Sunday, September 21, 2014

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

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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)

1 comment:

  1. This very interesting and amazing article this will help in my research as i am doing on Cartoon Characters with Mental Disorder - funklist thanks for sharing