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An Illustrated Haiku from the strange depths of the Internet

An Illustrated Haiku from the strange depths of the Internet

Today (August 8) is International Cat Day, a holiday which honors our beloved feline friends. The domestic cat descended from the African Wild Desert Cat in the depths of prehistory and has been revered (though not universally) ever since. Cats have been portrayed both as gods and as monsters by artists. They represent beauty, grace, friendship, happiness, and love. They represent bad luck, witchcraft, endless hunger, and cruelty. Humans cannot get enough of our bewhiskered predatory friends and their odd dual natures. Additionally, cats dominate the worldwide web–the hive mind conglomerate which has become so central to human activity (and upon which you are presumably reading this post).

Old Fashioned Catfish Charm from eBay

Old Fashioned Catfish Charm from eBay

I am personally celebrating International Cat Day with a rabbit fur mouse for Sepia Cat–my beloved middle aged tabby who sleeps purring on my legs (when she is not committing war crimes against mice). To celebrate on this blog, however, I am giving you a whimsical gallery of cat/fish hybrids which artists draw as puns to represent the siluridae. When I was a child I loved these kinds of endearing mixed animal cartoons (and they deeply influenced the Zoomorphs—a line of mix-and-match animal toys I designed). I hope you enjoy the chimerical fun—but more than that, I hope you are especially nice to your catfriends on this, their special day!

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Cartoon Catfish by Steven Wallet

Cartoon Catfish by Steven Wallet

Stock Illustration by RobinOlimb

Stock Illustration by RobinOlimb

 

Tabby Sabertooth Catfish by Kennon9 (Deviantart)

Tabby Sabertooth Catfish by Kennon9 (Deviantart)

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Felix the Catfish

Felix the Catfish

cat fish (18)

A Catfish Aisha from Neopets

A Catfish Aisha from Neopets

Uncle Sam at the Midland 4th of July Parade (Photo by Sylvester Washington Jr.)

Uncle Sam at the Midland 4th of July Parade (Photo by Sylvester Washington Jr.)

To celebrate the 4th of July two years ago, I wrote a blog post about the national symbol of the United States and the original alternatives contemplated by the founding fathers (a post which was awesome since it was filled with turkeys, rattlesnakes, killer whales, and eagles).  This year, I concentrate on a national mascot whom we all feel much more ambivalent about.  I am talking, of course, about the somewhat awkward and unsettling figure of Uncle Sam.

Uncle Sam (Thomas Nast, 1877, engraving)

Uncle Sam (Thomas Nast, 1877, engraving)

The concept of Uncle Sam as a fictional stand-in for the government of the United States emerged during the War of 1812 when a meat supplier stamped his meat crates with “U.S.” and soldiers joked that this meant came from “Uncle Sam” (in fact “Uncle Sam” is mentioned in the Revolutionary-era song “Yankee Doodle” but it is unclear if he is a symbol of the nation or just, you know, somebody’s uncle).   By 1816 Uncle Sam was the subject of humorous political tracts and by the time of the civil war he was a universally known representation of the United States government.   Uncle Sam is traditionally portrayed as a thin patrician man with a snow white chin beard.  He is dressed in a stars & stripe suit complete with an American flag themed hat.  The comic portentousness of the figure has made Uncle Sam popular with America’s supporters and detractors both—so one might see him waving a flag and marching in a patriotic parade in Texas (as at the top) or on Iranian government broadsheets deviously backstabbing the Iranian people for oil.  For example, here he is, portrayed as Yama, devouring the entire world through consumer culture and war.

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For a time Uncle Sam stood only for the government whereas the citizenry itself was represented by Brother Jonathan, a long-winded New England tradesman in a frock coat and striped pants (Brother Jonathan himself had begun as a symbol of New England, but gradually came to represent the whole nation).   By mid-nineteenth century Brother Jonathan was subsumed into Uncle Sam, who has remained more-or-less the same since that time (though sometimes he bulks up in muscle or in flab—depending on the cartoonist’s agenda).

Brother Jonathan Aggressively Chokes John Bull with stomach-ache-causing raw pear juice!

Brother Jonathan Aggressively Chokes John Bull with stomach-ache-causing raw pear juice!

Uncle Sam is frequently bowdlerized to sell cigars, financial vehicles, petrol, or what-have-you.  During the golden age of comics, Uncle Sam even became a sort of nightmarish DC comic book hero: he was an extra-temporal super ghost (summoned by the founding  fathers) who possessed dying patriots with superhuman powers in order to fight fascists and pirates…or something.  Frankly, the concept may have needed some work.

