Friday, 10 October 2014

Cartoon Confessional

I put my love of animation and cartooning all the way back to my childhood. Me and my sister were often shipped off to my grandparents to babysit whilst my parents were working, and to the pass the time while I was there, I often selected a tome from the cavernous bookshelves in my grandparents living room, sat back in an old recliner and read page after page of Peanuts, or Hagar the Horrible, or the New Yorker compilations of cartoons of the year. Whilst other grandparents I knew had old Readers Digest novel compilations and the like littering their shelves, my grandfather was different. My grandfather, John Power, was a cartoonist.

You won't have heard of him, virtually no-one has outside of the cartooning fraternity of the time he was working, but he was a cartoonist and a gagwriter nonetheless, and that just meant the world to me. Once I found out that the cartoons I was seeing in these books had sometimes been made from a gag suggested to Chon Day, or Mischa Richter, or Bill Hoest, or Don Orehek, (if you know those names, I salute your nerdiness) and that this work had then gone on to be published in Punch, or Playboy, or best of all The New Yorker, my adulation for him grew and grew and grew.

Never mind the fact I couldn't draw (I still can't for that matter) from the moment I knew of his trade, I wanted to emulate him in every way possible. To his credit, my grandfather taught me what could be taught to a over-enthusiastic nine year old with saveloys for fingers. The importance of a clean and clear line. The basics of displaying character emotion, and perspective. Most importantly of all, how to draw a cartoon suit. None of these lessons, bar the last one has stayed with me. I may break down in tears in envy at the skill and quality of some of the work and fan-art I see online, but if you want a stereotypical business suit circa 1954 drawn from a face-on perspective, I'm your guy.

The dream to be  a cartoonist soon faded, but my admiration of my grandfather and love of cartoons and comics grew further. I became quite the precocious connoisseur, for instance harbouring especial fancies of the mordant humour of Sam Gross, or the distinctive art style of George Booth above others. These cartoons took me to an absurdist and strange world, and its comics like these I have to thank for forming my sense of humour (for better or worse) I eventually became so entranced with these miniature worlds of whimsy and morbidity, I repeatedly begged my grandfather to give me one of his cartoon books. He could have easily refused, given how precious they were as a reminder of a life of work to him, but he eventually relented and allowed me to choose one. I chose a compilation of the best New Yorker cartoons of 1962, to which he inscribed using his scratchy ink pen 'To Oscar, with love from Grandad- April 2000.' He said in his twinkling way afterwards, so as you never could tell whether he was being facetious or not 'I may leave you some books in my will then.' I thought nothing of it at the time, I just held onto this book like a sacred talisman thereafter. I have the very same book before me now. It's a bit battered after being moved around various bookshelves for fourteen years or so, but still intact. According to an address stamp on the inside cover, I notice it belonged to Dick Wingert, friend to my grandfather, and the creator and artist of cartoon-strip non entity Hubert, a strip so dull hardly anyone remembers its existence, despite running for nearly fifty years. But lets move on.

Tied in with this burgeoning love of panel and strip cartoons was the fact that my grandparents were the only people my family knew who had satellite television. This acted as the gateway into the world of animated cartoons for me. For several hours each day, I sat transfixed at my grandparents widescreen television (this was the late nineties, so it was a CRT and therefore only slightly smaller than Burkina Faso) watching bright, exciting and manic glories on channels such as Cartoon Network. What especially fascinated me were reruns of Looney Tunes and Tom & Jerry, I laughed maniacally at the beautifully over the top violence, revelled in the sheer bizarreness and  how alive and active these characters were. Trapped in a very boring and lonely childhood, these cartoons were like having 500 volts zapped down my spinal column. When I saw Daffy Duck get steadily and steadily more angry at the unseen animator in the classic 'Duck Amuck' I kept thinking 'Why don't I know anyone like this?' 'Why isn't my life this exciting and manic and just... fun?' I was in love. The real world seemed drab and tedious and unnecessary in comparison to these wonders I was seeing and reading. There's a wonderful quote by Matt Groening (whose Simpsons acted as a gateway drug to his arguably even better comic strip 'Life in Hell') that goes like this-

"I think the appeal of cartoons is their handmade quality. Regular writing, that’s typeset, is edited, and you can’t tell how many hands have messed with it. But a cartoon in a newspaper is generally hand-drawn and hand-lettered, and to me cartoons in magazines and newspapers are little windows. There’s all these grey columns of type and grim reality and unpleasantness, and then you get these little frames of joy. That’s what cartoons are to me. Handmade. Undiluted.

That's a quote that has always stayed with me, outside of the grey and drab world, cartoons are always there to escape into. As well as offering an ejector seat from the world we find ourself in, cartoons also offer a mirror up to our faces and can make us confront issues, show us the ridiculousness of life as we live it, or can just be like I've implied, a bunch of funny drawings. That's what so wonderful about them, like literature cartoons and comics can be so many things to so many different people. You want serious drama? That's fine! I can recommend Maus, or Persepolis or Grave of the Fireflies....oh you want some thing lighter, but still offering a deep emotional message? Well sure! How about  Walt Kelly's Pogo, or Peanuts, or Calvin and Hobbes? Perhaps my personal favourite of Gravity Falls? This is the thing, to brush aside such a nuanced and varied art form as 'kids stuff' or stupid or unworthy of ones attention is not only denying the talents of hundreds of thousands of talented artists and storywriters, but also the hundreds of millions of fans who love and are devoted to this work. Try it for yourself before nay-saying, art comes in many forms and it is ludicrous for society to just take a unchanging and binary definition of it just because what comes along to challenge the old way of doing things may be strange, or liked by different sections of society than what comes normally.

My love of cartoons waxed and waned over the years after first falling in love with them. Other things came and went to replace my affections. But my obsession was always there in the background. Meanwhile my grandfather grew older, more fragile, until he eventually had a stroke in mid 2011, which he eventually died due to the complications that arose from it last year. He hadn't been himself for these years, the dementia had seen to most of that. But even then, when I was first introducing my girlfriend to him, I said, as if to stir a memory out of him; "You were a cartoonist weren't you Granddad?" His face cracked into a proud and wistful smile. "Yes." he said. 

Sometime before the funeral I found out that my Grandfather had gone through with his facetious half-promise of fourteen years ago and had indeed willed his entire cartooning legacy to me. His books, his framed originals of cartoons gifted to him by friends, his files upon files of ideas. Aside from the fact that I would have to rented a warehouse to house all of this, I thought it better to just leave it there at my grandmothers house. That way I can always go back and try and recapture the kindness and infinite patience of my grandfather to his strange, overenthusiastic grandson. I suppose this has rekindled my love of the animated and drawn format really. Why else would I be writing so candidly as I am now? Why else would I be voraciously reading and watching and collecting cartoons at  a pace I haven't done since childhood? All I know is that I have a lot to be thankful for and lot to catch up on.

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