Inks That Go Bump In The Night: Tell-Tale Art
There are two things that I love in this world: Books and Cartoons. Both being a type of story telling, one having preceded the other, I would like to think that they provide a window into the worlds and time from which they originate. Like using a set of opera glasses to gaze onto the stage of the past, these two types of media allow us to view society and culture as though we were audiences viewing actors performing in dramatizations of life.
I’ve created this blog to examine one genre of literature that faced multitudes of criticism during the time of its inception: The Gothic, and seek to compare it to another artistic genre which also during its adolescence faced the harrowing censures of both the public and critics alike: animated cartoons. What I also would like to do is analyze how Gothic elements carried over into early cartoon animation and explore how the animators, similarly to the authors of Gothic literature, used these elements to communicate and draw attention to specific aspects of society and the human psyche. In the end I hope to create a novel and nuanced way of viewing both genres and provide a means of comprehending them from our specific point in historic time. So, without further ado...
Although it was a magnet for negative criticism, being accused of being a production of the lowest of low culture, the Gothic gave society access into the deepest bowls of their psyche, and in doing so, created an image of the social structure which countered that of the idealized social norm. Some texts, such as Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, created a satiric view of the supernatural within the Gothic, while others, such as Lewis’s The Monk, created a highway into the most vulgar desires of proper religious society. By exercising the superstitions of their time, not only the religious but also ideas attached to those of “virtue”, these writers had armories of cannon fodder provided by society itself to exaggerate, pervert, and deconstruct in any way they saw fit. Each in their creation, however, developed gothic archetypes that would persevere into the modern era and what we know as the Gothic today.
Animation is yet another example of a socially psychological media also considered by critics to be “low art”. Often wrongly thought of as a children’s genre, cartoon animation debuted on the big screen as animated shorts before actual movies in theatres. And what are cartoons but parodies of real life? Akin to the characters of Lewis and Walpole, the animated characters of such artists as Max Fleischer, UB Iwerks, Walt Disney, Van Buren Studios, Charles Mintz, and P.A. Powers were mimetic tools for representing society at its best and, most of the time, at its worst. Within them, however, lies a truth that cannot be denied, that we, as humans, with all of our best intentions, our hang ups, and our errors, provided the jokes in our common behavior for them to mock. The criticism, then, and this can be said for the Gothic as well as for cartoons, should be pointed at ourselves first before it should be directed to the hands of the authors or artists.
The first cartoon I would like to examine, that I believe will be a good introduction into this collection I am putting together, is a 1920 short titled “Out of the Inkwell: The Ouija Board” by Max Fleischer. Featuring Koko the Clown, Fleischer’s first leading character (before that of Bimbo-the dog/humanoid, Superman, or Betty Boop), “The Ouija Board” is a prime example of how both literary and animated mediums cross over into our real life and become part of our collective cultural psyche. The title of the series, “Out of the Inkwell”, is also suiting, seeing as, combing live action with animated sequences, these characters and archetypes developed inside the creators’ minds, transferred themselves onto a page, and then jumped off of that page to become part of our social realities.
In the beginning of the cartoon, we see what we could call a normal day at the animation studio. Fleischer himself begins to draw Koko the clown. At this point I would just like get a bit technical to point out the outstandingly realistic movement the animation possesses. To delve into history for a moment, this effect, called rotoscoping, was developed by Fleischer himself alongside his brother, Dave Fleischer, in 1917, and is basically an animation process where one traces over live-action film to mimic the effect of real movement. What you get is a line consistency that was not present previously in early animation. Why I point this out is because through this effect the animation takes on a more lively presence, so realistic that even the process of movement can be analyzed from a theoretical perspective. Where literature uses detailed description with adjectival imagery, the drawn piece, likewise, creates an animated burlesque of movement, in itself becoming an allegory of even the most precise and dynamic corporeal human gesture as it comes to life instantly underneath the hand of Fleischer.
Moving on, Koko comes to life by running aimlessly around the page. Meanwhile, back in the studio, two men begin to play with an Ouija board while Fleischer provides Koko with a haunted house to take interest in. Fleischer steps away from his work to observe the two men playing with the board and seems to be dismissing the whole idea of partaking in such superstitious nonsense, while Koko, still alive on the page, begins to explore the contents within the haunted house. Getting chased by tables and ghosts of all sizes carrying picks and shovels, possessing three legs and pushing baby carriages, Koko tries to hide from his horror by sticking his head in the ground like an ostrich. While in the live action sequence Fleischer, much like Emily in The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, continues to reject the erroneous indulgences of his comrades, however, submitting to their desire for him to partake in playing with the board, Koko acts as a caricature of the fear of the unknown lying within the human consciousness. The haunted house itself then comes to life in front of Koko, bouncing back and forth, and it seems to be mocking his own irrational fears of its unknown origins and contents. As a furnace appears in front of him threatening him with its fire and Koko, being an object on a piece of paper, begins to fear for his own destruction.
The psychological implications for this event are especially relevant when relating them to Gothic elements from Romantic era literature. Much like Emily viewing the decaying waxen figure in the Castle Udolpho, or the ghost of Antonia’s mother coming to warn Antonia about her own destruction in Matthew Lewis’s The Monk, the fear that Koko is facing is one of his own destruction. As the house disappears into the background, a single ghost appears and eludes Koko’s grasp. It seems here that the clown is trying to seize the object of its apprehensions; however, it continues to escape him. The element of facing one’s own mortality within Gothic themed art plays a vital role in analyzing the origins of this fear of death, and, subsequently, within “The Ouija Board”, Koko endeavors to communicate to the live action characters the basis of not only his fears, but of their own superstition.
Koko resorts to jumping off of the page and hiding under the Ouija Board’s planchette to communicate to the men in the room that something is awry. Immediately taken aback by the autonomous movement of the planchette, the men, including the once disbelieving Fleischer, are now fully rapt within their fears of the unknown.
But what exactly is Koko trying to communicate to them? “The Fello- Yes- is From…”
What could this possibly mean?
As the men try to decipher meaning from Koko’s message, Koko is running amuck around the studio, much like the haunted house in his own two-dimensional realm. His presence within the cartoon has transitioned from that of the terrorized to that of the object of terror. Objects are thrown at him and he is even almost stomped on by Fleischer himself until he eventually jumps from a coat rack and lands on Fleischer’s shirt, where the three men stare questionably at the Koko shaped stain on Fleischer and the cartoon ends.
A conclusion I have come up with, and maybe others will come up with different interpretations, is that what Koko is trying to communicate to the men in the live action world is that the object from their superstition derives solely from themselves. They possess the ghosts which plague them, their psyche’s are the haunted houses that house the specters, and if they are in disbelief of the phenomenon which occurs around them, they have only to question the meaning of their own irrational existences.
In a simple, yet entertaining, 5:45 minute short, Fleischer was able to accomplish what almost all Gothic literature in the Romantic era sought to do; he fostered the idea in his audience that all of these creations stem from ourselves. The worlds that we fear are the worlds in which we live in our own minds and so, like a stain on our proper, everyday attire in the studio of life, the joke is on us. I hope that this was a good introduction into the rest of my analysis which will follow this posting. Now that I have initially explained how these artistic mediums originate from and become part of our realities, I will move on into more in depth analysis of a number of theories regarding Gothic literature and how they carried over into early animation. Enjoy!