Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Johnny Hart and Specific Characters

One of the things about Hart that really influenced me is how specific some of his characters were. Most cartoon characters are pretty simple stereotypes, but the kind of cartoons I respond to most are the ones with the most unique personalities - and the artists who are able to draw the personalities, not just write them.

Popeye, Bugs Bunny, Yogi Bear, some Peanuts characters..there really is only a handful of complex characters in our whole history. Specific is naturally funny.

What do I mean by specific?

I could also say a character who has a few traits that you would never think to put together, some odd contradictions and some random unrelated traits. That's how real people are.

Most people don't analyze things into their separate parts. If they did, they would realize that many things and people they think of as whole entities are really mishmashes of odd parts. We glue the mismatched parts in our heads and don't question them. The most interesting people are the ones with the most mishmash.

Think of how many generic cartoon stereotypes there are.
The big dumb strong guy. The little mean guy. The wiseacre. The normal guy. The 'tude guy. The assertive modern girl. None of those characters make up whole characters. There aren't enough mismatched unrelated traits.

Animation has the worst history of shallow characters. Mickey, Sneezy, Grumpy, Happy, etc. Characters who either have no trait at all, or just one.
Johnny Hart has characters that range from the completely generic to the most specific.

B.C. has no personality.

Thor is a frustrated inventor who sometimes has a way with girls. Not enough to make a full character.

Peter is a snooty know-it-all. We've seen that many times.

Curls is sarcastic.

The cute girl is the cute girl. That's it.

The fat Broad is more interesting. She is a man-hunter. She loves men but also wants to dominate them. She hates snakes and beats them to a pulp.

Hart's most specific characters though, have the oddest traits.

Clumsy Carp is clumsy. By itself, not much of anything.

He also is an ichthyologist - he studies fish, especially rare prehistoric ones. He spends hours a day with his head under water watching the odd fish go by.


Wiley is the oddest, most specific character of all. He has the most unique and unrelated traits:

He is a poet.
He hates water - actually fears and is repulsed by it.

He is scraggly and has a peg leg.

He is superstitious. Superstition is one of the funniest traits a human can have and Hart really draws superstitious fear and outrage with great conviction.

He distrusts anything new - especially women. The very fact that women are so appealing makes him distrust them. When Hart combines Wiley's phobias it's really funny.

I always wondered - how did Hart decide on these weird combinations of traits? They work great and real people are like that, but it's not usual to see it in cartoons. Did he just sit down and make a list of these traits and build a character around them? Or did he draw Wiley first and then come up with traits for him?

Other specific characters in comics and cartoons tended to evolve. Popeye wasn't quite as weird as he became later. Bugs evolved over a few cartoons. The Peanuts characters started as generic characters and little by little grew specific odd traits. Linus is insecure and needs to clutch his blanket. We accept that as normal now, but how did Schultz come up with that? Schroeder was just a small kid but then started playing the piano. I can't remember whether Lucy sprung into character full blown or whether she evolved.

Hart and Schultz' comics are not as funny as the best animated cartoons, or Don Martin comics, but they have something else that we instinctively crave in entertainment- characters that seem real - and by real, that usually means unexpected combinations of odd traits. We read those comics because we like to follow the adventures of the characters. We don't need a belly laugh every step of the way. The weirdness of the personalities and how they play off each other is entertainment.

When live actors create specific characters for TV and movies, they bring a lot of themselves to the character. Even if the script doesn't create fully blown personalities and quirks in the writing, an interesting actor can fill in the gaps with his own idiosyncrasies, look and voice.

We in cartoons have to come up with it almost from scratch and that's why cartoon characters in general are pretty stereotypical and simple compared to live characters. So when someone like Johnny Hart comes along and creates specific characters from scratch, it's mighty impressive.

You could take this idea of unrelated odd traits a step farther and think of whole groups of people who are stereotyped. Like, you're either a "democrat" or a "republican". When you actually list the beliefs and traits that make up either group, you can find a lot of unrelated randomly selected attributes that the poor members have to believe and accept in order to belong to their chosen stereotype.

