The Courage to Watch
For all the lip service currently paid to the viability of trash culture, there’s still something about cartoons that makes even the most bohemian reviewers cringe. Unless they’ve passed some sort of litmus test for overtly adult content, like Tex Avery’s “naughty” shorts or any of Ralph (Fritz the Cat) Bakshi’s pornographic spew, or bear the stamp of hip nostalgia like Rocky and Bullwinkle or Schoolhouse Rock, cartoons usually receive the shrift afforded the guiltiest of pleasures. As consistently well-written and artful as the current Batman and Batman Beyond series are, for example, it’s hard to find discourse on them that goes beyond a variant of “Biff! Pow! Not just for kids anymore,” as if they ever were. Frankly, it’s nigh impossible to find a person over twelve who’ll admit even to watching cartoons, except in the company of a turbo bong and a big bag of pizza rolls.
The fact is that all cartoons, from the surreal output of the Max Fleisher studios (Betty Boop) and Disney’s elitist morality fables (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves) to Hanna-Barbera’s execrable attempts at hipness (Groovy Ghoulies? Funky Phantom?) and today’s post-Ren & Stimpy moment of unrelenting gross-out humor (Cow and Chicken, South Park), are worthy of appraisal, if only because the medium itself is inherently subversive. At their best, cartoons defy linear structure, sensory perception, and hierarchical thinking they may be the only real expression of anarchy we have. As much as Davids Lynch and Cronenberg would like to blow our minds, they can’t do half the social damage as a single episode of The Simpsons. Like mail bombs wrapped in Christmas paper, cartoons enjoy limitless freedom to subvert beneath the bright, colorful camouflage of “kid stuff.”
Courage the Cowardly Dog is a cartoon for kids, but really freaky kids. Village of the Damned kids. It’s Lassie on mescaline, The X-Files with fewer flashlights, or in other words, terrific for adults.
Based on “The Chicken from Outer Space,” an award-winning animated short by John R. Dilworth, Courage depicts the adventures of a small pink dog who bears the burden of being the only one to know that the tiny farmhouse in which he lives with his elderly masters, motherly Muriel and crotchety Eustace Bagg, is the nexus for all the eerie and severely fucked-up phenomena in the universe. In each cartoon, two per episode, the Bagg farm on the outskirts of the town of Nowhere (no state specified, though it looks like Oklahoma during the dust-bowl era) is besieged by aliens, monsters, ghosts, madmen, and lots of creeping goo. Typical episodes: a blizzard buries the farm in snow and the Baggs are stalked by a killer snowman with Sean Connery’s voice; the animated corpse of director Benton Tarentella tricks the old couple into starring in his next movie, as zombie food; Eustace buys a miracle cure for baldness that, incidentally, transforms his frequent moments of rage into Carrie-like pyrotechnics; a divine gander with quasi-Shakespearean diction Zeus as a goose falls in love with Muriel and woos her with miracles; alien ducks with Liverpudlian accents clamp a mind-control helmet on Muriel and send her into Area 51 to rescue their brother.
The only thing that stands between the family and this parade of Fox Mulder’s worst nightmares is Courage, who is not only a small dog but a profoundly neurotic one, the result of Eustace’s psychological abuse the old man likes to discipline Courage by whipping out an enormous fright mask and shouting “Ooga-booga!” and of course the fact that Muriel and Eustace are utterly oblivious to the constant weirdness that endangers their lives. But “the Cowardly Dog” is a misnomer. Although Courage lives in a perpetual state of anxiety (and admittedly the sheer number of his reactive fur-on-end freakouts gets a little tiresome after awhile), his devotion to Muriel inevitably wins out over his fears and Courage lives up to his name. This may be the best thing of many that the show has going for it, the persistent message that “courage” isn’t being fearless but rather doing the right thing despite one’s fear. It’s certainly a healthier message than anything being offered up by product-oriented fare like Pokemon, a program devoted entirely plot, theme, and hook-phrase: “Gotta Catch ‘em All!” to acquisition.
It’s better-looking too. Courage is composed primarily of principal animation against photographic backgrounds, done very cleanly, so that when the photo moon rises over the farmhouse and the surrounding plain of desolate nothingness it is hyperreal and beautiful a magnificent View from Nowhere. Machines are rendered in flat colors that segue into zip-a-tone that dot-stuff you see in Roy Liechtenstein’s comics panels giving them a futuristic quality that contrasts with the hominess of the Bagg farm. The drawings themselves are a collage of visual references, evoking Charles Addams, Edward Gorey, Steve Ditko’s classic Doctor Strange comic art, and a liberal dose of Tales from the Crypt, as well as offering glimpses of Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones and their fellow animators.
The show is, all in all, a fascinating and textured mixture of cartoon and horror-movie conventions, and a joy to watch. For the adventures of a paranoid pink dog, there’s so much to appreciate here that Biff! Pow! grownups can watch it too with their really freaky kids.