Cartoon Nostalgia, Cartoon Revolution, Part 4: Cold War Moral Clarity and post-Cold War Moral Ambivalence

We come now to the end of the beginning, the final installment in Jeremiah Lawson […]

Mockingbird / 7.8.11

We come now to the end of the beginning, the final installment in Jeremiah Lawson aka Wenatchee the Hatchet’s four-part Cartoon Nostalgia series. If you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed that Jeremiah is building an argument, setting the stage to explore some very ripe territory. But more on that soon. For now, sit back and watch a (jedi) master at work:

When critics decry 1980s pop culture for its cartoonish characters and cartoonish conflicts, it is not without reason. This was the decade, after all, when President Reagan referred explicitly to the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire”. Within pop culture things were cast in similarly stark colors. Indiana Jones may have been a thief, but he was a saint compared to the Nazis. George Lucas gave us an evil Galactic Empire led by an Emperor whose chief henchman was the black clad mechanized man Darth Vader (“Dark Father”), described as more machine than man, twisted and evil. On the side of good was the ragtag Rebel Alliance fighting to restore freedom. Our hero was Luke Skywalker, aided by loveable rogue Han Solo and the haughty but noble Leia. What could be more blatant than the Force and its Dark Side? When Scott Brown invoked the term “Cold War moral clarity,” he was touching upon what is arguably the defining trait of 1980s pop culture: a thoroughly dualist cosmos.

So Transformers was actually only the tip of the iceberg. The reductionist narratives we children of the 1980s were being fed were merely the “trickled-down” narratives that adults of the Reagan era were buying and selling themselves. Star Wars was only slightly more literal than the White House in its naming of the good guys and bad guys. James Cameron’s The Terminator could be seen as a prediction of how far down the path to doom Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative might take us. Red Dawn imagined a Soviet/Cuban invasion of the United States from Mexico and Canada. And then there were the numerous 1980s action movies in which we, via Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone, fantasized about going back and “winning” Vietnam by saving all the American prisoners of war believed to be there.

At a more domestic level Ferris Bueller sought a day of fun and adventure without the intrusions of principle Ed Rooney. Tom Cruise’s Maverick in Top Gun does battle with Iceman and the Top Gun Academy instructors to prove himself – but his ultimate confrontation is with the nameless and faceless Soviet pilots whose “Mig” planes are obviously F-5 trainers. Cartoonish delineations held sway for the decade and arguably reached their apotheosis in the live action cartoon that capped off the 80s, 1990’s Home Alone. Kevin [Macauley Culkin] is a cute child left behind by his harried parents to fend for himself. He is in no danger, no one notices that he has been abandoned by his parents, and even the threat in the film are two incompetent burglars known as “the wet bandits” who ultimately pose no threat to the child.

By 1990 fissures in the “Cold War moral clarity” were starting to become evident. If the 1980s were characterized by the moral certainty and sunny optimism of Reagan and Superman, the 1990s opened with a paradox, the end of the Cold War but a new decade dominated by the glowering psychological ambivalence of Tim Burton’s Batman, giving us a hero arguably as emotionally broken as his nemesis.

Such ambivalence soon asserted itself in all aspects of pop culture. In television, The Cosby Show and Family Ties were met with Married with Children and The Simpsons. In 1989, Seinfeld, famously billed as a show “about nothing” gave us a quartet of basically unlikable characters with a recalcitrant avoidance of learning the moral lessons so often dispensed in 1980s situation comedies. Even within the superhero genre Frank Miller and Alan Moore famously gave us The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen; their heroes were as violent and in some cases as delusional as their villains. Paranoia about the encroaching threat of Soviet attack were replaced with Fox Mulder’s paranoid belief that even the Cold War itself was a façade beneath which lay a far more sinister conflict: a conspiracy against the American people by its own government.

As the Cold War came to an end, and American culture struggled to ascertain what its new narrative would be, three broad streams emerged within animation. The first was simply to continue with the certainties of the old epoch. In this category we could put all of Disney’s animated output, ranging from Ducktales and The Little Mermaid through to Hercules and beyond.

A second stream that came to dominate was the satirization of the previous decade’s moral clarity. In this stream we could place not only The Simpsons (early on) but also Beavis & Butthead, Duckman, Aeon Flux and other cartoons that either lambasted the older categories or intentionally swerved into barely comprehensible narrative. In fact, deliberately mocking the didactic impulse of Cold War entertainment arguably reached its zenith in Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the Williams Street productions’  send-ups of old Hanna Barbara cartoons, most notably Space Ghost: Coast to Coast and all of its attendant spin-offs. This was not so much an actual repudiation of cartoon morality so much as a mocking inversion of its moral certainty, in place of the earnest do-gooder now stood the hipper-than-thou scoffer.

Most of the more ‘revolutionary’ cartoons of the post-Cold War era fall into this second category to some degree or another. Social conservatives who were offended by The Simpsons in 1987 would have been even more shocked, ten years later, to imagine that South Park would go on for fifteen seasons, or to be told that The Simpsons, after 22 seasons, would be regarded as stale establishment television.

Yet, there was also a third stream, one which could be described as neither embracing the old Cold War moral clarity nor simply dismissing it with a satirical flourish. We might call it the Gospel stream. The doors had been opened to creating children’s programs that not only dealt with adult themes, but ones that could operate independent of ‘knowing-is-half-the-battle’ platitudes and the product listings of a toy company. Into this uncharted territory Paul Dini and Bruce Timm forged with what has become the DC Animated Universe (DCAU).  Superman would eventually return but before he could do so, either in cartoons or in films, the path forward had to be paved by another hero, the most conflicted and compelling and human of all. That’s right: The Dark Knight.

Stay tuned for our coverage of Batman: The Animated Series!