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May 30-June 5, 2007

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Strong Bad

Rahr: The humor on Strong Bad is similar to 'Napoleon Dynamite' if it was crossed with 'The Far Side' and made a bunch more references to '80s hair bands.

Tooned On

Web animation returns cartoons to their rightful audience: the grownups

By Hannah Strom-Martin


Eight-foot-tall carnivorous bunny rabbits. Grape Nuts robots. The Magical Oven of the Forest. You won't have viewed these sublimely surreal creations on the Charlotte's Web DVD released this spring. Not that there's anything wrong with a live-action remake of Charlotte, you understand; just that lately, wannabe kid classics like Dakota Fanning's Charlotte and the already old Eragon just aren't cutting it anymore. Wilbur can now do CGI back flips and Eragon's dragon looks darn cute, but does anyone ever get the feeling that, hellraising South Park-ians and aging Simpsons aside, animated entertainment just isn't for adults anymore?

It's a pity, really. Snarky pop-culture writers (not that I know any) often remind us that animation was originally a form of entertainment for adults. Even today, Pixar and its Disney-spawned ilk still offer a few layers of subtext for parents who accompany their children to Cars or Meet the Robinsons. But stoner VW buses voiced by George Carlin and middle-aged superheroes (even ones as cool as The Incredibles) are rather safe, predictable fare. What happened to the really wacky stuff? Isn't there an alternative to the same old kiddie toons or South Park's wearying bodily-function jokes?

As usual, the Internet offers salvation.

Typically, one discovers Flash animation as a freshman in college. The term refers to Macromedia Flash, the software used by animation pioneers to create such memorable toons as The Ren & Stimpy Show, The Critic and the intro to The Rosie O'Donnell Show. However, in recent years, an ever-expanding Flash animation subculture has popped up on the Internet, discovered by bored college types and passed on to the world at large. You've probably been seeing glimpses of this subculture in the mainstream media for a while now without even realizing it.

By now, most people have received a taste of JibJab.com, an animation site run by brothers Gregg and Evan Spiridellis that specializes in satires of current politics. During the 2004 Bush/Kerry election, their musical satire "This Land" besieged e-mail inboxes, NBC Nightly News and The Tonight Show with its parody of the Woody Guthrie tune "This Land Is Your Land." You remember this one: crude magazine cutouts of W. and Kerry singing the re-imagined song, each vowing that "this land will surely vote for me!" (Favorite lyric, Kerry to Bush: "You can't say 'nuclear'--that really scares me.")

This little gem made the JibJab name famous. Thousands flocked there to see more animated political hijinks, including a cooking show in which a stoned Bill Clinton teaches viewers how to bake brownies.

At the end of 2006, JibJab did it again with "Nuckin' Futs," a musical recap of the year's major events from Brangelina to Hezbollah. Sung to the tune of "Jingle Bells," it stars a chorus of young children commenting on the year's more notable disasters: "Abramhoff! Tom Delay! Freezers full of cash! My congressman IM'd me for a picture of my ass!"

The cartoon debuted on The Tonight Show and spread to a number of major news and entertainment channels, proving JibJab had come a long way since its days as a mere labor of love. The site now offers merchandise, including DVDs of all its episodes and is described on that paragon of wisdom Wikipedia.com as "a Daily Show for the over 40s."

JibJab, however, is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The world of web animation is vast and offers animated comic relief for every taste, from the politically savvy to the merely hilarious. In the best traditions of animation, the Flash cult is often subversive and thought-provoking, holding up a wonderfully skewed mirror to pop culture.

On the political front, TheMeatrix.com is far and away the animation to beat, not merely funny and intelligent, but actually life-changing as well. A clever parody of The Matrix, "The Meatrix" follows heroes Leo, Moopheus and Chickity (a pig, cow and chicken, respectively) who take on the evil of corporate factory farms. I would never look at the PETA pamphlets in college when concerned vegans tried to educate me on the horrors of how we raise and process livestock. I feared the heartbreaking stories and bloody photographs.

"The Meatrix," while still getting the facts across (cows raised in pens so small they can never turn around; chickens de-beaked; waste from factories flowing into our water supply), does so in a humorous, engaging way ("Ewww!" Leo says, taking the red pill and confronting the reality of how he's been raised on his not-so-idyllic farm. "What's that smell?"). The cartoon blood still makes a point, but without earning the automatic hatred of a defensive audience.

"The Meatrix" has won a good half-dozen awards from various animation festivals and environmental organizations, and rightfully so. I stopped drinking milk within a week, switched to soy and now avoid anything non-organic. And if I feel any base instinct to eat fast food, I just hit the play button and watch Leo wail on the Man's ass for a while. This is web animation that might just solve the moral and social problems of our fast-food nation.

Foamy

Courtesy Lollipop Magazine
Foamy universe: The many guises of Foamy, the beloved gutter-mouthed squirrel.

