Sunday, September 28, 2014

Who Frames Roger Rabbit? - Cartoon Characters as Recognized Individuals (Part Three)

Part Two

But before jumping into the more detailed argument, I think it is important to establish that this ahistorical, meta-narrative recognition of cartoon characters is indeed the primary form by which consumers recognize third-phase cartoon individuals such as Mickey Mouse. After all, there have been attempts to put Mickey Mouse into an over-arching narrative framework that would give a pseudo-historical context to his adventures.

The earliest was the Mickey Mouse newspaper comic strip which debuted in 1930 and made use of events from films such as Plane Crazy. The newspaper comic, unlike the cartoons, had a continuity and timeline. It eventually diverged from the film version of Mickey by focusing less of comedy and more on adventure-based extended story lines. These two versions of Mickey Mouse (ahistorical films and narrative comics) were consumed side-by-side by fans with no perceived contradiction. While it is possible to be a fan of both film-Mickey and comic-Mickey (or one of the two, or neither), the character is equally recognizable as the same conceptual individual in both a pseudo-historic and an a-historic settings.

Human Director Confronts Cartoon Actors in Who Framed Roger Rabbit
This was far from the last attempt to rationalize the disparate, ahistorical adventures of Mickey Mouse (and other cartoon individuals) into a pseudo-historical narrative. 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit posits a world in which cartoon individuals coexist alongside humans in the real world, acting as characters in “live-action” films much as a human actor takes on a role.

For example, “Baby” Herman is a middle-aged, cigar smoking cartoon who appears in films as an infant. Here, a crucial distinction is made between the cartoon individual as “character” and the cartoon individual as “actor.” By creating a fictitious behind-the-scenes world, the narrative discrepancies between Mickey as steamboat worker and Mickey as sorcerer's apprentice are neatly explained away. Many famous cartoon characters make cameos in the film, such as Mickey Mouse and long-time real world rival Bugs Bunny.

This narrative device of cartoon-as-actor goes a long way toward both illustrating and explaining the nature of third-wave cartoons. Their identity does not consist explicitly in a historical narrative (whether a real one like President Jackson or a fake one like Nemo), but rather “behind the scenes.” Mickey Mouse is not perceived as existing solely inside his films and comics, but as a individual concept distinct from them. The box-office success of Roger Rabbit shows that this framework was at the very least palatable to audiences.

Other attempts to place Mickey Mouse in a quasi-historical setting linking the mythos of Disney films have been made, particularly the Kingdom Hearts and Epic Mickey video game franchises. While the details of these quasi-historical settings are perhaps not worth detailed analysis at this point, it is worth mentioning that both franchises attempt to re-imagine Mickey's ahistorical cartoons adventures into a single personal narrative. The narratives posited in these franchises are mutually incompatible, but they share certain features. Steamboat Willie is brought up in both franchises as an episode of Mickey's early life, while Yen Sid from Fantasia appears as Mickey's mentor.

Perhaps the most interesting point of these franchises is that they are contemporaries. Kingdom Hearts was released in 2002 and since has spawned ten sequels and prequels set in the same quasi-historical narrative, with an eleventh installment planned for 2014. Epic Mickey was released in 2010, the same year as Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep. Both series have enjoyed commercial success in international markets, despite having conflicting “histories.”

Audiences are able to move fluidly between the two contradictory quasi-historical settings without confusion, precisely because what makes Mickey Mouse “Mickey Mouse” is not his place in a socio-historic order, but his physical appearance and relation to other characters. Kingdom Hearts and Epic Mickey both ring true with audiences for the same reason Steamboat Willie and The Sorcerer's Apprentice ring true - because Minnie is Mickey's romantic interest, Yen Sid is his mentor, and Pete is his antagonist.

This, then, is an overview of the history of cartoon characters. In the next section, I will discuss how this history relates to Hegel's The Phenomenology of Spirit. Hegel, of course, does not talk about cartoon characters in Phenomenology. However, he does provide a three-stage model for the historical development of recognition. It is my argument that the evolution of comics falls in with this three-stage model; moreover, that contemporary recognition of cartoon characters falls squarely into the third stage of the model.