Republicans believe in Guns and Jesus - 2 completely incompatible philosophies.
They believe in "right to life", until you grow up and then they send you to get your head blown off. They believe in unrestrained capitalism, even though a huge chunk of their group are poor rednecks who are the last to benefit from this belief.
Like Joe the Goddamn Plumber. Republican radio hosts have hard rock music for their intros. Someone explain that one to me. Shouldn't they only have country music?

Democrats believe in defending the rights of the poor, but wouldn't be caught dead hanging out with any of them. They also believe in political correctness and not offending other groups - even though the poor people they defend are probably the least politically correct people in the country.You could make a long list of the beliefs and traits of any group of people and find totally random unrelated parts that make up the whole we recognize as the group.


Whit said...

You should develop characters out of Joan Crawford's eyebrows. They only work together when she's awake. Now that she's dead, what the hell are they up to?

Caleb said...

Great stuff. I'd love to see the 3 stooges fight Tank Abbott (winner takes on Christopher Walken).

Elana Pritchard said...

Why do humans find the need to categorize everything all of the time? Does it help them believe they have any idea of what's really going on at all?
Foolish creatures.

p.s. you probably dislike The Simpsons because of it's poor animation quality, but there are some complex, interesting characters and human situations (especially in earlier seasons)

Rick Roberts said...

Really, the only difference between Democrats and Republicans is one party exploits minorities and another fruitlessly tries to pander to them. At the end of the day, they are both run by old rich white men who can buy and sell us all no matter how the economy is.

"Republican radio hosts have hard rock music for their intros. Someone explain that one to me. Shouldn't they only have country music?"

They usually have both. I really think it's not by their choosing, it's their producers who want them to get the younger demographic.

Also veering OT a bit, you want a REAL right wing radio host that actually has a personality worth brocasting ? Listen to Micheal Savage. He isn't a robotic, c*** sucking Republican like Hush Bimbo or The Leprechaun (Bill O'Reilly). He is the only person in any media that has true enthusiasm for his job. Trust me when I say that. His show isn't just about politics, he'll talk about growing up in the Bronx, his vacations (which he usually hates), maybe a movie he saw the night before, and even his dog Teddy. This the "I've been around man" that you don't hear anywhere anymore. Give him a listen sometime John, you'd like him.

Anonymous said...

Ha-ha! Joe the Unlicensed Plumber.

Elana-- Not everything is the same shade of grey. This 'cursed' ability of categorization is more beneficial than you might think.

Niki said...

I have a fear of heights, spiders, the area known to most as "The hood" although I live there, and that people can read my mind. I'm a democrat but I feel like every time we do something it's gonna end in some kooky way. I have suspicions that at any time there is somebody watching me on the internet. I'm pretty tall but I feel like I'm shorter than everyone.

Yeah that's pretty human.

HemlockMan said...

Thanks for putting Christopher Walken in there. We still have a few good faces/voices among the modern actors.

I'd never thought that much about Hart--mainly because he became such a religious fanatic. But when I was a kid I adored the BC strip and had all of the collections. That is definitely a great line: "For all we know, we may already be triumphed over!" Arf!

Michael Russell and Vicki Fox Productions said...

Regarding the characters in "B.C." ...

The book, "Growingold With BC: A Celebration Of Johnny Hart", which was published by the children of the late Mr Hart, identifies the source of the characters. Most of them are based on real people - friends of Mr Hart. There were a couple that were generic, such as Cute Chick. Even the Queen Ant was based on his wife.

JohnK said...

>>Listen to Micheal Savage<<

Actually, Michael Savage is exactly who I was thinking of: a raving right wing lunatic, who has an intro and commercial breaks of hard rock guitar riffs.

It's completely incongruent.

He's funny though.

Niki said...

This is pretty unrelated but if I want to learn to draw something like this would it be OK digitally cut it and learn things piece by piece? The reason is that I want to gain the skills but I also childishly want to learn 'What is my style'

I can't remember anyone else I think is funny besides the anti-gay politician who were gay.

