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Arts feature

Under cover of absurdity

Igor Toronyi-Lalic on the power of animation to subvert and propagate ideas

16 April 2008

12:00 AM

16 April 2008

12:00 AM

Igor Toronyi-Lalic on the power of animation to subvert and propagate ideas

The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the American army, on one of its first assignments, requisitioned Disney Studios and remained there for eight months. It was the only studio to suffer that fate but Walt Disney, ever the patriot, was more than obliging.

By 1942, 93 per cent of his output (which was by now the largest of any Hollywood studio) was under government contract. He produced propaganda cartoons, such as the 1943 anti-Nazi film Education for Death, a series of animated instructional films — including, quite improbably, A Few Quick Facts about Venereal Disease — and enlisted Donald Duck full-time. In the words of one historian, Disney became a ‘bona fide war plant’.

At the same time in Britain, the Ministry of Information’s Film Division was advancing the animated cartoon as an ideal form for political propaganda. With cartoons, it declared, you had the advantage of being able to insert ideas ‘under cover of absurdity …They can present…a system of ethics in which independence and individuality are always successful, bullies are made fools of, the weak can cheek the strong with impunity.’

Cartoons could and would subvert reality. They could stretch it or simplify it, mock it or idealise it. Utopias could be formed and tyrannies toppled in seconds. It’s not so strange, then, that time and again both the political élites and their popular critics took up animation to propagate their ideas.


In the wider scheme of things, Marjane Satrapi’s darkly satirical take on recent Iranian history, Persepolis (released next Friday), a trip through war, revolution and persecution, is more the norm than a curious aberration. Politics and film cartooning have been partners in crime from the beginning.

The earliest surviving animation is a patriotic advertisement for the Boer War from 1899 by Arthur Melbourne Cooper. A pile of matches come to life, climb on to each other and write a message on a blackboard. ‘An Appeal,’ they write. ‘For one guinea, Messrs Bryant and May will forward a box of matches to each man in a battalion. With the name of the sender inside. NB Our Soldiers need them.’

Most useful for politics was caricature. In the Manichean conditions of war, enemies had to be rendered unimaginably repellent. Repellent enough to murder. On this cartoons could really deliver. Visual metaphors — and often the cruder the better — would quickly stick. Blood-sucking Jewish bankers would grow proboscises and suck their victims to death. Grasping American businessmen became lithe spiders literally crawling over countries, gathering bags of cash. Nazis became vultures or pigs or beetles.

The full fantastical potential of the cartoon, however, and its ability to reinvent reality could only be exploited by a system that needed these propaganda tools for revolution and social transformation — not just for a bit of light joshing. The Soviet Union was just such a country. In 1925 it made Interplanetary Revolution, advocating an expansion into space of the global struggle against capitalism. An event that, the cartoon declared optimistically, would happen by 1929. Brilliant new effects were created to show a capitalist takeover of Mars and its swift defeat at the hands of Communist Comrade Cominternov.

In America, questions that were asked of society were suddenly being directed at the creators of Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop. Was the bawdy farmyard realism really appropriate for family entertainment? In the 1933 short Spite Flight, for example, Willie Whopper flies past heaven disturbing St Peter, who turns around and gives Willie the finger. Sexual references abounded, as did alcoholism and allusions to drug-taking — Betty Boop sings about snorting cocaine in Dave Fleischer’s Snow White.

The emergence of enforceable film censorship in 1936 forced the studios to button up. Cartoonists turned less experimental and more prim, covering cows’ udders with skirts. Disney, the arch-conservative, began to hanker after believability above all else. A cloud of stylistic and political conservatism moved over Hollywood.

Going against the reactionary spirit were John Hubley, Dave Hilberman and Stephen Bosustow, all at one time or another communist party members. Buoyed by the 1941 animators’ strike at Disney, the increased strength of the unions and the socialist solidarity among the wartime forces, the triumvirate left Disney to go it alone, setting up United Productions of America that same year. The new studio, taking on political projects such as the re-election campaign for Roosevelt in 1944, embraced a radically different political outlook that demonstrated a tougher, jerkier, more surreal graphic and narrative style, which could convey political and moral information directly.

UPA had released a stylistic genie from the bottle. A dissenting counterculture seized on the full subversive potential. Tex Avery, described as the Walt Disney who read Kafka, and Chuck Jones, who created the unending violence of Road Runner, introduced a whole scorched-earth nihilism to the Hollywood genre, while Gerald Scarfe’s Long Drawn Out Trip of 1973 turned the world upside-down by showing a grey, unshaven Mickey drugged up and hallucinating. Disney never forgot the avant-garde strikers. And when the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities convened in 1947, their first eager witness was Walt, whose testimony provoked the headlines: ‘Communists tried to capture Mickey.’ Revenge was sweet: by 1952 UPA was forced to close down.

Behind the Iron Curtain, politics coursed through animation, as dissenting cartoonists injected even innocent fables with political subtexts. Yuri Norstein’s Hedgehog in the Fog (1975), in which a hedgehog becomes alienated from the world as a fog descends, was a safely ambiguous metaphor for what the state had done to Norstein. In Jan Lenica’s Monsieur Tête (1959), the tale of an everyman who wins state medals but starts to lose his features, the message gets closer to the bone. In Czechoslovakia, in Jiri Trnka’s The Hand (1965), in which a sculptor, tormented by a powerful, disembodied sculpture of a hand, loses his liberty and finally his life, the message was all too clear.

While we in the West became increasingly accustomed to seeing cartoons as mere child’s play, in Eastern Europe they became a political lifeline. And the state knew it. It banned The Hand in 1968, blacklisted Jan Svankmajer and his aggressive stop-motion reality in 1974, and Yuri Norstein in 1985.

Around the world, a genre that had been introduced to the people by states eager to instruct them was biting back. In the Philippines cartoonists ate away at the Marcos regime; in Yugoslavia they ushered in sexual liberation; in Germany, they pondered the feasibility of a body politic divided in two; and in America came The Simpsons. That the Islamic Revolution has now become a target should be no surprise.For much of the world, and for most of its history, animation had politics at its subversive core. With Persepolis, cartooning is simply coming home.


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