Cartoons and Stereotypes: Two Museum Shows Contrast Roger Shimomura and Chuck Jones

Two great practitioners of Pop Art at TAM and EMP.

Last weekend’s Fourth of July celebrations elicited the usual patriotic displays of flag-waving and fireworks, but what if your government abruptly detained your Seattle family and shipped you off to a prison camp in the Idaho desert? Your feelings about nation and identity might then be complicated for life, since the cause for that injustice was looking like the Japanese enemy during World War II. That’s what happened to Roger Shimomura, age 3, when he and his family were trucked off to Minidoka. The future artist would later graduate from the UW, serve in the U.S. military, train at Syracuse, and teach at Kansas for three decades, but the painful stereotyping has informed his entire career—as we see in An American Knockoff, recently opened at Tacoma Art Museum.

Born a generation prior in Spokane, raised in Southern California, the legendary animator Chuck Jones (1912–2002) worked on comical military training cartoons during the war. By then he was already an integral part of the Warner Bros. animation unit, where he remained until its 1962 closure. Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Daffy Duck, Pepé Le Pew, Wile E. Coyote, and the Road Runner are among the characters he originated or helped create—all of them über-American distillations of our basic appetites and drives. They’re cartoon caricatures, though they cause laughter—not pain. Newly opened at the EMP Museum, What’s Up, Doc? is a comparatively benign and amusing exhibit, irresistible for its nostalgia value, but it has a lot in common with the Shimomura show. Both these traveling exhibits are essential stops for museumgoers this summer. (American Knockoff, which originated last year at WSU’s Museum of Art, runs through September 13, after which many canvases will return to Greg Kucera Gallery. What’s Up continues through January 17.)

Shimomura, as they say, boldly owns the stereotype of being Japanese-American and, more generally, Asian in a nation that doesn’t always distinguish among those of Korean, Chinese, or Japanese heritage. If not always overtly racist, that category confusion from the white majority culture is a continuing source of frustration and amusement in Shimomura’s large, precise, colorful works. (This show includes 53 paintings and prints, most from the past decade.) A third-generation American, or sansei, Shimomura grew up with the comics and animation that Jones and company were creating on an industrial scale following the war. The all-American icons of Superman, Wonder Woman, and various Disney characters also informed his development through the Pop Art era, when they became subject to kitsch and appropriation. (He left Seattle for New York in the early ’60s.) Whether onscreen or in pulpy pages, whiteness always prevailed; those with a different skin tone or eye structure were treated for laughs or derision.

This is why it became necessary, a kind of ironic revenge, for Shimomura to repeatedly evoke the buck teeth, slant eyes, rice cookers, kimonos, and other clichés—some taken from more serious Japanese artistic traditions—and grapple with them. In one series of paintings, he kung-fu kicks Superman, Wonder Woman (who resembles his blonde Kansas wife), and even an image of Bruce Lee. Elsewhere he depicts himself as George Washington, Dick Tracy, and Mickey Mouse; or he pulls back his kimono to reveal a Superman costume beneath. He repeatedly places himself in winking turnabout scenes—mixing with sumo wrestlers or Chinese peasants in a Communist propaganda poster. He’s a puckish impostor, an irreverent knockoff, and his humor is part of his subversive triumph over stereotype.

Jones, by contrast, almost always had humor as his goal. He created around 300 animated works during his long career, earning four Oscars, countless accolades, and institutional status. He’s privileged, as they say, by his whiteness and studio support, but there’s subversion here, too. It’s essential to remember that Bugs Bunny is a creature of the Great Depression, an under-rabbit. His wisecracking is always directed upward at those with power or pretension. He’s a leveler, a little guy whose wit is his only weapon. Jones started his career when newsreels and cartoon shorts preceded feature films in theaters. Baby boomers who grew up on televised Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons sometimes forget how those laughs grew from the leaner prewar years, with an audience of adults and children. During the war itself, Bugs and company became iconic—with a particular wise-guy idiom of disrespect toward those with totalitarian plans. (Also, Jones was part of an enterprise with a house style; Warner was always the scrappiest and most demotic of the major studios.)