(Continued in Part Four)

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Who Frames Roger Rabbit? - Cartoon Characters as Recognized Individuals (Part Two)

Part One

Mickey Mouse debuted to the public in 1928's Steamboat Willie. This “sound cartoon” featured Mickey as the low-ranking man on a polymorphous musical boat. Whereas Little Nemo was a silent cartoon with title cards for the dialogue, Steamboat Willie emphasizes the spectacle of Cinephone sound as well as animation. Priority is given to musical sound instead of dialogue; the characters communicate by grunts and whistles instead of speaking in English. This form of communication is extended to animals such as the musical goat and “inanimate” objects such as the boat's steam whistles.

The main characters of Steamboat Willie are neither purely human nor purely animal. Mickey and Minnie behave like humans in that they wear clothing, work jobs, carry possessions, form relationships, and occupy a privileged space above the “pure” animals, and yet their form is as much mouse as it is man. They occupy a space between human, animal, and animated ink and paper.
Even in this first Mickey Mouse film, there are hints of departure from the ideological world of Little Nemo. While the opening title card of Little Nemo gives artist Winsor McCay top billing, Steamboat Willie gives that honor to the character Mickey Mouse.

In a similar fashion, Nemo ends with a shot of McCay's thumb holding the final frame of animation, while Willie ends with an image Mickey and Minnie framing the words “The End.” Although Walt Disney (and animator Ub Iwerks) do receive credit, it is Mickey's name which is done up in a large, bold letters. Little Nemo may be a film about Winsor McCay, but Steamboat Willie is a film about Mickey Mouse.
As the Mickey Mouse “sound cartoons” progressed, the emphasis continued to be on Mickey Mouse as a personality instead of a historical/quasi-historical individual. No attempt is made to assign Mickey to a particular social role; whereas in Steamboat Willie Mickey is a boat worker, Plane Crazy (1928) has Mickey living on a farm, and The Opry House (1929) has him running a vaudeville theater.
Although Mickey's social role changes from film to film, his social relationships remain relatively static: Minnie Mouse is his romantic interest, Pete is his antagonist, Daisy the Cow is a hapless bystander to his antics. Later characters such as Donald Duck and Goofy expanded this network of social relationships which exist without any reference to time or place.
The era of color films only expanded Mickey and co.'s range of social and historical roles. In The Brave Little Tailor (1928), set in a cartoon approximation of medieval Europe, Mickey is the titular tailor, Goofy is a knight, and Minnie is a princess. Through the Mirror (1936) takes place in the world of Alice in Wonderland, while The Nifty Nineties (1941) is a love letter to 1890s America.
There are two common threads that run throughout these films, which can be said to serve as the identifiers by which consumers recognize Mickey Mouse. First is Mickey's “physical” appearance, which remains relatively unchanged even to today (exceptions include the addition of white gloves in 1929's The Opry House and slight revisions made for the addition of color in 1935's The Band Concert). While Mickey makes costume changes when appearing in different historical eras, he retains the trademark round ears which often serve as a symbol for the Disney Corporation as a whole.

Second are the previously mentioned social relationships. Even when social roles change from film to film, the emotional relationships remain unchanged almost without exception. Friends remain friends, romantic interests remain romantic interests, and antagonists remain antagonists. These fictionalized forms of mutual recognition are critical for maintaining emotional continuity between vastly different settings.

However, this form of recognition is not limited to the characters themselves. The viability of these fictionalized forms of recognition is dependent on the audience's acceptance and recognition of the bonds between the characters as valid. This is an essential feature of this third phase of the evolution of the cartoon: consumers, in recognizing the fictional recognitive relationships between cartoon characters, form their own non-fictional recognitive relationships with them. Though these relationships are not mutual in the sense that recognition between two humans are mutual, they are (as I will argue in more detail later) contingent upon the conditions of post- enlightenment sittlichkeit social recognition.

(Continued in Part Three)

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Who Frames Roger Rabbit? - Cartoon Characters as Recognized Individuals (Part One)

(Series Hub)

What is a cartoon character? How is a cartoon character framed as a concept? How do we create a being such as Mickey Mouse which is both instantly recognizable by and relatable to billions of humans, and yet has no concrete physical being? In this paper, I will argue that recognition of cartoon characters occurs in a manner along the lines of Hegel's Third Stage: a mixture of modernity and communally-created sittlichkeit normative behavior. That is to say, Mickey Mouse does not exist as a biological organism, but he does exist by virtue of his communal, normative recognition.

