Of all the work for hire I’ve done in my life, I’m perhaps most proud of the 30 entries I wrote for the Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature in the mid 2000s, including the entry on cartooning legend Tex Avery, whose 1949 cartoon short “Bad Luck Blackie” basically ushered the concept of cartoon violence into modernity. In retaliation for his torture of a kitten, a sadistic bulldog is cursed with bad luck, in the form of a variety of hilarious and increasingly unlikely objects that fall on his head whenever a black cat crosses his path.
The first 2 items to fall on the dog’s head are flowerpots; these are city creatures, and flowerpots falling from windowsills are explainable, even if 2 in 1 minute strain plausibility. Then comes the steamer trunk, followed, of course, by a piano. There is some explanation for the falling bricks at a construction site, but little logic behind the live bomb and the now expected, if not completely unlikely, anvil.
In the cartoon’s final moments, as the dog’s bad luck is sealed in seeming perpetuity, three final object fall from the sky onto his head as he runs off into a distance: a plane (OK), a bus (what? Did it fall off a bridge?), and then, for the punchline, a ship. A large ocean liner falls out of the sky, onto the dog. His luck is indeed bad.
In 7 minutes, Avery’s cartoon communicates an absurd logic, one without which we cannot truly enjoy cartoons. It’s the same logic explained in the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit: Roger, the animated rabbit, and Eddie, the live action human, have been handcuffed together. As Eddie furiously saws at the handcuffs he snaps at Roger to stand still. In a good faith effort to help, Roger slips out of his bonds and leaves Eddie to his task. Eddie notices that Roger is no longer chained to him, and snarls, “Do you mean to tell me you could have taken your hand out of that cuff at any time?”
“No, not at any time,” Roger explains. “Only when it was funny.”
That is the essence of cartoon logic. Anything can happen. But only when it’s funny.
This is a lot of what I love about cartoons.
The Animaniacs summarized the boundaries and possibilities of cartoon logic in the 1993 short, “I Am the Very Model of a Cartoon Individual,” jamming a maximum number of tropes into 75 seconds of music. An illustration of an anvil falls from the pages of a book, manifesting with a heavy clang onto the head of a pirate. Yakko Warner sings, “From this bag here why I can pull most anything imaginable, like office desks and lava lights and Burt who is a cannibal.”
Anything imaginable, as long as it’s funny.
Peter does it in Family Guy and Pinky Pie does it in My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.
And this is what Dragon is doing today. I love cartoons. I love drawing cartoons. It’s unlikely that I’ll get any worse at it. This strip gives me hope that I might be getting better.
But I wanted to examine the Horsehead Nebula! And shoot the fun size trebuchet. And maybe eat a banana, or some other piece of fruit off the Carmen Miranda hat.