Tuesday, May 26, 2009


I'm always amazed when Saturday Morning cartoons end with an ethical lesson. I mean the cartoon itself is often incredibly unimaginative and intellectually deadening. It's pretty clear that this celebration of mediocrity is the real message of the show, regardless of what's tacked on at the end.

TV producers aren't the bad bad guys. They're just putting on what they think the public wants. It's the public that needs to be educated about cartoons and I think I'll take a shot at that right now. Sorry if I appear to be preaching to the choir.


Good, funny cartoons don't need a message at the end. The whole cartoon is a positive message.

First and foremost, a good cartoon always stimulates the intellect of the viewer, even when the subject matter is stupidity.  In the cartoon above Rube Goldberg makes everybody look hilariously awkward but he manages to convey real sentiment as well. The two friends at the top and the married couple below are genuinely touching. This is the power real cartooning has. It can convey deep meaning at the same time it clowns around. 

Even the color in a good cartoon is educational. I look at this creek BG above and I'm filled with wonder about the beauty of nature, and of shadow and silhouettes and hidden places. I'm reminded that spots of color in relative darkness can be awesomely mysterious and satisfying. Backgrounds like this remind us of the ability of subtle things to amaze.

Good cartoon color is immensely stimulating, all by itself. An artist will deliberately take two colors that clash and make them work together by adding a third color that relates them. When you first see them you rebel and want to say, "Hey, you can't do that!" but before you can get the thought out, you realize that the color does work. Improbable as it is, the darn thing works. That means the picture has educated you, made you more graphically sophisticated.

It's silly to take a cartoon (above) that never even attempts to do anything like that and praise it to the skies because it has a single positive message tacked on to the end. The cartoon itself is the message. By the time the fake message comes at the end, the real message has found its mark, and that message is sometimes: "Kids, never try to achieve. Do the easy thing. Let your mind go to sleep." 

Funny cartoon drawings are often the most stimulating.  The dog above is silly and hilarious for sure, but the hilarity forces you to pay more attention to the animal, and when you do you realize that the dog is the very essence of playful good will, energy and loyalty. The drawing exudes life force and seems to say, "Isn't it great to be alive?" It makes you want to be happy and make others happy. It may take a writer a whole book to achieve that, but a cartoonist can do it in a few strokes. 

Cartoon drawings often get their effect by innovating or calling our attention to something we'd overlooked before. Here (above) the artist reminds us of the graphic nature of our own bodies, how we ourselves are designs which can be manipulated. Just thinking about this makes me want to draw. Good cartoons create artists, and people who appreciate art.

Can good cartoon drawings make kids think? You bet they can! The two hand drawings above certainly make me think. They increase my awareness of hands as an expressive instrument and fill me with awe to think that the human mind can find such a wealth of possibility in such a commonplace thing as a hand.

This drawing (above) isn't just lampooning one individual. It asks questions about the nature of femininity and beauty. It applies sophisticated design to a joke, and because the drawing is funny the questions it brings up stick in our minds.

There's something about this picture (above) that's...I don't know what to call it...mischievous.  It makes me want to acquire skill so I can play jokes on people too. The skill of the humorous artist makes me want to hone my own skill, even if it's not related to art. 

It's the job of artists to raise the bar in society. Our achievement in a public forum like TV should inspire others to be good at the things they do. But you can't inspire people if the cartoon is bland, even with a message tacked on to the end.

This (above) is a complex drawing disguised as a simple one. Here two worlds collide. It says a lot about the gulf between different types of people, and encourages us to see the clash of worlds in a humorous light, which is not a bad lesson to teach a kid. The little guy is made to seem rigid and ridiculous for disdaining the offer of friendship. No lengthy lecture. It's accomplished painlessly, in one funny drawing. 

Should cartoons have messages tacked on? I can't imagine why. Good cartoons by their nature are already full of messages, even before the end comes along, and they're more nuanced and sophisticated than the phony, tacked-on kind.


Kurdt said...

I'm so very thankful I was a kid during the 90s when there was a sort of resurgence of cartoony cartoons and the "lets shove a lesson down the kid's throats" cartoons sort of died out. It didn't last and I think it's almost worse now but at least I never had to experience anything like The Care Bears or The Goddamn Get Along Gang.
Do kids hate "lesson" cartoons? And if so who keeps them on the air?