Excuse me?

Excuse me, but, what?

Uncle Sam is used by too many people for too many reasons, and he is just not as magnificent as an Eagle.  Even at his best, he is rather clownlike and awkward.  Before Uncle Sam or Brother Jonathan, America was represented by Columbia, a beautiful warrior goddess with a Phrygian cap and a bustier spangled with stars!  Curses!  How did we trade down to end up with a Jefferson Davis lookalike dressed like a pimp?

Although it seems like she might have gone into the phonograph and moving picture business...

Although it seems like she might have gone into the phonograph and moving picture business…

Looking even further back, Columbia herself even seems to be a rip-off of Britannia, the trident-wielding, Minerva-hatted, warrior goddess who has been a symbol of Britain’s suzerainty since Roman times.  Both Cousin Jonathan and Uncle Sam seem like line-extensions of the immensely popular John Bull.  Maybe the idea of personifying nations as people is flawed.  Having a frightening mascot in a strange primary color costume might be the right thing for a minor-league baseball team, but it ill-becomes the glory and complexity of our nation.  Perhaps we should just stick with the majestic eagle which cannot be made to look so absurd….

No!  Darn it!

No! Darn it!

It has been a while since I wrote a post concerning mascots.  That’s because…well, frankly there is something a bit grotesque and disorienting about the entire topic.  The bilious cartoony figures speak of the snake oil which lubricates our consumer culture.  And most of the characters are teetering right at the edge of nineteenth-century jingoism and ethnic stereotypes.  If Aunt Jemima, Chief Wahoo, Uncle Ben, the Gordon Fisherman, and Ole’ Miss don’t make you a bit anxious, then they aren’t doing their jobs.

All of which is why this subject is entirely perfect for Saint Patrick’s Day!  This holiday has long since dismissed any semblance of reasoned discourse. The downtown of every major city in the United States fills up before noon with intoxicated teens garbed crown-to-toe in Kelly green and red-faced, red-haired firemen wielding bagpipes!    So bring on the leprechaun mascots.

Traditionally leprechauns were members of the aes sídhe, supernatural beings who dwell in a mythical land beyond human kin. This unseen realm may be across the western sea, or in an invisible world parallel to ours, or in an underground kingdom accessible only through the pre-Christian burial mounds and barrows lying throughout Scotland, Ireland, and the ancient places of Western Europe.  The aes sídhe tended to be impossible beautiful and strange in such a way that they could only be apprehended by dying people, insane people, or William Butler Yeats.  Leprechauns were the money-grubbing cobblers and grabby tricksters among the lofty fairy folk.  The first mention of leprechauns is found in a medieval epic: the hero recovers consciousness from a dreadful wound only to discover that he is being dragged into the sea by leprechauns.  Yeats writes of the leprechaun “Many treasure-crocks, buried of old in war-time, has he now for his own.” In folklore Leprechauns originally wore red coats.

In America today all of this has been somewhat bowdlerized: leprechauns are small bellicose Irishman garbed completely in green. They ride on rainbows, possess pots of gold, and never quite grant wishes.  Anyone who says otherwise is liable to get punched in the mouth by an electrician from Jersey City.

Lucky the leprechaun, the spokesbeing for Lucky Charms cereal since 1964,  is probably the most famous of these contemporary leprechauns.  His ancient bog sorcery has been condensed into the trademark phrase “magically delicious” and six talisman-like marshmallow shapes calculated to best please the discerning six-year old palate.

Sports teams also like leprechauns.  The most famous sports-leprechauns are the pugnacious fighting Irish leprechaun of Notre Dame and the slippery dandy leprechaun of the Boston Celtics.

However an alarming range of other leprechaun mascots exist.  They have different waistcoats from various historical eras, sundry prankish expressions, and wear a rainbow of different greens but they are all instantly recognizable.

I don’t know…I was going to be more cynical, but just look at them up there, drinking and hoarding and dancing away.  There is something appealing about the wee folk.  Shameless stereotype or not, t’is all in good fun.  There’s a bit of a March hare in all of, longing to run wild after the long winter.  If our culture chooses to exemplify this spring atavism through images of a little irrepressible green man, then so be it.  Sláinte, dear readers! Have a happy Saint Patrick’s Day, a merry March, and a glorious spring.

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