It's February 25th, 1995. Across the nation, youngsters wake up to enjoy their weekend. Fathers and mothers, some still wearing pajamas, prepare breakfasts consisting of waffles, pancakes or bacon and eggs. The paperboy passes by each home, heaving the wrapped headlines to every doorstep. Business sections and editorials are discarded, as people of every age find their hands and eyes prioritizing one especially reliable section -- the comics. In particular, all were eager to pore over the one syndicated comic strip that has never failed to stir within its reader passion, thought, meaning, or intense conversation.
On this particular day, the artist has decided to open up a national dialogue concerning the ethical ramifications of animal hunting. And he had done so by crafting a satirical depiction of a man getting shot through the chest with a hunting rifle, complete with thin flecks of blood coming out his back.
When reviewing this strip with the gift of hindsight, readers might be quick to ascribe the depiction as a unique product of its age. "There's no way that a newspaper editor would allow that to happen today," I can hear people thinking already. "Just the same way that there's no way in hell Blazing Saddles would ever hope to be released in theaters today. Not amidst our modern-day ultra-obsession with the politically correct."
But I'm reluctant to adopt this perspective. Sure, it's vindicating to believe that the creative producers of our day and age are repressed in their freedom of creative expression. That the commonplace depictions of what makes us feel uncomfortable are all but impossible in the mainstream American dialogue. But I don't think that's a charitable analysis for two reasons -- the first being the unacknowledged controversy ever-present in the art we cherish no matter the era, and the second being the ongoing presence of contentious depictions in the art that has continued to evolve with culture.
Concerning the Former: Bill Watterson -- creator of Calvin and Hobbes -- didn't venture into identity politics often, but this didn't stop him from addressing matters of specific policy. And it wasn't always civics, either. Over the course of the strip, we watch our characters discuss matters of philosophy, environmentalism, the flaws of the public education system, mortality, and even a critique of artistic expression itself.
Sometimes, the material was benign or vacuous enough that it didn't produce any great deal of visceral backlash. Oftentimes, Watterson's own perspective was so unique when tackling such specific fields that these comic strips would become focal points for which we might base our further discussion. I can recall countless moments shared with other readers where we would bring up the remarks of Hobbes' naturalist (and somewhat existentialist) perspective. Or, we might consider Calvin's point of view in a dialogue addressing the subjective nature of the temporal.
But Watterson wasn't afraid to dig deep and illustrate difficult perspectives when he believed it was warranted. And when those moments came, he was always unapologetic about it. Some strips drew complaints, including one depicting Calvin demolishing his elementary school with the ordinance from an F-15 fighter jet. Yet Watterson's response was unyielding, and ultimately boiled down to something along the lines of 'some people obviously never had the misfortune of attending elementary school.'
But what granted Bill Watterson the unique ability to tackle these difficult topics?
Why does it seem as though some artists like Mel Brooks and Donald Glover are given a free pass to invoke the depictions they choose without anybody batting an eye? Why would we not tolerate a similar depiction in, say, a Garfield comic strip? Why does invoking race feel insensitive in a Paul W.S. Anderson film, but not in a Kubrick film?
Let's take a minute and talk about a slightly more recent example in cinema. Let's talk about The Iron Giant.
It's a good film.
Like, Jesus, I revisit this film at so many different ages, with a deeper perspective every time. It's a message that always holds. It never fails to bring tears to my eyes. I can't not feel inclined to talk about this movie anymore.
The Iron Giant is a 1999 animated science fiction movie produced by Brad Bird, the creator of The Incredibles and Ratatouille. It takes place in the heat of the cold war, during the month of October, 1957 -- the month that Sputnik-1 was launched into orbit. The plot opens with a massive robot crash-landing near a small, coastal town in Maine and befriending a boy named Hogarth Hughes. Alongside a beatnik by the name of Dean, they venture through the world, examining its mysteries, while attempting to conceal the Giant from a paranoid United States military.
The Iron Giant is in no way a warm and fuzzy film. This movie discusses some rather dark themes, but it always does so in an approachable light. Fear of the unknown in a time where the existential threat to humanity as a species is a newfound possibility. The role that the military-industrial complex plays in our everyday lives as citizens. Our selfless duty, and our responsibility to do the right thing for others even in the face of danger. And ultimately, the fundamental message that who you are as an individual is not so much about the hand you were dealt with at the start, but is more often borne out of the decisions you make on an everyday basis.
Yet this movie doesn't pull punches when it discusses these subjects. This film depicts Hogarth receiving a painful nosebleed after running face-first into a branch. Adult characters are constantly smoking or drinking or both. We get jokes about Kent Mansly shitting out explosive diarrhea in a bush. We also see Kent Mansly being misogynistic to Annie, his first interaction with her marked by staring at her tits. Profanity is moderated, but consistent, with lines such as "Screw our country!" remaining intact. We are exposed to images of tanks and machine guns storming the town. The ballistics missile itself is deployed, damning all of our beloved characters to inevitable demise. The film is drenched in political satire and social commentary, including open ridicule of civic defense guideline films such as Duck and Cover with Bert the Turtle. In many ways, the film is a snapshot of an era, one that captures the comparisons of many different cultural perspectives.
