of a Fool.

I’m not Charlie, but I wish I were.
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No "new normal" for me, this shit ain't normal.
~ MS, Truckee