Dr. Toon: The Animation Critic’s Art - Defining Our Terms
Then we have The Ren and Stimpy Show. This is probably the best example of a postmodern cartoon to date. Before looking at a single frame of the show, however, it’s important to observe that Ren and Stimpy were the work of a postmodern creator. John Kricfalusi had no use for a grand narrative. He was concerned mostly with what was funny, cartoonish, and unordinary. His show had no cohesive narrative, even with recurring characters extant.
John K. was not of the established order. In opposition to the standard network method of production, his preferred method of filmmaking was the creator-driven cartoon, in which all power and decision-making was centralized in the originator. Rather than work from scripts, John K preferred to construct his work in the storyboard and layout stages. If these preferences resulted in missed air dates, longer gestation periods of production, or the disappointment of fandom, that was simply a price to be paid for producing a quality vision.
Ren and Stimpy, for this reason, met the qualifications of being retro, since John K. emulated the production methods of cartoons during the theatrical era. The characters themselves, with their physical and emotional distortions, were rooted in the tradition of Warner Bros. director Bob Clampett, who hit his greatest stride in the 1940s. John K. was a fan and colleague of Ed Benedict, who graduated from the Tex Avery unit at MGM to Hanna-Barbera fifty-four years ago. Once there, he contributed to the look of H-B’s earliest characters.
The psychotic Chihuahua and his brainless sidekick repudiate meta-narrative as much as their creator did. Their roles varied from Fire Dogs to Rubber Nipple Salesmen to space cadets, and that’s only a small sample. They never seemed to reside in the same domicile. Their sexual preferences, until late in the series, were uncertain. Once they were revealed as a gay couple, they further upset the established order. Parody showed up often in the series, from the faux-ads for “Log” (with retrogressive, Hubley-esque designs) to the resident superhero, Powdered Toast Man.
A breakdown between high and low cultural forms? John K. employed classical music in many episodes, even as Stimpy was hugging his litter box. Ren and Stimpy could be a very disorienting cartoon. The characters survived, with no apparent long-term damage, disembowelments, diseases, injuries, flayings, and bodily insults that would have been totally out of place on The Simpsons.
Ren is being self-reflexive when he refers to cartoons as “puppets” and avers that they will rot Stimpy’s brain. Other recurring characters, especially George Liquor and Mr. Horse, are in-jokes whom are used to play different roles on the show.
In the final analysis, The Ren and Stimpy Show meets the requirements of postmodernity, whereas it’s harder to make a case for The Simpsons, who are touted as the ne plus ultra of the concept.
Of course, a dedicated postmodernist would argue that both cartoons are equally postmodern. The deconstructionists are somewhat masters of eating their cake and having it too, since any given text, piece of art, or social construct can mean anything they wish it to mean. There are, after all, no authors. Here, Derrida, Barthes, Eco, and their ilk become an ouroborus, the snake that devours its own tail. “A work is postmodern because I interpret it that way which makes it postmodern because I interpret it that way…” ad infinitum.
Such canting nonsense lays traps for critics with integrity, who actually hold the postmodernists to their slippery and facile words. When you hear trendy but shallow analysts make generalizations about any piece of animation, tossing about the word “postmodern” without discerning it’s meaning, you know that you are in the presence of those schooled only in keywords.
If there has been one consistent thread to the “Animation Critics Art” series, it is this: Educate yourselves, then think for yourselves. You will survive the consequences and be all the better for it. As will your readers.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.