That’s not to say there’s much political component to the 23 cartoons here, augmented by 136 drawings, sketches, cels, music cue sheets, etc. What one sees is superb sly draftsmanship and stories with carefully crafted visual gags that can push against the plot. (Jones was a populist, opposed to the same establishment that excluded Shimomura.) All the Wagnerian grandeur of What’s Opera, Doc? (1957) is continually undercut by Bugs’ carrot-chomping sass. The classic short is partly a shot at Disney-style schmaltz and seriousness, partly an assault on the Old World notions of a strict, inherited classical culture. Like Shimomura as Superman, Bugs is an imposter as Brünnhilde—simultaneously passing and transgressing in an assumed role, all the while laughing at the impertinent masquerade. What fools we are to believe in it.

Yet here let me state my one main criticism of the Jones show: only six of 23 animations are shown in their entirety; the rest are excerpts—understandable for late features like The Phantom Tollbooth, but inexcusable for classics like Duck Dodgers in the 24th ½ Century or How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I was particularly frustrated by truncated versions of Jones’ rare political works: So Much for So Little, about the need for public-health measures, and Hell-Bent for Election, commissioned by unions for FDR’s final campaign, in which a muscled laborer battles a top-hatted plutocrat. (Both are on YouTube.) EMP may be a tourist and family museum, but give adults something to watch, too.

Both Shimomura and Jones, though with different aims, flirt with essentialism. Jones and his studio collaborators pared down their jokes and characters to bedrock type: Elmer is slow and stupid. Daffy is scatterbrained and hotheaded. Bugs is clever and sarcastic. Wile E. Coyote is too self-satisfied and hungry to reconsider his elaborate plans. The Road Runner is simply fast, the embodiment of pure, blithe speed in the Southwestern landscape (background cels of which are simply stunning—but alas, no Jones merchandise is available in the gift shop; those revenues are reserved for Warner Bros.). Yet during the cultural upheaval of the ’60s and ’70s, Jones’ late-career work with Dr. Seuss and others does tend away from such stereotyping: The Grinch, after all, is capable of change and reform, unlike the fixed Warner pantheon. (For me, that’s why the Grinch remains a sellout to dull holiday piety; I prefer the irreverence of Jones’ early work, where nobody learns nuttin’ and the cycle of idiocy is endlessly repeated.)

Shimomura is always battling such reductionism, even though his brush tends toward bright-colored caricature. The postwar Pop style of punchy graphic clarity, of immediate wordless apprehensibility, depends on our instant recognition of logos, ads, movie stars, and pop iconography—however vulgar or racist it may be. It’s shorthand, but it’s also refined expression, a canny distillation with wide market reach. (Shimomura trained at the UW in commercial art, which Jones practiced his entire career.) Still, we know that that reductive “What are you?” American tendency has led to segregation, discrimination, and worse.

We see that, of course, in the crisp graphic recollections of internment in Shimomura’s Minidoka-inspired works. Barbed wire, desert skies, and tarpaper are oppressive, yet there’s resistance—like the cheeky, everyday heroism of Bugs. Fake smiles, sock hops, and moments of frivolity color the bleakness, yet there’s none of the humor evident in the Knockoff paintings. The old showbiz axiom here comes to mind: Comedy is tragedy plus time.

Perhaps Shimomura will speak about that distance in his two lectures this month (Town Hall: 7:30 p.m. Wed., July 15; TAM: 3 p.m. Sun., July 19). The bitterness of past injustice—and maybe some still lingering today—has been filtered through 70 years of pop culture. In our current era of virtual selves, screen avatars, and mixed-race families, it’s harder to say what’s fake, authentic, or “all-American.” We’re heading toward a majority minority America, after all, far different than that of Shimomura’s youth and Jones’ early influence. “The connotation of being Asian in this country has been so negative,” says Shimomura in the show’s catalog. Once, yes; but after five decades of art-making, he’s winning the battle against stereotype.

In his 2010 American vs. Disney, Shimomura delivers a knockout blow to a jumbled gallery of familiar cartoon characters, stars swirling around their stunned noggins. Animation nerds will be quick to tell you that they’re not all from Disney (another shorthand for the white-bread majority culture); and there in the lower corner is a dazed-looking Bugs Bunny, unsure of his place in Shimomura’s America. Silly wabbit, you belong here, too.

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