Informative eye opening post, like always!

Trevor Thompson said...

You may be preaching to the choir, but in this instance, I enjoy a good mass. :)

- trevor.

Phil said...

Good post. I've often noticed that the harder a cartoon tries to drill a message in, the less effective they are at doing so. And why the need for cartoons with messages anyway? Are we afraid that children aren't learning enough already? If we let them have one spare moment to laugh and be silly, is that such a terrible waste?

Mordecai Ali Van Allen O'Shea said...

If only the entire world could be directed to this page and read it. Wouldn't that change a few things?

Craig said...

When I was doing my kid series on FOX (DJ Kat Show & Kids Club) in the late '80's, one of the things the puppets did was introduce cartoons. I was able to chose some of the cartoons from the studio library (MGM's mostly) but we also had to show HeMan and Care Bears and dreadful stuff like that.
They were such pointless nothings, then at the end HeMan would say "so remember to brush your teeth."
One time I was in the Program Manager's office and my show was on and I asked him (re: HeMan) "Do you like this crap?" And he thought for a minute and said "I don't have to like it. It wins the time slot."

Lester Hunt said...

Bravo! Every word is so true! As Ayn Rand often said, what matters is the "sense of life" that a work of art projects, not the stated message.

Anonymous said...

it's just the govenrment trying to grow good obedient citizens.

pappy d said...

Amen, Eddie!

Ricardo Cantoral said...

Actually Eddie it's more like the producers bending to the will of overly concerned parents. They want the messages inserted because they expect the parenting to be done mostly be the media.

Nate said...

Great post, Eddie. Well said.

Anonymous said...

Awesome post, I'd love to see you break down the meaning behind more classic cartoon drawings, this blog is like a really good film theory class.

He-Man cartoons were the best for non sequitor tacked on lessons.
The cartoon would be about He-Man fighting a dragon at the center of the earth and he'd come out and tell you not to litter.

Fuzzy Duck said...

One of your best entries yet, Eddie. You're completely right: The cartoon itself IS the message. The animated shows I remember best were either the really funny ones, the beautifully animated and illustrated ones, or the kind of educational programs in which the entire show was dedicated to explaining something (i.e., science, history), and not just a cheesy moral tacked on at the very end.

buzz said...

The only message at the end of a cartoon should be from the sponsor.

I.D.R.C. said...

"TV producers aren't the bad bad guys. They're just putting on what they think the public wants. "I like your post overall, but I think this is a plainly wrong idea.

This arose sometime in the 70's as a backlash to the crappy and entirely void TV programs of HB and Filmation. They had no message, but they had no anything else, either. These programs were so empty that they caught the attention of parents and educators --who had never complained about Huckleberry or Yogi or Bugs --lobbied for better programming for children. They argued that broadcasters on the public airwaves had a responsibility to provide better, more responsible programming. Their idea of "better" was that children's shows must now include EDUCATIONAL CONTENT. If cartoons had retained their artistic value, this may not have occurred.

Then we got SCHOOLHOUSE ROCK, SESAME STREET and cartoons about togetherness and teamwork. We have been plagued ever since.

Whose fault was that?

Anybody involved who failed to pay enough attention to what they were doing or why is at fault. Pretty much everybody who was not an entertainer or a child at heart.

Unknown said...

I say that if you can present the message in a funny way then you can still add it on. I remember a venture brothers episode where they tacked on a message about testicular torsion, it makes you laugh because of how uncomfortable and awkward the presentation was.

Anonymous said...

I like when the message in a cartoon comes from its soul and it's loins, like in your cartoon, "Tales Of Worm Paranoia," which had an anti-nihilist message. The actions of the characters, and the dialogue, which was used as action, makes the message.

The Barker said...

Lovely sentiments, Eddie. Like Kurdt I'm grateful to have grown up in the afterglow of R&S, and apparently also in the last few years classic animation was still on TV. You've reminded me that cartoons are where I got my sense of humor from, and even my sense of cynicism, because as a kid I started noticing when I was being sold toys or morals as opposed to honest entertainment.

Is that alligator from "No Pants Today?" I can appreciate the Games R&S on kind of an intellectual level now, but honestly, they were kind of a bad influence at the time. I kept expecting them to make me happy when their entire point seemed to be making kids feel like life was nothing but gratuitous cruelty. On the other hand, that's still a better message than Care Bears.

