Dr. Toon Turns 10: A Manifesto
On Sept. 1, 1999, a refugee from the late Animation Nerd's Paradise website wended his way over to the esteemed magazine you are now reading. His first column was called "Stepping Backwards to Move Ahead," an examination of the plasticity (or lack thereof) of older toons when updated to modern styles, settings, and storylines. It's now ten years and 120 columns later, and Marty Goodman, your own "Dr. Toon," is looking back with considerable fondness on my decade with AWN. It has been my deepest pleasure to mine an obscure territory -- the confluence of American animation with the prevailing popular culture at given points in time -- and share these observations with you, my keen and savvy readership.
Why do this? For the same reason that my colleague, Jerry Beck, does: To promote animation as an art form deserving of deep consideration, serious study, critical analysis and in the end, deep appreciation. This is not to say that What's Opera Doc is on an equal footing with the Pieta, the Mona Lisa, Citizen Kane or Guernica; rather, it is to affirm that it demands the same approach to study, critique, and analysis.
Of course, said cartoon was not a product of spontaneous generation or a random correlation of ink, paint, and celluloid. As with all other films, animation is a unique product of the culture and society that produced it. That context is inescapable, and we must also consider that there is an economic subtext as well. If there is no audience for a particular work of animation, the work dies for lack of sponsorship and public demand. This decision is usually made at the corporate level, but it is unerringly a result of poor ratings and/or merchandising.
Thus, all American animation is born and lives at the nexus of creativity, cultural resonance and economic influence. Realizing this is truly step one in appreciating animation. Step two is realizing that cultural resonance is perhaps the most important of all. Creativity is usually supported or quashed at the executive level after pitches or proposals, but if a certain animated work (film or series) does not attune to an audience, then the economics are certain to fail, and the work is consigned to cult status at best, perpetual obscurity at worst.
Therefore, I have chosen to present that area where culture, society and animation merge. In the past, I have given examples such as Ren and Stimpy representing the unconscious terror of AIDS in America during the early 1990s, or the Road Runner cartoons as unwitting expression of Cold War frustration. Let's look at other examples: Is it possible that Pixar's Up was a major hit due to cultural factors? Sure, at least in this writer's opinion.