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Dr. Toon Turns 10: A Manifesto

Dr. Toon reminisces about the highlights of his AWN column, which turns 10 this month.

Martin Goodman.

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.

Up represents a cultural milestone this year as Boomers embraced the positive message about aging and prioritizing what's important in life. © Disney/Pixar.

Up represents a cultural milestone this year as Boomers embraced the positive message about aging and prioritizing what's important in life. © Disney/Pixar.

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.

Up was released at a time when the aging population was already well on the way to becoming a major component of the American demographic. There was something very comforting to the so-called Baby Boomers who received the message that old age was something that could still be anticipated, not feared. To see an older character keep lifelong promises and live out dreams correlates to the hopes that the Boomers will end up on the positive side of Erik Erikson's tussle between Integrity and Despair. There was an additional panacea to the fear of caring to the limits of one's patience and finances for an army of aging, increasingly debilitated parents. The fantasy of a geriatric such as Carl participating in world-spanning adventures and even pulling a house behind him across the mountains must have been a comfort. For the younger set, the fantasy of a strong, caring grandfather easing the pain of a child who lost his nuclear family must have been a joy to kids who are dealing with a divorce rate over 50%. But then, aren't most good, healthy fantasies a joy?

Combine this with a sensitive, well-written script, top flight CGI, and exceptional character development, and success is assured. Did Pixar combine all of these themes consciously? Except for the aforementioned production values, that possibility is unlikely. Those themes were leached from a culture facing a soaring divorce rate and a population explosion of geriatrics with unsure healthcare options. Their offspring are facing disappearing 401K plans and foreclosure notices; people who can barely float themselves, never mind aging parents.

This goes on all the time in any society's current art scene. However, animation can have a very direct voice in the cultural commentary with its power to mirror - and mock – current events and cultural trends with a level of impunity that other art forms do not have. It has long been noted that cartoons can get away with commentary that would be very inflammatory had it come from live actors. Two prime examples are The Simpsonsand South Park, shows that can sling arrows at any celebrity, politician, and event with the satirical force of a hundred thousand cream pies to the face. These shows can border on the libelous and scandalous, but examine their respective records of popularity and longevity.

South Park allows for current events like the election to be fodder for that week's episode. © Comedy Central.

South Park allows for current events like the election to be fodder for that week's episode. © Comedy Central.

Rather than tapping the societal unconscious, these two programs lift cultural representation directly off the top. Matt Stone and Trey Parker, in fact, have streamlined their animation process to the point where real-time events can be stitched into the current week's episode, making South Park a running commentary on the more risible aspects of common culture. One thing is for certain; there is no doubt that animation has a major role, both consciously and subconsciously in American popular culture.

Semiotics and deconstruction studies have thankfully (and deservedly) become a waning force in sociology. For more than 25 years these insular academics have managed to misinterpret American animation with laughable results. By assigning highly subjective interpretations based on arcane and inscrutable theoretical artifacts, the D-cons have sunk themselves in a messy morass of silly signifiers and piddly postmodernism. The lesson here is: If a cartoon can be constructed to mean anything, it finally turns out to mean nothing. In all my years of study I have read exactly one essay from this camp that came close to making any valid points.

The overarching culture remains more dynamic than any single pedantic interpretation. In short, never separate animation from the milieu in which it was created. This is the most valuable single thing I have learned, and it is, in one way or another, the basis for all my examinations of this wonderfully plastic and nuanced art.

Yet, in stopping here, I would shortchange both my readers and myself. Regarding animation as a subconscious expression of society's undercurrents and nothing more presents an incomplete picture. I write this column and share my thoughts because I genuinely love animation. From the first days I spent in front of a black-and-white Philco dial TV to the hours I've given running entire series on DVD on a 52-inch plasma hi-def, I have been seemingly wired for the enjoyment of cartoons. It was much later in life that I attempted to analyze them; at first I cherished their charm, wit, and visual joys. The debuts of The Jetsons and Top Cat were epochal events to me. My H-B puzzles and Popeye ring toss were among many toys that I owned having to do with cartoon characters. When most preteen guys were preening for middle-school hotties, I couldn't wait to see what the fall Saturday morning lineup would look like.

And so, when The Ren and Stimpy Show made its appearance I was able to glimpse the decades-old roots that John Kricfalusi planted beneath his animated wildflowers. I have, as a grown adult, cried at watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for the simple reason that I could not, and never would, be able to do with my life what Disney animators did with theirs. I have humbly stood in the presence of geniuses, tape recorder in hand, praying that I could ask the right questions that could give me the merest glimpse of what it was like to think like a brilliant animator. Bugs Bunny, in all his incarnations over the years, remains my spirit guide. I live in the absolute joyful certainty that the wellsprings are inexhaustible; the occasional bad series, ugly misfire, or cinematic flop can never derail the art as a whole. There will be ever greater animated efforts to come over the years, and I shall be here to see them. What pleasure!

That, dear readers, is the engine that powers everything I have written for you over the past ten years, and everything I will likely write in the future. The marriage of pure love and cultural/cinematic analysis may seem like a strange one, but this unlikely couple has survived to celebrate a ten-year anniversary with you. Together the two comprise my manifesto, but more importantly, explain why I do this and why it is important. Jerry Beck, you see, is right: Animation deserves equal respect with all other arts. In order to promote this viewpoint, I have to be able to understand it and analyze animation but, above all, to truly love it.

My heartfelt thanks to Animation World Network for hosting my column for the past 10 years and realizing that what I do is not merely a labor of love, but a labor of living as an animation fan. Of the many enjoyable experiences I have had in my life, this has been one of the best. Thanks most of all to my readership over the past 10 years; my deepest appreciation to you all.

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