Dr. Toon: 1968: A Lost Connection
The studios themselves, outside of labor issues, were largely apolitical. They were a business, centered on producing a commodity and making profits. They were not the sort of venues that bred political activism. Although creativity flourished inside their walls, animation studios were not universities, steamy ghettos, police headquarters, smoke-filled convention rooms, ROTC programs or drop-in vet centers. Except for Jay Ward (who eventually tired of overreaction to his sharp-witted parodies), most studio heads and producers concentrated on getting shows on the air, setting production deadlines, finding sponsors, and conducting commerce. Although artists are traditionally seen as unconventional, even somewhat radical, Hollywood's animators had a hard time being among them.
In truth, many of them in lead positions were relics of an earlier period of animation -- and American history. Veterans of the theatrical studios, they represented an old guard that were astonished by race riots, campus unrest, women's liberation, draft-card burnings and a gory war that was found to be based on lies and deception. They were lifetime professionals, unsurpassed in experience and knowledge, not the type to take to the streets, grow long hair and beards or don hard hats and batter hippies. So they didn't. Animation was an unusual business, both creative yet insular during the strange times of the 1960s.
A final factor was technology, or rather, its limitations. Anyone who wanted to make independent or group commentary on the events of 1968-70 had to do so after hours or during periods of unemployment with limited resources, using the traditional tools of animation. There were no computers, no programs, no software, no Maya, no Flash, no pixels, wireframe, nada. As much as one wanted to defame bearded protesters, excoriate the perpetrators of Vietnam, or condemn/support segregation or busing, one had to face the fact that it would take months of out-of-pocket work in order to do so. At roughly $500-$800 per week, the going rate for animators at the time, it was too expensive to protest, especially when facing layoffs at the end of production season. That money had to be carefully hoarded. And so animation and popular culture parted ways in 1968, one of the nation's most significant and fractious years in a decade rife with them.
Without even playing the game of muddle-minded deconstructionism, one can find many examples of how animation from 1914-2000 flowed in concert with the American zeitgeist. After 2000, cartoons no longer seemed to operate in symbolic fashion; it was as if the entire Freudian concept of unconscious symbolism disappeared and our dreams spoke to us without obfuscation. Animation today places its political and moral agendas directly on the table with little subtlety.
This is neither good nor bad; it simply signals a shift in how our society processes messages and information. News is instantaneous. A video taken on a cell phone can be disseminated worldwide in minutes. E-mail is looking increasingly Jurassic. Most communication preferred by the younger demographic is now contained in 140 characters or less, and some people are "friended" upwards of 500 times. Nothing of political significance in this country is ever likely to be overlooked by animation again, not with our current technology, the passionate acrimony of partisan politics and the number of media outlets now available to the public.
Sadly, there is a nearly blank record of 1968's legacy. No theatrical animated features or standard cartoon TV fare truly reflect the turmoil of the times. If you seek the animated legacy of America's most terrifying period of cultural and political disorder, you won't find it. In its stead was Scooby Doo, Where Are You?
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.