Ted said...

"Superstition is one of the funniest traits a human can have and Hart really draws superstitious fear and outrage with great conviction."

And yet when everyone in the strip bought into the chrisitan supersititons, it wasn't all that funny...

(Quick look at the first volume of complete Peanuts; Lucy seemed to be a speed freak daddy's girl at first)

Rick Roberts said...

a raving right wing lunatic, who has an intro and commercial breaks of hard rock guitar riffs.

See I think he can get away with the hard rock since he isn't a robot like the other so called right wingers. The man has a passion for what he believes which why is the music is fitting for him and how he dose come off as a lunatic. Yes, you got to filter through his BS but I think he is very smart and has something relevant to say, a rarity in the talk radio world. Also he has critized the Republican Party and Bush on a fairly regular basis, so that alone seperates him from the morons on W-ABC and Fox News.

pappy d said...

It seems to me that a cartoon character needs time to develop. Bugs & Daffy both started out as generic zany characters but became fully distinct personalities, at least as much as Jimmy Stewart or Bob Hope.

Homer Simpson started as a generic writer-has-father-issues grouchy a-hole & developed into the superb boob we know today. He is consistent but he can always surprise you with the extent of his stupidity.

I suspect Democrats & Republicans are just characters from TV, too.

Owen said...

Alright John,
I loved this one, thank you.

OWEN said...

Best post yet.

Oscar Baechler said...

I never understand how conservatives ended up the anti-abortion, pro-death penalty side while liberals ended up the pro-abortion, anti-death penalty side. Shouldn't it just be pro-death and anti-death?

Thunderrobot said...

I've never thought about interesting characters that way before. Maybe your on to something, but I wonder...

Is it important for the traits to contrast each other? Isn't a character with a lot of individual traits (regardless of if they contrast or compliment each other) more interesting than a character with one?

Anonymous said...

Archie Bunker is one of televisions greatest characters. Everybody knows or is an Archie Bunker.

I'm a huge fan of George from Seinfeld too. He's the most specific character on the show, and for me, the funniest.

Pseudonym said...

I think that McKee has pointed this out, too. Characters are more "interesting" when they have contradictory traits. It can be as simple as a contradiction between what they say and what they do, or between what they do and their true inner personality, or something deeper.

Based on this theory, I think I know why Charles Schultz gave Linus a security blanket. It's because he's the exact opposite of Lucy.

Lucy is a loud-mouthed brat bully, but it's a mask for deep-seated insecurity.

Linus is the converse: deep down he's a great intellectual, and possibly the world's youngest philosopher, but to offset this, he has to be overtly insecure on the outside. Hence, the security blanket.

Ian M said...

I hold by that if you rearrange certain beliefs of Democrats and republicans you can easily turn them both into hate groups.

Oscar Baechler said...


Osama Bin Laden called, he says thanks for not catching him, along with conservatives in general.

Man, it's gotta suck when you make the French and boy-bands look tough on terror. (More contrasts.)

Christer said...

Great post! This happens to be one of my pet peeves.

Elana Pritchard said...

I guess poisonous and non-poisonous plants might be beneficial, but beyond that...

seriously though, you must admit that humans who put things in boxes all the time lose their ability to think outside of the box

lastangelman said...

An excellent post.
Popeye lost some of his initial weird appeal when Fleischers moved to Florida, then really started to bland out (comparing him to previous Popeyes, not the competition, which was also blanding out) when Paramount took control, practically becoming a domesticated sitcom character, instead of a weird violent roustabout with a speech impediment.

One could argue that Johnny Hart became Wiley incarnate and superimposed that viewpoint on the entire strip, becoming incongruous with the views of many newspaper editors.

Whenever I despair that all current celebritards are vain bland lookalikes - I check in with The Superficial website - plenty of pics of celebs looking unpretty or unusual.

Brendan said...

The only good radio host is Howard Stern, and he's not even good anymore. I'm surprised anyone still listens to the radio.

Otherwise, great informative post, opened my eyes a lot to character development, thank you very much

Hans Flagon said...

