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)

No comments:

Post a Comment