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Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, December 10, 1999



Associated Press
'Fritz the Cat' by Robert Crumb was popular in the 1960s.

Tackling tough topics
with funnies

Burl Burlingame


Throughout history, toys have been the repository of suppressed feeling, a blank avatar that can be manipulated to abstract and distance emotions from oneself.

Everyday Life in the 20th CenturyPsychologists understand this and give their subjects objects to play with. It's not a great leap from pulling the head off a Barbie to reading doom in a Rorschach inkblot. The same principal applies to masks and costumes.

The dawn of the 20th century, which ushered in a largely literate population and the pervasiveness of mass media, also saw the invention of a completely new art form -- the cartoon. Human attributes, conscious and subconscious, were given form and life in minimalist lines and colors on paper.

The cartoon -- the word comes from a stencil used to prepare large paintings -- was largely born in America. Recognition of the art's hidden psychological power, however, primarily came from overseas. By mid-century, the daily newspaper cartoon was firmly established, and artists such as Charles Schultz began to push the boundaries of subject matter, to the point where fictional pen-and-ink characters are as real to the public as any seminal work of literature or art.

In the 1960s, "underground" artists pushed cartoons into "adult" areas, diving into not just drugs and sex, but previously taboo subjects such as despair, consumer awareness and nihilism. By the end of the century, the average comic book is better written and more thoughtful than most films, novels and television shows.

Robert Crumb's 1960s Fritz the Cat character was a double-reversal joke: The cute "fuzzy animal" cartoon as mirror to mankind's deepest fears, and more emotionally accessible than most "human" literary characters.

"Everyday Life" is a photo feature that examines the 20th Century.
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