Search form

Dr. Toon: Welcome to My Tent

Dr. Toon ponders the areas of animation in which he covers via a comment made by The Animation Pimp.

Martin Goodman.

During the five and a half years that Animation World Magazine has been kind enough to bring my monthly column to you, dedicated readers may have taken note that I seem to write a great deal about American animation, most of it concerning the mainstream movies, network television and the cable shows best known to all. Although I have at times made forays into foreign and independent animation, Animation Pimp columnist Chris Robinson was quite correct in labeling me as a tent peg when he referred to me in his recent column as one who largely frolics within the tent of popular American animation. I harbor no resentments at this characterization. In fact, I congratulate the honorable Pimp for being so astute about my main orientation.

Since Mr. Robinsons column, I have begun to reflect on readers inquiries as to why I do not cover more anime, festival work or interview more of animations independent voices. After all this time, its a fair enough question. Very well, this is what I attempt to bring to AWN and why you read what you read.

The easiest and most salient point to explain is the fact that I am American. I grew up watching this countrys animation and falling in love with (most of) it. Due to the rueful fact that I am hitting my fifties, we are talking about countless theatrical shorts, nearly all of the cartoons produced for television, thousands of commercials and more than 100 feature films. Although animations origins are not exclusively American, many of the most important technological and artistic advances undoubtedly are. During the late 1980s, I began to take note of the many fine foreign efforts in the field. I do admire Asian, European, and of late, Latin American and African animation. Since 2001, I have even contributed some articles to ASIFA Internationals magazine, but I admit to being mostly provincial in nature.

Becoming familiar with animations history has been a formidable undertaking. It has, as mentioned, included watching untold hours of cartoons both new and old. Still, this could have easily resulted in nothing but mindless absorption of animated product. I wanted to understand cartoons and develop a critical eye toward what I was seeing, so this meant reading all available material as well. Fortunately, I have had some studies in film theory and criticism, and, because of that, I can better analyze what is going on in a particular piece of animation, what the director and animators intended and how it was (or wasnt) executed. It has taken some 12 years to build my animation library, which now takes up an entire wall if one adds the magazine subscriptions. Old, recent, and out-of print books lie strewn among periodicals, film journals, and Internet articles in my study. I am continually trolling the Web, bookstores and eBay for more.

However, none of the above makes me different from anyone else who is deeply interested in animation or who reads and takes courses in film theory. It also does not explain why I tend to give you pieces that largely concern American animation. Some of my focus on this countrys animation is related to the amount of time I have available after my day job. For example, many anime series run for countless episodes over years and the amount of anime available, in general, is staggering. The best I can do is purchase and rent DVDs, study the classics of the genre and read up as much as I can until I can see more. Besides, other people (such as this sites resident expert Fred Patten) know far more and write much better on the subject than I ever could. Another reason has to do with the fact that the mainstream is very accessible, an important factor given deadlines and time constraints. Then there is the task of keeping up with the industry and trade papers. Still, these sound just as much like defenses or excuses than explanations, so here is the real skinny.

My true passion concerns American history and the development of American popular culture since the turn of the century, a period equivalent to the birth and history of animation. I estimate that another wall of my personal library consists of these subjects (which, incidentally, I mortally hated while in school). My forté seems to be animation, but it is actually cultural studies. I believe that animation developed alongside American popular culture and is an important expression of the national consciousness. As I stated in some earlier column, even the sorriest Casper the Ghost cartoon ever produced reflects aspects of the tenor, economics and characteristics of the culture that produced it (not to mention the prevailing politics).

In my view, for example, periodicals such as the Journal of Popular Culture and the book Cold War Culture: Media and the Arts 1945-1990 by Richard Schwartz were equally important references when I wrote last months animation column for you concerning SpongeBob and Buster. So was Tom Engelhardts The End of Victory Culture in America: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation, not to mention pieces from all over the left and right of the web.