For those who like their humor blunt and biting, Johnathan Ian Mathers' Neurotically Yours website (www.illwillpress.com), launched in 2002, offers no end of scathing social commentary and plenty of angry folksongs performed by a pissed-off squirrel named Foamy. Think South Park's Cartman is hardcore? Foamy's hundred-plus cartoons, lovingly collected on the main site and at www.friendsoffoamy.com, have spawned cults and tackled every issue from the pretentiousness of Starbucks coffee cups to outsourced Indian tech support at Dell.

Possessing perpetually raised middle fingers and glaring eyes, Foamy, ironically animated without a mouth despite his verbose nature, seems intent on outdoing South Park both in the intentionally crude style of his animation and his more cogently stated tirades against society. The three "Tech Support" cartoons are some of the funniest animation ever concocted, bashing not only the sloppy practices of computer outsourcing (the techie's lame computer solutions--"Disable the monitor so as not to see the problem!"--are eerily reminiscent of my last call to Dell), but expressing deepest sympathy for Indian workers earning a pittance to suffer customer abuse from "you American bastards!"

The Indian techie, we discover, is the sole member of the Smell Computer Company support team, working 24/7, 365 days a year and rudely shocked by a cattle-prod-wielding monkey if he doesn't work to standard. "What is this 'break?'" he asks Foamy when the squirrel wants to know when he sleeps. The laughter may kill anyone who has ever spent six hours trying to communicate with someone in customer support.

Monkeys with cattle prods sound weird? That ain't nuthin'. Try entering animator Amy Winfrey's bizarre little world. Winfrey, one of the most prolific and widely followed web animators (not only has she contributed animation to South Park, her animated short "The Bad Plant" won a silver medal from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Student Academy Awards), is the creator of the series Muffin Films, Big Bunny and Making Fiends, a triple threat for any serious follower of web animation. Her world is a strange combination of art-school chic and Edward Gorey, featuring clueless children in peril and a droll contempt for the overly cheerful that would make Lemony Snicket rejoice.

Muffinfilms.com hosts a series of shorts exploring our strange relationship with what the website calls "the baked god of baked goods: the muffin!" (Why do I get the feeling that Winfrey is a Frank Zappa fan?) In 12 shorts, the Muffin Films muffins rise from the dead, eat those who would eat them, make an ill-fated attempt to conquer earth and unleash a tide of grief upon a "muffinless" population. It's strange, to say the least. But you won't get this sort of thing anywhere but the web.

The weird fun continues in a more mainstream vein with Big-bunny.com, a truly twisted romp involving three young children who come upon a giant pink (and suspiciously pointy-toothed) bunny in the woods. "Hello, crunchy children!" the creature exclaims--and a nerd catchphrase is born. In between trying to get his new friends to sit on a "couch" made of French bread and dodging the suspicions of Suzy (the only one of the trio to question his frequent use of the word "delicious"), Big Bunny spins tales of the truly bizarre exploits of imaginary characters like the Turnip King and His Bastard Son and the Red, Red Squirrel (the only cartoon animal I know directly influenced by Vlad the Impaler). Any parent who has ever suffered through an episode of The Care Bears is long overdue for a shot of Winfrey's twisted take on childhood fables. Her Gorey-esque animation style delightfully subverts everything we have come to expect from a cast of cute forest animals.

'Making Fiends'

Swingin': Charlotte (center swing) is the unwitting foil to the evil first-grader Vendetta in Amy Winfrey's darn-near-brilliant series 'Making Fiends.'

Of course, Making Fiends (www.makingfiends.com) is Winfrey's biggest success. Soon to appear as a half-hour show on Nickelodeon, Fiends is a satire of childhood that can also be appreciated by thoughtful children of any age. Full of dark imagination, its animation resembling Gorey crossed with a washed-out version of South Park, Fiends follows the exploits of two little girls, evil genius Vendetta and good girl Charlotte.

Vendetta, the theme song tells us, "is always making fiends," a series of unholy apparitions she usually sics on the oblivious Charlotte, who is incapable of being anything but cheerful. Winfrey should be commended simply for doing Charlotte's voice--a high-pitched whine peppered with "Yippees!" and "Hoorays!" that is sure to drive anyone with an ounce of pathos completely insane.

Vendetta, constantly frustrated in her attempts to kill "that stupid girl," reigns over her first-grade classroom with an iron fist, not to mention a giant hamster ("What a nice bear you have!" Charlotte exclaims), and is a truly inspired creation, winning our affection with her strange idiosyncrasies (she will only eat beef jerky, clams and fruit punch) and her defiant cackle. Vendetta's voice, done by Aglaia Mortcheva, is something to cherish, her comic timing the center around which all of Fiends turns.

