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Dr. Toon: Of Mice and 10

In this month's column, Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman tackles two hot topics -- the Hamas-produced Mickey Mouse look-alike and the dawn of the iSeries, aka Ben 10.

Martin Goodman.

In a perfect world, I would be able to write and edit my column with the same expediency as Matt Stone and Trey Parker; that way, my column would be just as timely and in touch with breaking news as South Park. Unfortunately, I work by the month, and so the first topic I address in this column has been somewhat chewed over by other pundits. I do, however, feel rather strongly about the subject, and thus shall place my two cents on the table.

I. Quiet as a Mouse?

Of late, Al-Asqa TV in Palestine has been showing a Hamas-produced children's show called Tomorrow's Pioneers. Central to the show is Sara, a perky teenaged girl who exhorts the kiddies of Gaza to help drive the current inhabitants of Israel from the Middle East. This new generation of Palestinians will then pioneer their way into the former Jewish state, claiming it for Palestine, Allah and Islam. Assisting Sara in this goal is (or was) Farfour, a giant mouse whose translated name means "Butterfly."

Actually, it most likely means "Mickey," since Farfour is a dead-ringer for Walt Disney's original meal ticket.

Oh, Butterfly is a bit, shall we say, off-model, but if you were to glance at him quickly, there would be no doubt that you were clearly looking at a variant of Mickey Mouse that is closer to an act of plagiarism than to a crude "knock-off." Farfour is, to all intents and purposes, Mickey Mouse in Palestinian guise, and no denial on the part of Hamas can make anyone believe differently.

Farfour had a good run, spouting such patriotic statements as "We will return the Islamic community to its former greatness, and liberate Jerusalem, God willing, liberate Iraq, God willing, and liberate all the countries of the Muslims invaded by the murderers." (Farfour can be pretty verbose). One fateful day, a Hamas actor posing as an Israeli sauntered onto the set and attempted to "buy" the Mouse's land. Farfour was rather fond of his homestead and refused, which was too bad; he was beaten to death on the air in front of his young audience.

Beaten to death! Even for the kiddies, who call in to the show to sing Hamas anthems about destroying Israel, and hear the sound of daily gunfire like rainfall, this had to be a bit of a shock. Sara gave her co-star a stirring send-off, proclaiming that "Farfour was martyred while defending his land. He was killed by the killers of children." Hamas simply declared that Farfour was eliminated in order to make room for new TV shows. (Some Internet pundits have had a field day suggesting animated replacements.)

The moderate wing of the Palestinian government, which has pretty much ceded control, has proclaimed Farfour a mistake. Basem Abu Sumaya, head of the Palestinian Broadcasting Corp, stated, "I don't think it's professional or even humane to use children in such harsh political programs." This does not take into account that Hamas is indeed professional; their aims and goals are quite clear and so are their well-tested methods. They don't expect Israelis to be expelled from their nation without an apocalyptic battle in which bodies will be piled higher than Mount Sinai. What's killing a guy in a mouse costume to them?

The cheerful ambassador of global good will. © Disney Enterprises.

What's he to Disney, in fact? Judging from the response, he's not much to them either. This company was once infamous for sending lawyers down to day-care centers to investigate reports of crude Disney characters found hand-painted on the walls, or because Disney VHS tapes were being shown therein without due royalties being paid. On this occasion, Disney chose to do nothing much about Hamas's appropriation of their iconic character.

One of our more litigious entertainment companies seemed to simply sit by while their defining emblem incited children to violence and hatred. Disney CEO Bob Iger explained that they "were appalled by the use of our character to disseminate that kind of message... it's despicable." But Iger decided not to take it any further: "I just didn't think it would have any effect... we would not either create or prolong a public discourse on the subject by making a loud public statement."

We could be cynical about the whole affair. Perhaps Disney really wanted to keep its theme parks both here and abroad safe from the long reach of fundamentalist terrorism. Maybe there are plans to expand entertainment products and venues to foreign soil that may someday have to confront jihad. Believe what you wish; still, it is not true that a "loud public statement" would have had no effect.

It has been reported on several websites, most notably Jim Hill media, that Disney actually did meet behind the scenes with the Palestinians responsible for Farfour, but ultimately chose to take no action against the misappropriation of the Mouse. Perhaps Iger was telling the truth; it's difficult to believe that members of Hamas would actually appear in court, which would undoubtedly be in a Western venue, with lawyers by their sides. How can Disney tell Hamas what they can and can't do? They don't scare easily; these guys, after all, walk up to the borders of a nuclear-armed state and fire rockets into it on a regular basis.

Iger is right if he meant that such a statement would have no effect on Hamas, but what about the effect it might have had on Americans? After all, an attack on Mickey, symbol that he is of all things American, is an attack on this nation and its culture, one that is especially despised by Islamic fundamentalists. Last I checked, America went by the appellation "The Great Satan," and Osama Bin Laden was exhorting his minions to slaughter Americans as well as Jews.

