When Politicians Turn Predictable and Coarse

So it was on yet another exciting Friday night that I found myself at the video shop with my roommate Katherine, trying to pick out a movie. I discovered, to my horror, that she was one of the few people on the planet who hadn't seen Frank Miller's "Sin City," so I tried to talk her into that before she decided it was too dark. As comic book friends, it was a crime that neither of us had seen "The Fantastic Four," but we couldn't bear to see Jessica Alba mangle the role of Sue Storm since we had both, at one point, wanted to be her. Finally, we picked the easy choice -- a copy of "The Incredibles," and went to pick up our takeout Chinese.

It's been a source of constant, and somewhat smug pleasure, to both Katherine and me that we have finally reached the Golden Age of comics and cartoons. Once the exclusive province of children and nerds (read: me), comics and cartoons are now getting the serious attention they deserve, and for the past five years no medium has received as much attention or been more important. Movie adaptations abound. Classes are taught in universities on South Park. And now, in an exhibition running until Feb. 6, the Museum of Modern Art in New York is exhibiting over 500 pieces of original artwork from Pixar Studios. Legitimacy of all kinds -- as literature, as an art form, as political protest -- has finally been achieved.

Recognition of the comic and the cartoon as a legitimate form of artistic expression has long been overdue. Ever since Disney received critical acclaim for its dazzling computer animation in 1991's "Beauty and the Beast," the animated feature has reached new, heretofore unimagined heights. Pixar's "Finding Nemo" is a fabulous example of what computer animation can achieve -- a gorgeous, color-saturated underwater fantasy world. It was amazing.

But as a form of political and literary expression -- what happened to newspapers? What happened to books and novels, and all the other arenas where intellectual protests were supposed to take place? It's ironic that as the comic and the cartoon become more complex and subtle than ever before, the traditional forms of expression are turning obvious and coarse -- into, namely, cartoons.

The newest generation of hip-lit writers -- Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss -- base their books on gimmicks and shallow, obvious, stereotyped characters. In the world of new fiction, not a single character has emerged with half the charisma and emotional depth of a little animated clown fish. Even Maureen Dowd -- that beautiful, sharp-tongued, devastatingly intelligent vixen -- has come out with a book that's just painful in its badness. Dowd's "Are Men Necessary?" is a Sex and the City-esque, neurotic overanalysis of why she, of all people, remains single. She complains that plastic surgery has made everyone into plastic Barbie dolls, and says that men only want to date their housekeepers. It's embarrassing to read, particularly for someone who admires Dowd as much as I do. And this was a major literary event this past year?

When we refer to something as a cartoon, we mean that it's obvious and crude. That's the nature of animation: They provide us with caricatures of human beings, and for this reason cartoons and comics, more than many other artistic mediums, lend themselves so well to satire. An animated person, or fish, or puppet, isn't really a person, so they act as a shield between the voices of their animators and the voices of the critics -- which is a very real, and scary, concern. Real people who dare to ask some of the questions that comics like South Park and The Boondocks ask, set themselves up to be attacked, and these days, the attacks are getting more vehement and violent than ever before. Harry Potter is a handsome orphan who's great at sports, and just about the most inoffensive British ambassador America has ever had. If he can get himself set up by the Christian right as an agent of Satan, there's no telling what could happen to someone who actually existed.

And yet, there are questions that must be asked. Because they're colorful, because they're crowd-pleasers, because they make so much money -- cartoons are powerful. Kids watch them and so do their parents. And for this reason, the messages that they send get transmitted against all odds. Trey Parker's and Matt Stone's "Team America: World Police" is an example of an overtly political animated film that somehow made it to the big screen and asked us -- why are Americans so solipsistic? It's been a long time since I've seen anything as brilliant and vicious as the scenes set abroad in that movie -- where all foreign languages are reduced to nonsense syllables and random foreign catchphrases that have sunk into the American consciousness, where Arabic sounds like "Mohammed jihad durka durka durka." How many Americans really know the religious basis of Islam? How many Americans hate all Muslims, without even knowing who they are?

Even the gentler animated films, like Pixar's "The Incredibles," raise some important social questions. Besides being a spoof on the superhero genre, it's also a satire on the flawed state of an American meritocracy that does its best to undermine actual merit. Mr. Incredible is forced to retire from superhero-dom, not because he's gotten too old, but because the society he lives in can't handle his extraordinary capabilities. Lawsuits, not supervillains, take Mr. Incredible down. He takes a job as an insurance salesman, where his outsized superhero torso barely squeezes into his tiny cubicle. His children are similarly forced to hide their superpowers in school. "They keep finding ways," Mr. Incredible sighs, "to celebrate mediocrity." If there was a more apt judgment on the state of the American voting public today, who would rather elect a drinking buddy to the presidency than someone who is actually competent, I don't know what it would be.

And maybe cartoons are the only appropriate medium with which to keep our sense of humor in a time and place where political figures, and the things they do, have all become just a little bit cartoonish. Maybe the only way to deal with a country that's become its own best punch line is with another joke. And even without their layers of meaning, without their subtle forms of protest, at least cartoons are still pretty funny.

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