The giant journalist G. K. Chesterton observed that “as God made a pigmy-image of Himself and called it Man, so man made a pigmy-image of creation and called it art” (Chesterton, 264). J. R. R. Tolkien argued that all artists are “sub-creators”, and many plant clues and hints to a reality beyond their two-dimensional existence. Frequently, authors leave their signatures or thumbprints in their work. In such acts, one sees glimpses of a theology of Creation. Many self-reflexive parables point back to their own creation and ultimately to a Creator. Filmmaker Terry Gilliam succinctly suggests that as an animator, “You get to be an impish God. You get to reform the world…You turn it upside down, inside out” (Gilliam, 127). Animation historian Donald Crafton illumines this process of sub-creation in the silent animated film, where the “tendency of the filmmaker to interject himself into his film…can take several forms: it can be direct or indirect, and more or less camouflaged”. Crafton calls this technique of invading the cartoon with one’s identity as a “self-figuration”. The grand incarnation of animator into animation can be found in films like the Fleischer brothers’ Out of the Inkwell Koko series [1918-1929], where the Clown interacts with and tricks producer Max. Otto Messmer’s Trials of a Movie Cartoonist (1916) even allows Felix, his cartoon character [191-1924], to rebel and claim the Cartoonist “has no right to make slaves of them even if he is their creator” (Crafton, 11, 187).
Self-figuration occurs in a wide variety of animated parables suggesting the Storyteller behind the stories, as in Osvaldo Cavandoli’s comic series La Linea [1971-1986] and Daniel Greaves’ theological Manipulation (1991). Such films point back to their authors/auteurs and may show a benevolent creator or a mean-spirited one. In Greaves’ Academy-Award-winning Manipulation, the creature asserts his independence. Here, however, the artist’s hand manipulates and hoodwinks his creature. Greaves sought to persuade the audience that the vulnerable “paper character was as alive as the hand of the Creator” and to imagine such a relationship between two protagonists, with the character growing from 2-D to 3-D. The attempt to escape is futile, however, and for its disobedience, the rebellious little hand-drawn paper character is tossed into the hell of paper cartoon characters, a wastepaper basket.
Most remarkably, the self-reflexive cartoon parable suggests the orthodox doctrine of the incarnation, but perhaps as an “incartoonation”. One of the characters in Kathy Rose’s Pencil Bookings (1978) tells the artist, “If you want to make a good cartoon, you have to be in one first”. In one sense, Rose emulates Chaucer, who impishly inserted himself as one of the characters in The Canterbury Tales whose verse is so tedious that the Host, Harry Bailey, abruptly shuts him up with “thy drasty rymyng is nat worth a toord!” Rose has directed a dreamy and fluid cartoon in which she appears in two cartoon forms: in her own rotoscoped cartoon incarnation and in the redrawn image of her by her cartoon characters. As the film begins, she is sitting at her drawing table and her tiny cast of bubbling characters emerge from a bottle and complain about their voices. One whines that its voice is too squeaky. Others chime in: “I don’t like my voice either”. “We don’t want to be in your film”. The characters incessantly give advice to their creator, often ordering her where and when to insert a “nice cycle” (Figure 1).
Eventually Rose reproves them: “I can’t make a film if everyone here is fighting”. She makes a brief exit, and when she is gone, the characters decide to remake their own world. “Hello, I’m Kathy’s pencil”, one says and joins the other to “make our own film just like Kathy”. Exhilarated by freedom from Kathy’s control, they reconstruct their universe with a goofier, cartoonier image of the maker. They want to make their distorted image of Kathy talk just as they talk. However, no one will participate unless each can have her own way, so each floats without direction until communication with his or her creator is re-established and life begins anew. Through identification with her doodled characters as a doodle herself, Kathy can communicate with them and gain their obedience.
Rose’s artistry opens a theological conversation on God becoming one of his characters, taking on human form and living among them, even ones who rebel. It is the theme of the Incarnation, of Emmanuel, God with us.
Chesterton, G. K., As I Was Saying… (Eerdmans, 1985).
Gilliam, Terry in “Interview with the Author” in Paul Wells Understanding Animation (Routledge, 1998).
Crafton, Donald, Before Mickey (MIT Press, 1982).
Terry Lindvall (PhD, University of Southern California) occupies the C. S. Lewis Chair of Communication and Christian Thought at Virginia Wesleyan University. Two of his recent publications include Animated Parables: A Pedagogy of the Seven Deadly Sins and a Few Virtues (Lexington Press, 2023) and God on the Big Screen: A History of Hollywood Prayer from the Silent Era to Today (New York University Press, 2019) which he just adapted to a feature documentary film entitled Hollywood, Teach Us to Pray (2023).
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