Cartoons aren’t for kids any more

This essay was written September 15, 1991. I thought it was lost for years but it turned up in a folder of old WordPerfect documents from a backup of my 90’s-era DOS computer. (Yes, I save everything.) My writing style has evolved since then but I thought it was interesting enough to post. And don’t bother complaining to Chuck Jones. He died in 2002.

The conventional wisdom used to say that cartoons were for children, and this may well have been the case from the sixties through the early eighties. Television hammered out thousands of hours of animation to satisfy the voracious viewing appetites of baby-boom children, the first generation to experience television as a major influence in their development.

The assembly-line quality of most televised animation also lent credence to the idea that cartoons were “kid stuff.” Content didn’t matter so much as vivid color and action, to satisfy short attention spans.

I guess I’m a part of this generation, although like most yuppies, I fight the generalization (“I’m not a yuppie, really, I just think Acura makes a quality automobile…”). Even being individualistic has become trendy, so what’s the use?

So as part of the tidal wave of nostalgia we are riding, cartoons have become “respectable.” Not the Hanna-Barbera TV drivel (no one can discuss the merits of that stuff with a straight face), but the theatrical cartoons of the forties and fifties, and especially the cartoons produced by the Warner Bros. studio. Although they were shown on television right along with everything else, even as children we could sense that there was something fundamentally different between Bugs Bunny and, say, Magilla Gorilla.

Then came “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and suddenly cartoon cels are being displayed in art galleries. While production cels (those actually used in the filming of a cartoon) are relatively rare and fetch accordingly high prices, reproductions and limited edition hand-painted lithographs can be quite expensive as well, from a few hundred up to several thousand dollars.

Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng are generally acknowledged as two of the greatest animation directors in history, and through serendipity, have survived to enjoy the current animation renaissance. Both are reaping well-justified and long overdue rewards via the sale of new works through galleries and catalogs.

I caught the cartoon nostalgia bug earlier than most, or perhaps I never lost it in the first place. For several years now, my wife and family have endured endless screenings of cartoons on videotape, complete with freeze frames at appropriate moments when I need to point out a particular technique. My mind stores enormous amounts of cartoon trivia gleaned from nearly a dozen animation reference books, many of which I’ve read three times or more. When a Warner Bros. cartoon appears on TV, I can usually identify the director within a few minutes, and the year of release (with a slight margin of error — I’m only human).

To the credit of my loved ones, not once have they called me crazy, despite many opportunities to do so. However, we all agree that there is something childlike in my enthusiasm for these cartoons.

I don’t have a problem with this. After all, one of the most precious aspects of childhood, which we all lose as we grow up, is the ability to completely immerse ourselves in hobbies and non-vital areas of interest. As grownups, this becomes counterproductive. We can only become completely involved in practicalities — career and family. This is why nostalgia is so pervasive. It’s a chance to relive those simpler times when we didn’t have a clock to punch and kids to send to day care. If cartoons are intertwined with our childhood in this way, so be it.

Today, Chuck Jones made an appearance at a nearby animation gallery in Northbrook, Illinois. Despite my years of animation study, I had never met a director or animator in person, much less the man I consider the ne plus ultra (a phrase he himself is quite fond of) of animation. My well-thumbed copy of his autobiography in hand, my wife and I set off to his reception.

Regrettably, our disposable income was tied up in our vacation fund (usually called the “sanity fund”). I knew from previous visits to the gallery that Jones’ work was well beyond my price range, but I was eager to view his latest work and collect a treasured autograph.

There was a good turnout at the reception. No one over thirty-five was in evidence, and there were many small children. We had apparently overdressed (no sandals), which caught the attention of the gallery employees. One of them was very helpful in identifying the characters on the various cels, in case my ability to recognize Daffy Duck had somehow become impaired. My ability to discern prices, however, was in working order, and the prices ranged from five hundred to twelve hundred dollars.

We were near the entrance when Mr. Jones arrived. He stopped to shake the hand of a young boy, who breathlessly uttered his rehearsed greeting, “What’s up, Doc?” The crowd laughed appreciatively.

As he took his seat, his works quickly began to disappear from the walls. Appearances aside, there was obviously some ready cash flowing from these folks, or at least some good credit. As we waited patiently in line, I noticed a woman ahead of me with two small children, a dog-eared Bugs Bunny comic book, and a pen. Obviously, she was here for the same reason we were. The children were clearly excited, and I must admit I felt much like a child myself in line.

Then we saw the sign.

NO AUTOGRAPHS PLEASE
DEDICATIONS FOR SHOW
ACQUISITIONS ONLY

And the rule was being politely but firmly enforced. Two families who had been turned away walked past us on their way out.

My wife looked at me. “What do we do?”

“We leave,” I replied.

When interviewed about the making of cartoons during the “golden age” of theatrical animation, both Jones and Freleng have stated, “Our cartoons were never made for children.”

As we made our way out of the gallery, I realized that those words still ring true today.

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