LET ME FEEL YOUR FINGER FIRST: MEET THE FAMILY Esther Leslie
It is all a matter of reproduction. Cartoons and comics are often populated by families, little bands of somehow-related squabblers and jerks: from The Katzenjammer Kids through The Kin-der Kids, The Flintstones to Family Guy. Families are products of reproduction (the biological, genetical sort), as are comics and cartoons (the technological sort). The adventures of the familial gangs get technologically reproduced as multiples (sky-high piles of comic books, numerous reels of celluloid), originals that proliferate themselves willy-nilly. Reproduction works itself out in comics and cartoons as its mode of operation. Week on week, episode after episode, cartoons and comics reproduce the same situations, the same constellations, the same fights. Most likely some character suffers identical humiliations at the hands of an ever-returning antagonist – Krazy Kat versus Ignatz, Tweety versus Sylvester, Tom versus Jerry, Bugs Bunny versus Elmer Fudd, affinative-unaffinative pairings who share at least stylistic resemblances and are as bound up with each other as those condemned to a marriage. In the situations devised by Let Me Feel Your Finger First, family relations and re-iterated antagonism coincide. For instance, there’s Uncle Hans-Peter, the family head, who carries out violent acts against his nephews. Uncle Hans-Peter likes the repetitive nature of ritual. He repeats certain procedures whenever he can. Just as Clem repeats his submission and his feeble, and fruitless struggle too. Uncle Hans-Peter likes to tie his nephews up – they who are, in their own twinnish way, repetitions resulting from the division of a zygote (or, in cartoonworld terms, tweaked variations of a template). So komisch!
Uncle Hans-Peter had the Germanic childhood of cliché (another type of repetition), all Lederhosen and Edelweiß. At least that’s what is shown on the photographs of the diminutive Bavarian, Little Hansel. These images, duplications of experience, are filed away in orderly family albums, a parallel world. When the sexual urges overwhelm, Onkel Hans-Peter puts on his Lederhosen and his Filzhut, because he enjoys the return of that feeling. When he was young, the big hit was Nana Mouskouri’s ‘Ich schau den weißen Wolken nach’: Nachts im Sternenschein steh ich allein/So oft am Fenster denn ich warte/ Ich warte täglich mehr und mehr /Auf deine Wiederkehr. Waiting for your return. Waiting to repeat. That hit – that German Schlager – went round and round and round. Like the pie with the twins, going round and round. Spin. Spin. Spin. Hit. Hit. Repeat. Start again. Return to childhood. Childhood returning as compulsive wish to repeat. After-effects. Uncle Hans-Peter is peculiarly stuck. All of the family are. It is a family trait. They repeat and repeat. Bob! Bob! Bob! Fill the bag with rocks. Smash it on the boy’s head. In and out. In and out. Spin. Spin. Spin. Up and down. Up and down. Contract, relax. Gwendolen is stuck in fast-forward and rewind mode. She slips in and out of the ratchets. Repetition is the mode. It is the rhythm of sex. It is the logic of porn. It is the tempo of reproduction. In, out. Rub. Rub. Splurge. In. Out. Perhaps, though, here reproduction breaks down into pure repetition without dialectical oomph. This sex is never sex as seed-planting, but sex as gunk, as stuff stuck in anywhere but the place where sexual reproduction occurs. Uncle not father. It is another reproduction, homo-reproduction, the reproduction of the same, always in the guise of the new – as describes the logic of industrial capitalism, with its ‘families of products’: the Adobe® Photoshop® family, from Elements to Lightroom and a couple of other relations, or the Spam® family, which includes Spam Classic, Spam Lite, Spam Less Sodium, Spam Spread…). Homo-zombies – consumer as consuming and consumed and going nowhere but always only seeking the same, these animated corpses, revenants revisiting. Repeat. Repeat. Animation in stasis. Stasis in animation. The same motion is looping through for the tenth time. Slash and tear. Limited. Shooting on twos. It’s all about economy.
Heads of cartoon families have often been the butt of jokes – those incompetent fathers, like Andy Capp or Homer Simpson. Uncle Hans-Peter would like to be a patriarch. He wants power over his family of misfits – and he would like to command members of the audience, directing their minutest movements and inserting his thoughts in place of theirs. It makes a man of him. A real man, a flesh-and-blood human, like Pinocchio so longed to be. Uncle Hans-Peter slips from the frames. He escapes the image. Evades the pencil. He peels up from the page and swells to life-size dimensions, in command. But comic characters are capricious – genetically so to speak. In another moment, he’s flat and small and tweakable again and wishing he were as footloose and pliable as a Junge frolicking auf der Wiese against a Heidi-style mountain backdrop near a gingerbread house (“Hansel, let me feel your finger”….). He wants to do and be done too – isn’t that just the situation of animation? Animated entities do – or at least seem to do – and yet they are also done to, existing only because of its manipulation by another, by the animator, director, patriarch. Just as Clem (a dropped-out unfabulous Furry Freak brother for the noughties) and Cute Punk (another wannabe-sentient blockhead), with their ambling passivity, constantly get mobilised on someone else’s behalf. These suckers can never shake off their ‘done-to-ness’, and what they do is the doing of someone else. Perhaps it is Uncle Hans-Peter’s great pity that he ended up in animations, comics and live parties. He might have been happier in those infamous 1970s German sex comedies that used to be shown on RTL and SAT Eins – Heubodengeflüster or Liebesjagd durch 7 Betten. But maybe his perversions could not have been contained there. It was his fate to meet a real manipulator, a true pervert with a compulsion to repeat, with a desire to proliferate more and more of its ‘product family’ in whatever marketable form it could find: Let Me Feel Your Finger First, operating along these lines since 1998. It makes them spurt and spin and yelp ‘involuntarily’ but regularly. It stuck them in animated unconsciousness. And it is coming after us. Breathe in. Breathe out. Repeat. Keep watching.
Esther Leslie is Professor in Political Aesthetics at Birkbeck, University of London. Her books include Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-garde (2002); Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism (2000) and Synthetic Worlds: Nature, Art and the Chemical Industry (2005).