"Oh, Vendetta!" Charlotte exalts at one point, delighted at another of her friend's strange gifts (a seemingly empty but suspiciously growling cage). "You have an imaginary friend, too!"

"I do not have an imaginary friend!" a frustrated Vendetta insists. "It's an invisible fiend!"

If you like dark, subversive humor (and giant fleas "with knives!"), Making Fiends is something to make your own.

The list of Flash Animation sites on Wikipedia alone is enough to keep one exploring the subculture for a good long time. Other popular animations include Weebl and Bob, featuring egg-shaped characters similar to South Park's Terrance and Phillip (if the Canadian duo were British, unintelligible and obsessed with pie) and a host of edgy titles from the now defunct Bullseye Art site (find their original titles on Wikipedia under "Bullseye Art," and proceed with caution when approaching their new site www.magicbutter.com, as they've gotten a bit sick in their old age), including the exploits of Rat Chicken, who wears a grotesque rodent mask in order to avoid getting axed by Farmer Joe, and the gangsta exploits on Ms. Muffy and the Muff Mob, an unholy combination of Eminem and Strawberry Shortcake, featuring expletive-dropping little girls wearing giant muffin hats. Want to see a magical oven snort the shortcake equivalent of crack? This one's for you.

However, the crown jewel of current web animation, and a phenomenon sure to live on forever in the history of pop, is Strong Bad Email (www.homestarrunner.com). Strong Bad, a wannabe evil mastermind, eternally clad in his red Mexican wrestler's mask and boxing gloves, was originally intended to play sidekick to creators Mark Chapman and Craig Zobel's first Flash character, the dopey but athletic Home Star Runner. However, once "the Brothers Chaps" started a segment on their website featuring the gruff-voiced Strong Bad answering real-life e-mails from fans, nothing was ever the same again.

While half the pleasure of Strong Bad comes from watching him make fun of his correspondent's grammar, the real name of the game on Strong Bad Email is pop culture. Favorite fan episodes include our intrepid e-mail answerer suffering as his hopelessly primitive computer succumbs to 4 million computer viruses at once (even his Edgar the Virus Hunter program can't help him); pondering, in a downright profound send up of the genre, what his anime alter ego would look like; writing a children's book called No Two Children Are Not on Fire; and, of course, drawing a dragon he christens Trogdor the Burninator, who soon gets his own death metal theme song and a music video replete with burning thatch-roofed cottages. These, of course, are only the episodes that can be explained with human language.

The humor on Strong Bad is similar to Napoleon Dynamite if it was crossed with "The Far Side" and made a bunch more references to '80s hair bands. A huge cast of supporting characters populate the Strong Bad universe, many with their own cartoon shows available at the click of a mouse. The animation is unique. Only Strong Bad himself bears any resemblance to a human being. His brother Strong Sad sports elephant feet and a head reminiscent of the Pillsbury Doughboy. His pet, the Cheat, looks like a Swiss cheese with flippers. One would think, given the surrealistic nature of the animation, that the show would be replete with drug references, but this is a world of silliness not smut, its innocent-but-warped humor making it a breath of fresh air next to popular, foul-mouthed animation like Family Guy.

It is also far more imaginative. The Brothers Chaps don't stop with cartoons but have expanded to make online video games. Peasant's Quest (featuring Trogdor) is a fully functional takeoff on the primitive, pixilated games of the '80s, where players type in commands in order to make their character move. Live-action rock videos featuring the Brothers in drag as members of the hair band Limozeen sneak into Strong Bad e-mails and have even resulted in an online coloring book (in the recent episode "Coloring."). I'm not ashamed to say I wasted an entire evening exploring this feature, coloring in strung-out-looking rock gods and their groupies with virtual crayons sporting names like "leather black" and "tight shiny purple."

Perhaps this childlike creativity is why so many other geek artists have been drawn to the show. Early on, the band They Might Be Giants contributed music to a video about the depressive Strong Sad called "Experimental Film." Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon has been spotted wearing his Strong Bad T-shirt (the Brothers, who refuse to run any sort of advertising on the website, pay for their business by selling tons of original merchandise) and has included references to Trogdor and Strong Bad on both Buffy and Angel.

In the geek world, putting a Strong Bad bumper sticker on your car may get you into trouble as other fans recognize you and begin to honk. Blockbuster clerks hop up and down at the sight of any clothing sporting the be-masked mastermind, and the entire male population of my first writing group once broke into a spontaneous and completely accurate recital of the "Techno" episode when I innocently asked, "Hey, do you guys know about Strong Bad?"

The bottom line is, some things have to be seen to be believed. Not everyone is going to go gaga over Strong Bad, have an epiphany over Foamy or decide to move to the forest with Big Bunny. But thanks to the slow prevailing of underground art in our creatively starved world, now they at least have the option. There's a revolution goin' on, people! As Strong Bad would say, "Everybody to the limit!"


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