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Birth of An Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation

Nicholas Sammond, Author

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The Labor of Animation

Since its beginnings in the early twentieth century, American commercial animation has always had a contradictory relationship to the labor of cartooning. On the one hand, early animators, and then animation producers, celebrated the arduous, repetitive process of cartooning, in which each short, seven-minute cartoon required thousands and thousands of drawings. On the other hand, they presented cartoons as magical and cartoon characters as living beings...erasing the very labor they celebrated elsewhere by making it seem as if 'toons were real, autonomous beings.

The self-proclaimed "father of American animation," Winsor McCay, had it both ways in his combined film/live vaudeville acts. The live cinematic prologues to his shorts Little Nemo (1911) and Gertie (1914) celebrated McCay producing thousands of drawings by hand. At the same time, his stage act combined the magic-act quality of the lightning sketch with tricks such as the one at the end of Gertie, in which McCay seems to disappear into the screen itself.

John Randolph Bray, who with his wife Margaret Bray was responsible for much of the industrialization of early American commercial animation, shifted the performance of labor/magic from the stage and screen to newspapers and fan magazines. He also made the magic about the management of his many animators, cleverly making it seem as if his managerial skills animated the animators.

Otto Messmer, the creator of Felix the Cat (one of the most popular cartoon characters of the early twentieth century), spent less time celebrating his own labor or that of his fellow animators. But his hand did occasionally creep into the frame, pen ready to draw Felix or his surroundings, and to remind people that the cat had a master and a maker.

Max and Dave Fleischer were the creators of Ko-Ko the Clown, Bimbo, and Betty Boop, and went on to make cartoon versions of Superman and Popeye. In their live/cartoon outings with Ko-Ko they often chose to represent their animation studio as a simple office occupied by a few desks and no animators other than themselves. Many of those cartoons featured Max locked in fierce battle with Ko-Ko, and made the ink that drew the clown into a mystical substance with incredible powers. (Their company was called Out of the Inkwell at one point.) Ironically, they suffered a bitter strike by their animators and other workers in the 1930s.

This cartoon short by the Van Beuren studios offers a glimpse at a popular fantasy of the labor of animation, circa 1931. Note that the animated animators create cruder versions of themselves, which nonetheless seem to be alive.

Walt Disney Productions returned to Bray's model by featuring Walt as the animating force behind his animators.

This fraught celebration of the intense labor of animation has continued even into the present, with popular series such as The Simpsons (1989-Present) joking about the labor of animating their production company outsources to Southeast Asia.

But the animation of the early twentieth century featured the labor of animators, and it also celebrated the materials of the craft, particularly ink and paper (though not so much celluloid). In particular, many treated ink as a substance that carried the life force of the animator onto the paper, as in the 1938 Walter Lantz short Voodoo in Harlem.

This insistent celebration of the intense, repetitive manual labor of animation, and its dependence on black ink, are two of the links that bind the art of cartooning to that of blackface minstrelsy. Blackface also celebrates the material qualities of blackness applied to whiteness (although to flesh, not to paper). And minstrelsy's fantasy that its performances originated on the plantation marks the minstrel as a creature bound to and defined by its labor, yet always resistant to that bondage.
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