A not-so-recent episode of South Park contained a reference to Shirley Jackson’s amazing short story “The Lottery.” I spent the rest of that night scouring for other references; some new to me and some rekindled childhood memories. That initial discovery ultimately led me to create a category at my blog which would focus on literary references in cartoons. Why is this blog-worthy? I generally waste my internet hours refreshing my perpetually empty email inbox and crafting Facebook statuses to appear off-the-cuff and witty. I was suddenly struck by the inherent, and intended, contradiction: the idea of books—the icon of intelligence—existing within cartoons—the long-accepted symbol of stupidity—appealed to my sense of irony. Even more, if these mediums are so far removed, what gives cartoon makers the balls to assume an overlap in audience enough to appreciate the references? Something special had been happening in cartoons, and I was too busy laughing at the fart jokes to see it.
The Simpsons has a long history of literary allusions, and to a lesser degree, Family Guy and the aforementioned South Park. Why? Surely this meshing of worlds serves more than to tickle the cartoon creators’ personal farty bones (ha, fart joke). Do cartoons feel the need to legitimize themselves for a public that has for so long, and continues to, hold books to such high esteem?
Perhaps the book-nods reveal the cartoon creators’ own narrative acumen. Novels represent pure narrative, in that they are not supported in any way by outside effects, i.e, CGI, audio, and actor baggage (though it would be hard to argue that James Frey’s fame didn’t help the sales of his post-Oprah novel, Bright Shiny Morning). Interest in novels, enough to incorporate allusions into a cartoon, implies a lot about a creator’s passion for story. “Yes, that’s a fart joke,” might say a Matt Groening or a Seth McFarlane, “but it’s a fart joke with sophistication.” There’s a reason the aforementioned big three cartoons have lasted so long: intelligent humor. A viewer can only be impressed with bright colors and funny voices for so long before he needs substance. Books are the signposts, marking such substance.
What is even more interesting than the simple presence of these allusions is their often modesty and brevity. Rarely is the audience confronted directly with a source and rarely is the reference extended beyond a few frames for a sight gag (the exceptions to both rules would include The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror episodes and South Park’s Charles Dickens retelling. The cartoons aren’t trying to convert anyone. They are tapping into an audience that I think most people don’t realize exists: the literate cartoon viewer.
But to be truly legitimized, allusions need to go both ways. Are there examples of novels or short stories that contain cartoon references? Tell us in the comments.
This is a gust post by Caleb J. Ross as part of his Stranger Will Tour for Strange blog tour. His goal is to post at a different blog every few days beginning with the release of his novel Stranger Will in March 2011 to the release of his second novel, I Didn’t Mean to Be Kevin in November 2011. If you have connections to a lit blog of any type, professional journal or personal site, please contact him. He would love to compromise your integrity for a day. To be a groupie and follow this tour, subscribe to the Caleb J. Ross blog RSS feed. Follow him on Twitter: @calebjross.com. Friend him on Facebook: Facebook.com/rosscaleb