First, we will take a brief look at the development of cartoon characters and how they were recognized by consumers. I will focus on the transitional period between parodic, imitative “comic images” found in early political cartoons and the development of “cartoon characters” as individuals. Since time does not allow for an exhaustive history of sequential art, I will primarily use Mickey Mouse as an example of how contemporary cartoon characters are recognized by consumers.

Second, I will compare the history of cartoons with Hegel's Three Stages of History. I will argue that contemporary recognition of cartoon characters as normative individuals is an example of Hegel's Third Stage of post-enlightenment sittlichkeit - and in fact can only exist in that setting. Third, I will examine the ontology of cartoon individuals, using a variation on Azuma Hiroki's concept of “moe elements.”

Section One: Pharaohs, Presidents, and Round-Eared Mice - The Evolution of Comics

Pinning down a history of comics can be just as as difficult as defining them. Scott McCloud proposes the 22-word phrase “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer” to define comics and argues that their history begins with Egyptian and pre-Columbian American sequential paintings (McCloud 9). For sake of simplicity, we will focus in on the birth of modern comics at the turn of the 20th century, particularly as they gave birth to the cartoon character.

President Jackson Beats the Bank (1829)

19th century comic art focused on imitations or parodies of humans and animals, in the style most commonly associated with Punch magazine or political cartoons. Some focused on historical individuals and events (such as President Jackson in the image), while others focused on “generic” characters - the familiar images of the portly banker or greedy politician. In this, they share much in common with the earlier forms of art McCloud identifies as the ancestors of the comic. For example, the Egyptian art portrays both specific Pharaohs and “generic” craftsmen, farmers and slaves.

Insofar as they portray either humans that actually existed (Jackson, the Pharaohs) they also portray individuals with a personal history and social context. In the case of the “generic human” (the banker, the slave), they portray a general type of human with an assumed personal history and social context, thus reflecting the society in which similar humans existed. The role they play within the comic narrative is assumed to be identical (at least, in the mind of the artist) with the role they play in a social narrative. That is to say, they perform the role of characters with a single history as opposed that of actors which can take on a variety of roles and histories.

The earliest animated cartoon characters also performed as characters indistinguishable with the role they play in a narrative. The titular character of Little Nemo (the first comic strip character to also appear in an animated film) has a fictional personal history that takes place in a fictional world. Although this fictional world is intended to be distinct from the physical world imitated by Egyptian painters and political cartoonists, Nemo is positioned within it much as President Jackson is positioned in political cartoons. His serialized story has a linear continuity, a timeline stretching from past to future, in which Nemo exists in particular times and places.

Nemo drawing the Princess (1911)
This is particularly apparent in Winsor McCay's 1911 animated film Little Nemo. The film opens not with Nemo, but with film of McCay explaining the concept of an animated film to his friends. The animated characters relate to each other as works of art as well: in one scene, Nemo himself uses a pen to “draw” the Princess to life.

Slumberland, the world of Little Nemo, is explicitly portrayed as a fictional creation distinct from the “real world” of the artist and his friends. So although Nemo, President Jackson, and the Egyptian slaves all appear as historically-defined individuals in a larger social narrative, Nemo is confined to a fictional history while President Jackson and McCay, though also portrayed in comics and films, are considered part of a separate, non-fictional world.

The original run of Little Nemo lasted until 1911, when a legal battle over rights to the strip led to its discontinuation. The comic returned to papers in 1924, but this run ended 1926 due to lack of reader interest. A final effort to bring Nemo back was launched in 1927, but by 1928, a new cartoon character had emerged to capture hearts and minds: Mickey Mouse.

(Continued in Part Two)

Whatis: The Rev 3.0

Let's get a few things out of the way.

This is a non-academic academic blog. I'm going to mostly be posting papers about Hegelian philosophy as it applies to incredibly dumb subjects. I will be updating infrequently. I will try to limit posts to around ~800 word chunks to make things more digestible.

To get the self-introduction out of the way, I'm a translator (English-Japanese) who occasionally writes faux-academic papers when I'm supposed to be working. I went to the University of Pittsburgh for my MA, so my Hegel is going to largely follow that lineage. However, my main area of interest is the work of Hiroki Azuma, so you know, expect to hear a lot about him.

I love arguing, so feel free to leave as many nitpicking comments as you like. On the other hand, I love arguing, so I sometimes take things to far. When I argue back, please understand that I'm not trying to be a dick, I'm just having fun.

That should be enough of that.