And somehow, it does all of this while technically remaining a PG film.
(Naturally, this approach is equally effective for school-shooter scenarios.)
It's a film that understands the ebbs and flows of a narrative, and knows when it's appropriate to provide tension or release for its audience. Every shot, every cue from our orchestra, every note from sound design fits together to produce these deep, atmospheric moments. This is not a movie where our naive visitor from another world gets to have a wholesome Bambi moment in the ethereal forests of Maine. This movie is not E.T. This is a movie where our naive visitor gets to behold a deer getting prematurely cast from its mortal coil, so that we may witness him go through the stages of grief, and ultimately confront the uncomfortable topics of death, spirituality, legacy, and the fragility of our existence.
And all of this is done in such a straightforward and sensitive manner. It is downright disarming.
The Giant's origins are left somewhat ambiguous, but I think it only strengthens the narrative. In remastered editions, we get a finer glimpse into his background through a previously deleted scene titled "robot dreams," which reveals without a doubt that the Giant was manufactured as part of a line of several identical models, build for the purpose of catalyzing mass-extinction events. Whether or not this scene is necessary might be debatable; I think that witnessing the Giant's carnal display near the climax of the film is sufficient to remove any doubt for his origins. We cannot deny that the Giant is equipped with armor and weaponry simply beyond compare to anything humanity can muster. There's no room for doubt that the Giant is designed as a weapon -- a category of weapon that can and has ended civilizations.
But all of these elements are necessary to drive home the final message of the film. The Giant is not E.T, because E.T. probably couldn't end civilizations if he wanted to. Hell, E.T. might not even understand the full scope of a mass extinction event. But the Iron Giant sure does -- he was molded from it since his very beginning, designed from the ground up as a weapon of mass destruction. The Giant understands through a painfully concise explanation without any room for ambiguity exactly what the missile means for everybody -- and it makes his ultimate decision of self-sacrifice all the more emotionally charged. We understand that this is a character who recognizes the full scope of his capacity. We are not talking about an unintelligent or inept protagonist. What we see are insightful characters who we watch evolve -- characters who make decisions that define them every step of the way.
Even though it's a coarse film that doesn't hesitate to discuss painfully real topics, I believe that the Iron Giant is an example of a masterpiece that has earned the right to employ the tools that it works with. Every depictions, every line of dialogue serves to propel the central messages onward towards the climactic finale. If you can make me flinch and choke up like a child by slapping me in the face with the word "gun" and I react more viscerally to that than the words "damn it," then I think you've earned the right to use both.
Is The Iron Giant Politically Correct? I don't think it matters. Every image, every line of dialogue is lain in place with intention. It's message is potent and real, and it presents itself in a way that can be easily digested by an audience of every age. To censor any part of its grim and earnest presentation would be to rob the narrative of some vital component. To dumb down or to soften the film from any angle would risk destabilizing the laser-precision of the delivery.
In my mind, the employment of the profane in the world of art is analogous to a sculptor employing an oversized mallet. It produces a sizable impact through the chisel, drawing sharp attention to the point of encroachment in the marble. Some artists willingly refrain from picking up the mallet, electing instead to achieve the same finish through a milder array of tools. Sometimes they succeed, and I think it's all the more commendable when an artist manages to procure the same effect despite their self-imposed limitations. For when the artist misuses the mallet, they risk permanently damaging their sculpture. Nobody can take an artist seriously when they consistently produces piles of rubble.
I disagree with those who seek to prohibit the use of the mallet. But I also don't particularly enjoy the work of artists who abuse the profane when it's unnecessary. And I have nothing but respect for those who are able to concisely deliver a message of significance while employing every resource with unwavering intention.
There's a reason that hordes of people are quick to condemn overt political editorials that wouldn't understand subtlety if it hit them over the head. To employ the profane while disregarding what you can do when conducting your resources in perfect harmony is disappointing, at best. Especially so when the intention of the product is to inflame, not to inspire. There are no shortage of people who see satire not for the change it seeks to instigate, but solely for the means it turns to when presenting its message. You don't get a free pass to start using racial slurs, profanity, or uncharitable depictions of people you don't like by slapping the "satire" label onto your work. Satire is a genre in which vices, follies, abuses and shortcomings are held up to ridicule with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government, or society itself into improvement.
It is not satire to depict somebody I personally don't like as a big poo-poo head in an attempt to get others to rally around the hateful totem pole. But if I choose to depict the actions of somebody in power as disagreeable, while demonstrating the obvious fault in their reasoning and opening a path to positive forward change, then I don't care what route you take in establishing your narrative -- just so long as you do it with intention. I'm convinced that this form of speech will always be constructive to a broader social dialogue, regardless of whether or not I agree with it.
We may never again see works like Calvin and Hobbes, Blazing Saddles, or The Iron Giant. But that's okay, because each time, the artist has taken the time to carefully consider and deliver their respective messages. And once satisfied with their delivery, each respective artist responsible has felt free to move on to working on some new masterpiece. We will always see pertinent and beautifully executed works of art, crafted with delightful precision. That much seems to be a constant for mankind.