I am utterly fascinated with the development of media, arts, and history in America and that is the explanation for why I play largely inside Robinsons metaphoric tent. I am simply trying to write what I enjoy most and know best. It may not be the biggest tent in the world, but I have enjoyed my stay here, and, within its confines, there are still myriad surprises and subjects to delight any animation scribe.

Some examples Who would have thought that there would be several cable television stations broadcasting cartoons 24/7? How could a show like The Simpsons arise from the ashes of 1980s animation? Did anyone foresee the fortuitous influence of anime (once called Japanimation) on contemporary American series? How many among us predicted the day when Disney would animate by pen and ink no longer, or envisioned the day when animated films took home Oscars of their own? Did any visionary predict the day when a little-known Pentagon tool called the Internet would someday bring influential independents to the forefront of popular animation? Animated movies released direct-to-video (and later DVD) to be owned and viewed in home theaters? Films and television shows animated entirely on computers?

Yet, all these things have occurred in American animation within the lifetimes of everyone reading this column. Indeed, most of them are taken entirely for granted by those who do not remember black-and-white TV sets with 13 channels that one switched by hand. More importantly, none of them occurred within a vacuum; they represent a confluence of technology, economics (within animation and in America), shifting demographics, changes in legislation and strategies such as niche marketing and branding techniques based on exacting social research. My Little Pony did not happen by accident, at least any more than South Park did; the fun lies in determining what meaning each has by exploring the state of America at the time.

It is my hope that by bringing elements of animation, contemporary culture, American history and a smattering of my own profession, psychology, to my columns that I can bring you new and different insights and opinions on the art of animation. Lets face it; there are now countless animation bloggers and writers haunting every cranny of the Internet. I know, I try to keep up with as many as I can. Some of them have primitive analytical skills at best while others dont seem to realize that their word processing programs include spellcheckers. Some of them, however, are very, very good indeed. That is why I attempt to bring you something a bit different animation commentary with a wider view on how cartoons reflect the American psyche and resonate within it.

This is not always a simple task. There is the quest to keep from writing dry, academic fodder that reminds readers of a sonorous college lecture. For the past five years, I have been devouring the works of some of the more interesting writers on American media and popular culture. Richard Slotkin, James Twitchell, Mark Dery, Todd Gitlin, Douglas Rushkoff, Laurie Andersen, John Leo and Leslie Savan are a few of my guides. I speak also of John Simon, Anthony Lane, Chuck Klosterman, Roger Ebert, James Agee, Paul Krassner, and countless other solid film and cultural critics. Adding estimable animation authors such as Jerry Beck, J.B. Kaufman, Mike Barrier, Karl Cohen, John Cawley, Jim Korkis, John Canemaker (and yes, Robinson) to my reading list provides an essential and enjoyable grounding in the art of animation writing.

The path to finding my own voice as a commentator/critic is thus a synthesis of my own style and the teachings of many others. Synchronizing all of these factors into a readable column takes time and thought. I am attempting to become less limited in scope and hope to keep expanding each year but I still strive to perfect the nuances of my specialty area. Therefore, while you can look for more columns from me on foreign and independent work, most of them will probably continue to bring you insights on American history, culture, psychology and popular animation.

American culture may be exasperating, frustrating and, at times, questionable in its tastes. Foreign nations may respond to it with hatred, resentment, or a sad shake of the collective head, but its relationship to the animation it produces for mass consumption is fascinating. I feel that this will always be the case; especially as tastes change and political and economic influences segue through society. Multinational entertainment conglomerates eventually may establish themselves as the nations only credible tastemakers. Then again, a diverse, grassroots rush of creative talent may commandeer Internet-based animation and refuse to sell out to the labels and suits. Unchecked conservatism may limit what animation can and cannot reach the public, or a liberal backlash may lead to animated content unthinkable under the present administration. Perhaps all of the above will happen in some unseen confluence or in repeating cycles.

Whatever occurs, Americas animation will be part of the story. My fondest hope is to be there in the years ahead to discuss it with you. Welcome to my tent; lets talk.

Martin Dr. Toon Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.