Saturday, August 12, 2006
Last week I wrote a long post about Sketch-22 where I said that I enjoyed it (I guess I should have put that part in bold..) but saw enough that I thought could be improved that I ended up writing a lot about its flaws.
This won't be one of those posts. This is going to be me gushing shamelessly about the best show I've seen come along in years.
Now, newspaper comics, especially less 'cartoony' ones, have not had the best track record of being adapted to television or movies. I enjoyed the Dilbert TV series, I wouldn't change the channel if it came on, to be sure, but it lacked so much of the satirical edge of the comic that I came off feeling ripped off. I think Scott Adams' representations of characters as animals and monsters actually started to work against him in the expanded universe of the television series. In the Comics, Catbert is evil because he's the director of human resources. The fact that he is a cat is a secret weapon Adams uses, cuteness, to add another dimension to the potential humour of a three-panel strip. But if Catbert did something evil that wasn't HR related, the character would be broken and we would lose interest. In the television series, you stopped being able to think of Catbert as merely the evil director of human resources, instead he was so obviously a cat walking around on a desk that this aspect of his character dominated his evil actions towards the employees and glee at implementing inhumane workplace policies.
The Boondocks is so much better adapted that reading the strip now feels like looking at Anime fan service, just grasping for scraps of new creativity from the author who made such an amazing creation as the TV show.
Some cartoonists were born to be cartoonists, they found their perfect occupation, they never felt too constrained by the few panels a day in which they told their stories, and even when they were to do books they were compilations of strips, or not works of fiction at all, like Scott Adams ruminations on the workplace which are actually quite good.
Aaron McGruder, , it seems, can expand his characters and his world out into a television series and not have it feel stretched too thin nor lose its edge one bit. He even has more freedom to use foul language, show implied nudity and violence than he would be able to get away with in a newspaper strip (the Washington Post once pulled an entire week's worth of his strips because the story arc was about Huey and Riley trying to find a boyfriend for Condoleeza Rice to distract her from wanting to destroy the world.)
This expanded world, by necessity, is filled with a whole town full of extra characters, both of the black and white communities. Thus there is more room for criticizing both cultures, instead of concentrating on one-liners about the Bush administration, an entire plot can be constructed to satirize the direction popular black culture has gone in the US. (Martin Luther King waking up from a coma 30 years after being shot and seeing Black Entertainment Television can be illustrated in a comic, but you don't have the time or the context to build up empathy for King's character as you do when you see him facing an unfamiliar world that is much more visibly alien.)
Riley's idolizing and emulating of hip-hop culture isn't as dominating a part of his character in the comics, at least until you have read it for a few weeks and can see the differences between Riley and Huey's friend Ceasar, instead of just seeing them as ways to set up or deliver a punchline as a contrast to Huey. Riley, and also Grandpa and the neighbour's kid Jazmin, are all given more freedom to pursue their own whims and plots. Riley went to visit a shot rapper in the hospital, and got tied up in a revenge plot, Jazmin is shown dreaming of giving a church sermon about how Santa Claus died for our sins and was resurrected to give the world's children presents.
Another thing that makes the Boondocks TV series so wonderful is that it uses top-quality animation and production techniques, and doesn't seem to cut too many corners. Don't get me wrong, I love that Cartoon Network can produce so much original content, between Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Harvey Birdman and Space Ghost, they have made some hilarious new television where most cable networks build their schedules around re-runs of some well-remembered series from one of the big networks.
unfortunately you can see the Macromedia Flash-based animation bleed through every frame. Characters move smoothly, but not fluidly, it seems. The computer-generated equivalent of the old-school Spider-Man being dragged across a background scene to simulate movement.
The production of the Boondocks is top-notch, by contrast. It looks just as colourful and unconstrained as Futurama did. And they take advantage of the wonderful freedom that the animated cartoon medium grants you, with over--the-top action scenes that pay homage to some classic martial arts movie or anime series, from the way the camera is set up to the expressions of the characters' faces and the swiftness of the action, you feel like you're watching a real cartoon again, after being subjected to so many animated sitcoms in the past few years.
The Boondocks isn't a 'true' cartoon in the John Kricfalusi sense, but that's a subject for another post. It does, however, have enough elements of a real cartoon to keep that feeling that absolutely anything can happen in the very next frame.