Monday, June 09, 2008

Nostalgia or Wonderstuff?

Some time back, when we were chatting on Darrin Bell's old Toon Talk site, we got to talking about how uninspiring a lot of today's comic strips are in comparison to what came before. Of course it isn't really a fair comparison, Winsor McCay and Herriman and Frank King and the other master cartoonists of the past had the huge canvas of the full-page Sunday Funnies to dazzle us with. It goes without saying that if Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, Krazy Kat and Little Nemo were being produced to be read in a format around 3/4" x 6" and about 3" x 6" on Sundays, they would not look the way they do. They would be paired-down and much of the sumptuous imagery would have to be sacrificed and Krazy Kat in particular would be very wordy, at times. All things considered, given the restrictions that are in place today, strips that some people do not consider to be well drawn, Dilbert and Pearls before Swine, are perfectly drawn cartoons for the age in which we live, and unlikely as it may seem to some people, they will one day also be viewed as classics of the genre.

The conversation also highlighted a worry amongst some of us old farts that the younger web cartoonists were simply aping the style of successful web strips like PVP and Penny Arcade, and the cartoonists creating the comics had little or no idea knowledge or interest in comic strips of past, for instance those seminal examples listed above. Which was why, I think, a lot of web-cartoonists were producing small newspaper-sized cartoons on a vast web page, instead of using the freedom of the web to produce something closer to the giant Sunday Funny pages of the past. Since then, of course, the marvelous Chris Ware edited book of Frank King's work, Walt and Skeezix, has appeared, as has the gorgeous Little Nemo collection So Many Splendid Sundays (Many More Splendid Sundays is released next month), and I'm confident that publications like those have already and will continue to inspire tomorrow's web-cartoonists to think on a much larger scale.

The worries we shared back then about the role of TV shows have also been expressed on the UK cartoonists site, and at first glance they could probably be dismissed as a form of nostalgia. Perhaps a little like the Victorians nostalgia for the pre-industrial idyll. After all, kids can have wall-to-wall kiddy programmes and cartoons today, if they have cable at home. If anything, thanks to The Simpsons and Family Guy and King of the Hill, all by Fox Broadcasting, cartoons are more popular than ever and can even be seen after 5.30 pm. On the face of it, there is no lack of the sort of kiddy programmes and cartoons that used to enrapture so many of us while we ate our 'tea in front of the telly', and which inspired us to go on and become cartoonists and writers and animators and illustrators. It's just that, well, I don't know, they just seem to lack that sense of wonder.

That is what is so odd, really, if you think about it. Whilst the newspaper comic strips that used to appear in the Sunday Funnies were huge, the size of a broadsheet 'Beezer comic' page, and in full colour, and then they were replaced by strips a third or a quarter of their size, you can easily see how some of that magic could be perceived to be lost. With the TV shows though, the opposite should be true, the shows were often really ropey, badly put together, poorly dubbed, sometimes black and white rather than colour, and they appeared and disappeared and then appeared again, depending on your aerial and the strength of the TV valves, on a tiny screen. Today's shows by contrast are beautifully produced, perfectly dubbed, their budgets are enormous and they appear on TVs 2, 3 and even 4 times and more, larger than our old sets. Some of the shows are even in Hi-Definition, with colours so sharp they make the flowers in the window box look positively dull by comparison, and yet, and yet for some reason the old shows still look better in our mind's eye than the high-gloss productions look on even the most impressive Plasma screen. For some reason, the introduction to Gigantor and Marine Boy and later, Wait Till your Father Gets Home, even in poor resolution on tiny little screens on a web-page, still thrill us more than anything they make today.

Clearly something else, other than than our critical faculties is guiding such thoughts. We can see that the things we liked back then were often badly made, amateurish even. We can clearly see that today's shows look better and we can hear that they are funnier, sharper, more ironic, more knowing. Even back then, Gigantor and Marine Boy were derided in the West for their obvious failings by the critics - nobody dreamed back then that Japan would become the major force in animation that is has become (except maybe the kids who raced home to watch those shows).

Is it all really just nostalgia for more innocent time? Well, I don't know, I tell you, I was watching Gigantor and Marine Boy and Fireball XL5 and Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and Wait Till Your Father Gets Home and My World and Welcome to it and The Double Deckers and T.H.E Cat and Honey West and even an episode of the adventures of Hiram Holliday over the weekend (it's a dirty job but someone had to do it) and I was bowled over by the imagination on display. Add to those titles Batman, the Man from Uncle, The Avengers, The Prisoner, The Time Tunnel, Hogan's Heroes, Land of the Giants, Bewitched, Mister Ed, the Addams Family, the Munsters, the Banana Splits, the Monkees, HR Pufnstuff and you begin to build up a catalogue of the some of the most imaginative and inventive TV shows ever made. And compare it to today, where shows like Jeremy Kyle and Jerry Springer, Neighbours, Hollyoaks, Pop Idols, Big Brother and numerous cooking programmes and reality shows serve only to stunt the imaginations of the young and inspire them to seek an abstract notion of 'fame' at any cost.

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