Sex and Outrage in Cartoonland

Lately, the funnies aren’t just making people laugh. They’re also making many mad as hell.

And I’m not talking about the usual suspects here. Editorial cartoonists are supposed to be provocative, and if they aren’t, they ought to change their title to “illustrator.” Daily papers that drop The Boondocks strip–most recently over Aaron McGruder’s implied use of “nigger” and reference to Dubya’s alleged former marijuana and cocaine use–have become as routine as Wile E. Coyote dropping an anvil on himself (See Fig. 1).

No, this time the anger is about what are normally considered to be lightweight cartoon genres, and all of them concern matters of sexuality. The most publicized incident has to do with a certain bright yellow, anthropomorphized kitchen cleaning aid. SpongeBob has been getting the squeeze from James Dobson’s “Focus on the Family” conservative pressure group. Subsequent to his association with a video intended to promote tolerance, he’s been accused of having a homosexual agenda hidden in those square pants.

Robin Williams thought the issue deserved to be ridiculed during his Academy Award appearance to introduce the animated feature category. Using the persona of a fundamentalist preacher, he planned to perform a gospel song that heightened the absurdity of the allegations. Lyrics would have included “Pinocchio’s had his nose done / Sleeping Beauty’s popping pills / the Three Little Pigs ain’t kosher / Betty Boop works Beverly Hills.”

The Oscar’s producer, however, wanted the bit to be “less political,” so Williams proposed replacing the persona with a lisping fairy–apparently the academy felt more comfortable if gays, not right-wing zealots, were made an object of mockery–who would dish about how “Fred Flintstone is dyslexic / Jessica Rabbit is really a man / Olive Oyl’s really anorexic / and Casper’s in the Ku Klux Klan.” Then ABC’s broadcast standards and practices office stepped in to object to the “sexual tone” of the material, as well as anything that, as The New York Times reported, “... might be seen as glorifying drug use or offending Native Americans or disabled people.”

Ultimately, Williams delivered a relatively neutered monologue, noting Bugs Bunny is “... in more dresses than J. Edgar Hoover at Mardi Gras.” A safe statement for sure, and obvious to anyone, child or adult, who has seen “What’s Opera, Doc?” and other classic Chuck Jones-directed Looney Tunes (See Fig. 2).

Further SpongeBob commentary included a feature from The Nation from February 21, 2005. The cover drawing, by Gene Case and Stephen Kling, pictured Nickelodeon’s beloved children’s idol on a wooden crucifix; the absurdity heightened by the blissfully goofy grin on his thorn-crowned face (See Fig. 3).

The article, by Richard Goldstein, also cited a cartoon in The Nation’s own issue on January 24, 2005, one that insulted and confused a segment of its typically liberal readership. Done by Robert Grossman, it purported to be a daguerreotype that supported a recent theory that Abraham Lincoln was gay. It depicted the bearded, top-hatted President with a buxom body, provocatively outfitted in Victorian corset, pantaloons and heels (See Fig. 4).

In heated letters to the editor, readers complained that the caricature indicated “Babe Lincoln” was trans-gendered, a transvestite, or possibly a hermaphrodite (none of which are inherently homosexual traits) and deplored what they saw as homophobic stereotyping. In defense, another writer found the protesters to be, in essence, splitting pubic hairs and suggested they lighten up and enjoy what may very well be an affectionate portrait. The cartoonist and the editors dutifully apologized, not necessarily for the joke per se, but for “having offended anyone.”

Leaving gender agendas aside, as a follower (I might even call myself “fan”) of controversial comics, I took these various brou-hah-hahs as an opportunity to stroll down deja vu lane. I found myself laughing, not only at the cartoons, but at the memories they triggered.

When I read about Williams’ original preacher routine, for instance, I immediately recalled the Disneyland-Memorial-Orgy spread Wallace Wood had drawn for Paul Krassner’s Realist, a magazine of “freethought, criticism and satire,” on the occasion of Uncle Walt’s death in 1966. Left to their own devices, the Magic Kingdom’s inhabitants, including Beauty, Pinocchio and the Pigs, descended into a debauchery of sex, drugs and scatology (See Fig. 5). The litigious Disney corporation considered filing a lawsuit, then decided the publicity would cause them further embarrassment.

Williams’ proposed song revision made me think of another Krassner-Wood collaboration for MAD magazine from ten years earlier. The premise was that comic strip characters would answer classified ads for self-improvement products, such as hollow-eyed Orphan Annie sending away for mascara (See Fig. 6). However, MAD’s publisher, not wanting to risk the wrath of their teenage readership’s mothers, omitted one in which Olive Oyl ordered falsies.

Crucifixions, with their inherent iconic power, have been practically a staple for cover design. Art Spiegelman’s 1995 tax-time New Yorker cover showed a rabbit in a business suit, pockets emptied, affixed to a 1040 form (See Fig. 7). And Krassner, during his brief stint as publisher of Hustler in 1978, illustrated a cover story on the commercialization of Easter with a photo, taken by Frank DeLia, of a fluffy, cuddly, stuffed and bloodied bunny stuck to a cross (See Fig. 8). In their times, both these images were viewed by some as disrespectful to Christianity.

Grossman’s Lincoln cartoon gave me a flashback to Monocle, a landmark, but unfortunately obscure, humor magazine from the early 1960s that defined itself as “politics, polemics, and satire for the sub-influential.” Writers included John Gregory Dunne, Calvin Trillin, Dan Greenberg and Godfrey Cambridge. Grossman was also a regular contributor.

One of Grossman’s strips, done in collaboration with Chuck Alverson, shows CIA operative Roger Ruthless, assigned to spy on President Kennedy, disguised in one panel as a woman (See Fig. 9). If nothing else, this strip seems to indicate that Grossman may simply enjoy depicting men in drag.

As a spoof, Monocle’s “news managing editor,” Marvin Kitman–currently a Newsday television critic–conducted a tongue-in-cheek campaign for President as a “Lincoln Republican” on the Party’s 1864 platform: he vowed to abolish slavery, only this time for real. Consequently Lincoln was a recurring Monocle motif, rendered by PushPin Studios luminaries Seymour Chwast and Paul Davis (See Fig. 10, 11). Monocle’s logo, a 19th-century display slab serif designed by its art director, Philip Gips, also bears more than a passing resemblance to Grossman’s “Babe Lincoln” headline.

One last factoid: Kitman’s campaign manager in his bid for the White House, Victor S. Navasky, just happened to be Monocle’s editor. Navasky is also the current publisher and editorial director of The Nation.

I asked Grossman if his Lincoln, and lettering, was partly meant as a subliminal homage to Navasky’s earlier, unapologetically free-spirited publication, but he dismissed the notion out of hand. I’d also wager that in the case of most, if not all, of the cartoon connections I’ve been making, any resemblance between current humor and past punchlines are merely a figment of my free-associative mind.

But even if Robin Williams’ writers, or Case and Kling, or Grossman had derived inspiration from these or other sources, so what and why not? Only the most fanatical proponent of intellectual property protection could possibly object. The greater our knowledge of comics history, the richer our appreciation of current work will be, to say nothing of the enormous potential to contemporize old concepts in fresh new ways. In an essay from The Education of a Comics Artist, Craig Yoe, a designer who regularly incorporates the funnies into his work, addressed aspiring cartoonists thusly: “Those who don’t study the toon past are doomed to not repeat it!”

About the Author: In addition to co-editing The Education Of A Comics Artist with Steven Heller, Michael Dooley often chuckles quietly to himself while at work as a Los Angeles-based creative director and writer.