Why couldn't there have been a missive from Disney that was intended for the American public? Nothing angry, jingoistic, or inflammatory, mind you; something that simply affirms that Mickey is, and will always remain, the symbol of cheer, good will and playfulness that he was always intended to be, no matter what ideologues may attempt to do with him.

Despite the fact that Mickey Mouse has been used in a foul and disgusting manner, Disney should at least state that he would never be used to teach children to hate or kill. The cheerful ambassador of global good will was twisted into a figure of contempt for life, and Disney's message should have been stronger. Perhaps you believe (or don't) that Israel has a right to exist. Perhaps you accept the idea that the Palestinian people are the true and eternal landholders of the current Jewish state (or not). It doesn't matter. Instructing young children to despise their fellow humans is never a good idea, whatever your viewpoint may be, and using Mickey Mouse in order to do so is both idiotic and contemptible.

There is a story dating back to the 1960s that tells of how a U.S. hospital ship had to solve the problem of getting children to come to the shore for health services. One doctor came up with the idea of painting a picture of Mickey Mouse on the side of the ship. Despite having no previous exposure to the Mouse, the kids were immediately attracted to the painting of a smiling Mickey, and hit the beach in swarms. This is the Mickey Mouse that children truly cherish, not the second-rate propagandist who was brutalized in front of adoring young kids. Farfour, Butterfly, Martyr Mouse, whatever -- I hope we never see your miserable likes again.

Go ahead, Mr. Iger, speak up. If radical Islamists want to produce cartoons of their own creation (they are already making comparable video games), I suppose that can't be stopped. But when they mess with Mickey Mouse, raise your voice a bit louder. If you can't do this for professional radicals like Hamas, then at least do it for the rest of us.

Ben Tennyson, avatar of the multitasking generation. All Ben 10 images © Cartoon Network.

II. Ben 10, again and again.

One of the mainstream animation shows I've noted lately is Cartoon Network's Ben 10. It came to my attention due to its large following and copious merchandising. For those of you who don't focus much on the cable or network mainstream, the premise of the show is as follows: A kid (conveniently) named Ben Tennyson is nearly hit by an alien pod, which turns out to house a device called the Omnitrix. (This refers to a kind of supercharged wristwatch, not a female who can eat anything on Earth). The Omnitrix allows Ben to transform into no fewer than 10 alien life forms. Each one has a unique set of powers and comes complete with cool names like Stinkfly, Ghostfreak and Heatblast. Ben can now kick the butts of any and all alien evildoers. Sometime in the future, it has been revealed, he will be known as Ben 10,000, as the Omnitrix appears to have quite a bit of storage capacity.

I used to read a comicbook something like this when I was a kid. It was called Dial H for Hero (OK, it was called House of Mystery, sticklers), and it had to do with a kid named Robby Reed who found an alien dial-up in a murky cavern. Broadband, I guess, was beyond space travelers at the time. Anyway, if his town was endangered, Robby simply dialed up the word "HERO," and got to be one, with superpowers thoughtfully provided. Robby never knew what he would get, but trust me, he always lived to tell the tale at the end.

Now, I understand that every superhero can trace his/her origin back to Gilgamesh (or at least Philip Wylie), and that some retellings of mythos are going to be pretty close to each other. That isn't the road I want to go down, anyhow. It struck me instead that Ben Tennyson was an update of Robby Reed for a different generation of kids, one that would have had little patience with Robby's limitations.

This is an age of videogamers and multitaskers who start at very young ages. Their neural circuits have been able to adapt to increasingly sophisticated technologies, and this is what they expect from today's world. Dial H for Hero belongs to the age of dial telephones and pre-digital communications and media. Ben 10 is a high-tech entertainment for the cyber-tykes described above, a true cartoon contemporary of the iPhone.

Ben as Fourarms, one of his 10 alien personas.

Kids today would never be satisfied with dialing up a hero, especially not one built to their specifications. They would want an instantaneous device that could let them choose among personas, just like their videogames do. You don't find devices by poking around in old caves anymore; you have them delivered to your door by alien pods. In this age when a kid can text message, scan MySpace, and plug into an iPod simultaneously, it won't do to be one hero at a time; a kid has to be able to punch up anywhere from 10 to 10,000. What kind of technology can store only one crummy, unpredictable hero-persona at a time, anyway?

Robby could revert to normal by dialing "HERO" in reverse. After he did, he went back to his everyday self. Ben Tennyson has been consumed by the changes in his life, and is destined, by the looks of things, to be immersed in tech-heavy heroism for as long as he lives. So it is for today's generation of kids, who could not conceivably exist without high-speed, high-tech modes of communication and consciousness.

On some level, today's children have become one with their multifunctional cell phones, and Ben Tennyson is their avatar (or is that another show?). The medical profession worries that obesity is epidemic among them due to their sedentary preoccupations, and psychologists fret over possible impaired abilities to relate to other humans, but kids do seem to relate to this cartoon and go for the marketed products. It's not just sci-fi; it speaks directly to who and what they are in 2007. Robby Reed could only dream.

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