Zoran Taylor said...

Everything you've said here is true and I couldn't agree more. But also, sometimes you can have a character who is capable of being thoughtful (If they aren't, don't force it) who finds a bit of time to discuss their dilemmas with someone else, and if the conversation is natural and shows enough of the character's personalities to be engaging, it can make the series just a bit richer and more varied.
In case anyone wonders if I'm talking about Calvin and Hobbes, I am. And let me just say for myself that I am incredibly thankful that I grew up reading that comic, because the intellectual grist of it ALWAYS appealed to me, even as a child. I WANTED to learn so that I could understand some of the jokes that went over my head. I didn't tune them out just because I didn't understand them. Everything around them was so appealing that I felt I HAD to learn, HAD to be educated and thoughtful, WANTED to be all of these things and more.

The reason I still credit Watterson as my biggest influence is because he did all this while still having every bit as much respect for the fundamental needs of a cartoon. He didn't resist being silly and he avoided excessive dryness. He pulled the medium together AND broke it open. He didn't just outwit his contemporaries - he out-gagged them as well.

pappy d said...

You can't blame parents for being overly concerned. Nature wants parents to be anxious. Evolution has weeded out the bloodlines of blase parents who let their progeny scratch their chicken-pox. Broadcasters are licenced to operate for the public good & for them, it makes sense to respond to the consumer's political needs before government does.

It seems unfair to blame artists for the state of culture, too. I can't even describe what I mean by quality & I've been chasing it every day at work for years. How do you justify it in the rational reductionist language of an economist.

Fox & aniboom.com are running a contest. Produce a 4-6 minute holiday-themed short for free & you might win $10,000. Nick is giving everyone the opportunity to "raise the bar". If your treatment is accepted (there WILL be notes), you can win 10,000 euros ($14,000 US) to produce a half-hour pilot. They might even air it. You can animate for free for Intel Corp. & Dell Computers at massanimation.com, run by the ingenious former Sony exec who perceived the fatal flaw in Sony's business plan i.e., payroll.

The 90's were a good example of the benefits of competition in kids' TV. Cable held a new promise of commercial-free TV where the viewer was the customer. It busted open the monopoly held by the federal licence-holders of the public airwaves.

Michael Eisner, flush with cash from VCR sales of the classics, declared that "Disney owned animation" & threw open his war chest. Nickelodeon saw a chance to be the cartoon network of choice for kids themselves.

Eventually the industry found its equilibrium again & quality fell.

Dan Chambers said...

Eddie, this is an articulate, inspiring post! I've been wracking my brains for years thinking of a way to say what you did in just your first paragraph.

David Germain said...


Although I disagree with you about leaving TV producers blameless in this equation. They may only be following orders and giving what they've been manipulated into thinking that the public wants and needs, but they're still spineless and brainless enough to let themselves be manipulated like that. Of course, the ones DOING the manipulating are all those special interest parent groups that have had a stranglehold on the industry for far to long. If we want things to improve, those people will need to be taken down.

Kirk Nachman said...

Hey who did that beautifully lit gator watercolor?

(y'know, Eddie, you've denied publication of comments of mine for their political nature, and yet some schmoe can invoke the morally reprehensible name of Ayn Rand and get away with it!!... I jest, and I hope yer doin' swell, old man. You're a good soul.)

Ricardo Cantoral said...

"You can't blame parents for being overly concerned. Nature wants parents to be anxious."

It's not the media's responsibilty to teach kids morals, it's the parents. The media only has a duty to entertain and not subsitute as a babysitter.

Anonymous said...


Jenny Lerew said...

Always good to read your longer texts! This one is very good indeed. Nice.

cwyatt said...

I love this post Eddie!
I also appreciate the attention you place on color and mood in an cartoon. People have no idea how important that is and if I hear one more..."You mean you paint by number?" I'll scream.

It's sad that cartoons are especially controlled by advertising. They expect to get exactly what they pay for regardless of quality.
It's such a people pleasing business that art is used as a giant commercial for toys & morals. It bothers me that advertisers and networks are so afraid to let people decide things on their own.

