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Koko the Clown in an Out of the Inkwell cartoon

Out of the Inkwell

1920s. Inkwell Studios. Produced by Max Fleischer. Directed by Dave Fleischer

The 20-year power struggle between cartoonist and cartoon character reaches its high point In the Out of the Inkwell series. The early Inkwells have interesting notions crudely executed, and as the animation improves throughout the 1920s, the ideas for playing with the interface between the drawn world and the real world become correspondingly more sophisticated.

Each cartoon begins in a live-action location, usually an animation studio. The animator (Dave Fleischer himself, I believe) draws Koko the Clown on his pad. Koko comes to life and has an adventure, at the end of which he jumps back into the inkwell. Occasionally Koko emerges from the inkwell under his own steam, often accompanied by his sidekick Fitz the Dog. Koko and Fitz are characters, in a crude sense, but they are also plastic objects who can be distorted and transformed by the godlike animators (they can also distort and transform themselves). Koko is squeezed, stretched, and manipulated in ways that would never happen to Mickey Mouse.

In "Koko the Kid" (1927) the animator playfully/maliciously draws a long white beard on Koko (people who swoon over Duck Amuck should see this). Koko pulls off the beard, which hops around on its own and reattaches itself as Koko's tail. Reaction shots of the animator looking down at his pad and laughing. Later in this same cartoon Koko has turned into a baby and is leaping around buildings in Manhattan—an animated Koko against a photographic background. He climbs into a window, revealed in the next shot to be good old Inkwell Studios. Koko clambers back onto the animator's pad, and as he stands there crying the animator's hand reaches in and feeds Koko from a real baby bottle.

In "Koko's Courtship"(1928) the animator has rolled up a drawing he has made of Koko and handed it to a messenger boy to deliver across town. (This is all live action.) Suspicious that the boy might dawdle along the way, the animator then draws Fitz the Dog and sends Fitz to follow along. The boy sits down on a park bench next to a girl, Koko comes to life and starts a romance of his own in animation-land, complications ensue in both realms. Koko gets himself in a dangerous situation, and Fitz has to run back to the animator for help. He says (via intertitle): "Quick, the pen! Koko's running wild!" The animator hands Fitz the pen he used to create Koko, the dog takes the pen to the rescue, and at the last moment Koko saves himself by jumping into the nib of the pen. Then his arm (animated) reaches out from the pen (photographed) to grab Fitz and pull Fitz into the pen with him.

Every one of the shorts has situations as striking and perplexing. What are the metaphysics of this relationship between creator and created, between live-action world and animated world? Koko and Fitz can hurt people and move objects in the "real" world (in one short, Koko reaches out from the paper to strike the animator with a pen, and the animator gets ink all over his face). The animator can watch Koko's adventures and intervene in them. When Koko flies an airplane on a round the world trip, the animator decides to make things more exciting, so he creates a thunderstorm by switching the light in the studio off and on to make lightning effects. Another time the animator simply pulls out from under Koko the piece of paper with the background drawn on it and substitutes another drawn background, changing Koko's situation entirely (shades of Sherlock Jr!) Sometimes the animator decides that a new character would spice things up, so he draws one, gives it some verbal instructions, and sends it off after Koko.

Sometimes the physical paper and ink are used quite literally, as when Koko has to struggle to unroll the paper on which he has been drawn so that he can have some adventures. If someone mixes a magic chemical or some liquor into the inkwell before Koko gets drawn, Koko's behavior is affected accordingly. At one point a blob of ink weights down Fitz's back half so that he can't move.

The Out of the Inkwell cartoons treat animation as a technical/aesthetic novelty (in the tradition of Winsor MacKay, live and in person, performing with Gertie the Dinosaur, animated and onscreen). It seems to me that Disney underplayed this "constructed" aspect of animation in favor of a self-contained animated world that is fairly realistic (within its own conventions) and whose characters are emotionally expressive and pretty "human." The Warners cartoons of the 40s reintroduced the surrealistic, self-referential possibilities of characters who are also plastic objects, and who find themselves in the position of being both "alive" and under someone else's often arbitrary control.



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein