Monday, June 6, 2011
MYTHCOMICS #13: MAD #19 (1955)
...though we are repelled by the sight of man turned beast... we revel to see beast turned man!"
PLOT-SYNOPSIS FOR "Mickey Rodent!" (writing: Kurtzman; art: Elder): As Mickey Rodent walks down a typical "Walt Dizzy" street, looking for Darnold Duck, passersby watch as cops cart away Horace Horseneck for the offense of not wearing white gloves. Meanwhile, Darnold Duck gets repeatedly beaned by projectiles because when people yell at him to "duck," he doesn't know if they're denoting his name or an action. When told that Mickey's looking for him, Darnold tells the readers that Mickey is only fit for "the old actor's home" and that Mickey never gets featured roles any more. Mickey finds Darnold but instead of saying why he wanted him, simply offers to drive Darnold into town. They pass a swimming-hole, and Mickey suggests that they take a swim to cool off. While they cavort, someone steals their clothes (except for Mickey's white gloves, which are "tattooed" on). The beasts-turned-men follow the thief's trail, but it's all a setup so that Mickey, who hates the duck for outperforming him, can lock Darnold in a duck-pen. Since Darnold is naked, the regular (non-"Walt Dizzy") humans who own the pen decide that Darnold must be a "mutated freak" and speculate about having him stuffed.
MYTH-ANALYSIS: Most of the classic MAD satires remain at the monosignative level in that they simply reverse the game plan of whatever's being satirized. Thus, if Superman is a noble hero, Superduperman is a superficial, sex-obsessed creep. But "Mickey Rodent" shows the authors playing a bit more liberally with the theme set forth in the introductory caption: that of "beasts turned men."
(Actually I really DON'T think readers are all that repelled at seeing human beings act like beasts. But that's another essay.)
The modus operandi of satire is to reveal the base reality beneath the figments and fantasies in which human beings immerse themselves. The first one we encounter is that the creator of the animated animals, "Walt Dizzy," decrees that all his creations must wear white gloves (four-fingered, in keeping with the way most characters have been drawn in the history of animated cartoons). Thus Kurtzman and Elder quickly communicate that the fun-loving cartoon characters of the Disney world are actually just as much under the thumb of a controlling Big Brother as any wage-slave.
The story doesn't waste any time letting the readers see the arbitrariness of this social sign. Moments after Darnold gets beaned by a baseball from "Goony," Goony points out that Darnold is walking around with no pants, causing the duck to rush home and don trousers, which he wears for most of the rest of the tale. Thus clothing, one element traditionally used by cartoons to transform "beasts" into "men," is shown by Kurtzman and Elder to be an arbitrary social construct. Aside from Darnold wearing pants, almost all the other characters-- versions of Goofy, Pluto, and Minnie Mouse-- comport themselves just as the originals do in terms of garments, though Darnold stands in for Kurtzman's ideal reader in that Darnold gets nauseated at the thought of Minnie, a giant rat, wearing eyelashes and high heels. Mickey Rodent is the only other exception: he dresses normally enough but throughout the story artist Elder draws Mickey with unsightly beard-stubble. (He also seems to be missing some teeth in a later scene.) But in Kurtzman's world a dissolute-looking Mickey is fit to take a clever revenge on his rival.
The other arbitrary social construct Kurtzman tears apart here seems more vital to the history of "beasts turning men" than clothing was: the construct of language. I won't over-analyze the running gag of Darnold constantly being unsure whether people are calling his name or telling him to duck. But I'll note that it's just one element in Kurtzman's script that points out the absurd nature of language. Perhaps more telling is that Darnold is first seen talking in the incomprehensible quacking voice of the animated cartoons. Then the editors inform the readers that they will translate the duck's voice into readable text, paralleling the transformation that Disney's duck had to pass through when he was adapted to comic strips and books. But it's important to Kurtzman's plot-- as it isn't for the legit Donald Duck comics-- that Darnold should "quack like a duck" at the story's end, so that the regular humans will mistake him for a freakish version of a real duck.
Clothing and language, then, are the twin pillars of the arbitrary civilization Kurtzman gives his Disney characters, and like Samson Kurtzman is more than happy to pull down both pillars. But even when Kurtzman seems to be protesting the injustice of such civilized forms-- "Pluted Pup" has a Shylock-moment where he protests, via signboards, the injustice that he of all the animals isn't allowed to talk-- Kurtzman also implies that without those arbitrary signs of civilization, one's only option is--
To get stuffed.