And on that note....I hate to open a can of worms...I was proud of our first episode of The Goode Family tonight. It's not as beautiful to work on as other shows I have been on, but the writing is clever and smart. You will probably say it's not animation. That it is a sitcom. But, I love working on a show that makes me laugh out loud. And it doesn't fly the moral flag at the end.

In this horrible economy where there are so many of us out of work, I'll take Care Bears or He Man. Gotta feed my kids.

Craig said...

Rick Roberts said...
"The media only has a duty to entertain. . ."
In truth, their only 'duty' in the business of show is to make money.

Adam Tavares said...

Cartoons ending with a message is just laziness. There's a difference between telling somebody and showing somebody. Showing somebody requires that the person doing the showing has the know how themselves and can back up there talk. There's real content they want to share.

I'm always weary of anything with a clear message. The best cartoons and the best art I've encountered are the ones that still have mystery to them like real life. And if there is a message it was one that gets mostly discovered by the artists along the way. That way the message feels real and fresh and not just a brainless recitation.

I remember you had a post about Fellini a couple of months ago and he's a good example of making art that has mystery and a message. His messages are more complex and ambiguous. It's a message that reveals itself slowly because his movies are more experience than story. I wish there were more cartoons like that. Where the experience of just watching the cartoon is memorable.

Ricardo Cantoral said...

Craig: Yeah I know, any business has to make money but I argue how they do it.

pappy d said...

Great post, Eddie! This really gets to the heart of culture.

I certainly never meant to suggest that anyone ever got a moral education from TV. In exchange for exclusive use of the public airwaves, broadcasters are required to act as a public service. In exchange for coaxing kids to nag their parents to buy advertised products, they do the legal minimum of pro-social propaganda. All for-profit businesses have a primary responsibility to bring the best possible return on investment.

As consumers, we need to acknowledge the wisdom of the Market & that we get the cartoons we deserve. Otherwise, we're nothing but mere citizens.

I agree with Rick, but parents are ruled by rank instinct. You have an uspeakably tender extension of yourself out in the world. I remember standing at the sink washing dishes when I was gripped by a sudden panic: What if this sharp knife slipped out of my soapy hand, flew 10 feet across the room & stabbed my infant son in his high chair?

If sex wasn't so unreasonably fun & interesting or if rational self-interest was on the job, who'd have kids? That said, no one is more fit for the right & the duty to bring up moral children, whether you tell them that meat is murder or not to play with the mud-people.

Individuals are stupid. Societies are stupid, but the species is wise.


Anonymous said...

The palpable physical aftermath of viewing a well animated, entertaining and funny cartoon is one of positive afterglow. The opposite effect is equally felt after watching an abysmal piece of garbage. The former is a life-affirming upper; the latter depressing at best, bogus moral or not.

Brubaker said...

Of course, there's nothing wrong with presenting message and commentary on cartoons as long as it's clever. I'll admit that "Schoolhouse Rock" falls into that (well, on some shorts, at least). And then there's the spring cleaning episode of "Rocko" (I still hum to that "Recycle" song to this day).

And Carol (aka Betty's thought bubbles) you work on "Goode Family"? Thought the first episode was pretty good. But then, I'm a sucker for Mike Judge.

Ricardo Cantoral said...

Pappy: Oh I wasn't attack you. Your over protective in a good way while others are just ignorant.

Mitchel Kennedy said...

Eddie, you're right!

"The medium is the message." -- Marchall McLuhan

Kyle said...

Nicely said. Although I do enjoy the way South Park will knowingly have Stan or Kyle stand up and say: "you know I've learned something" at the end of some episodes to great comedic and meaningful effect. I think that's the exception that proves the rule.

FrankenBarry said...

I think all massage cartoons should have happy endings!

Great post, Eddie! The message I got from watching cartoons, as a kid, was, "Cartoonists must have the coolest job ever (next to rock stars), and that's what I wanna do some day." If I'd been raised on the message-driven stuff it woulda been, "Hmmm... cartooning kinda looks like a drag, maybe I should become an accountant!"

Dan Moynihan said...

Let me join the chorus:
Awesome post!

Anonymous said...

I always motivated by you, your opinion and way of thinking, again, thanks for this nice post.

- Murk

Anonymous said...

I think you may want to put a facebook button to your blog. I just marked down the blog, although I must do this manually. Just my $.02 :)