Gad! We are all hypocrites!

Niki, I think there are periods where someone absorbs a lot of other stykistic traits of others into their own drawing, either consciously or unconsciously, but your own style develops out of the necessity of having to produce, efficiently and prolifically. Or relaxing after one of those stages. But it may not come from analysis as much as experience. Check Out Malcom Gladwells book Outliers, and read what he has to say about 10,000 hours of practice.

You see styles develop all the time in the realm of comic book illustration, especially certain periods where a lot of learrnig was done on the job. The Late seventies superhero comics were full of such real life essays in stylistic development.

Ed Choy Moorman said...

Lucy also evolved; she started out as a cute baby with big eyes, began screwing with people, and then got older and fully fussy.

Thanks as always for the great dissection, John.

The Jerk said...

Lucy definitely evolved, but it was a very rapid development into the character we all love. at first she was "the little kid" who would constantly ask charlie brown to explain things she didn't understand, then laugh at his logical explanations as absurd. c once Linus came along, she was aged up and started to develop her more familiar characteristics.

elana- it's easier to think outside the box when you acknowledge there IS a box, and know where it is, otherwise you're just thinking inside a bigger box.

Nancy said...

Johnny Hart modeled the characters in B.C. on his close friends, even caricaturing them in some instances. Hart caricatured himself as "B.C." though I thought he was really all the other male characters except Wiley...he had quite a mischievous streak.

Eric said...

Rant away, John, this is great.

Anonymous said...

Oh man, this post just gave me a better idea for a video than what I was originally gonna do today!

jeremy said...

I got a lot out of Pseudonym's comment -- contradictory traits make every situation you put a character in more have more drama, because there is automatically inner-conflict. Ren was supposed to be the "smart" one, but had the capacity of being even more ridiculous than Stimpy. Stimpy was "stupid" but had more humanity -- which had the capacity to serve them better than all of Ren's wit.

I honestly have been trying to figure out George Liquor for some time. I guess he is "conservative" which should mean he prizes being even-keeled -- but he is easily riled up into an emotional pitch which is anything but.

Which is exactly why that clip of O'Reilly freaking out before air was so funny.

Ryan said...

@niki: I'm not John, but I would expect him to point out that you should learn to mentally divide into multiple levels of construction and detail. And digitally dividing it could impede your ability to learn that.

Jeffrey said...

"We still have a few good faces/voices among the modern actors."

Steve Buscemi. That face should not work in the movies...but it does.

Benicio del Toro. Watch "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas", "Sin City", and "Che" and figure out what is going on with his face.

William H. Macy, Bruce Campbell, Edward James Olmos...there are a lot of great faces still out there.

Anonymous said...

Elana-- Literally speaking, everyone puts everything in a box. Boxes are both a cause and a byproduct of our evolved intelligence.

Doctors, of all brands, would be useless without the ability to 'box' things, as their skill is one of educated guesses based on heuristic problem solving.

Rick Roberts said...

I am not a Republican or a Coservative. I don't have any politicial views that only stick to one side.

Niki said...

thank you, Hans! I'm gonna learn what I like about it then!

Hey John! can we have one of those 'identify it' things? like when you post a but of cartoons and we see which has the best character traits?

Sphyzex_9 said...

Here's a funny example of random unrelated traits in liberals.


notice how they are beating a wooden drum.

Dave Jacob Hoffman said...

Paranoia, anxiety, agitation and fear of water? Sounds like he has rabies.

maribel said...

I love this post. I've been trying to come up for interesting characters anytime I draw a comic or something. I used to love Peanuts as a kid and that inspires me the most.

I agree, the traits in that strip are pretty weird, but everybody thinks they're normal. I love that kind of thing. Problem is you can't really do it on purpose, at least not totally. It probably works better if you suddenly have this weird idea when you are writing a character. But if you intentionally try to add something weird, sometimes it doesn't fit.

You're right about the life-action actors. I'm now rewatching Get Smart on dvd, and it seems pretty clear that those actors were the characters. Steve Carell and the guys in the modern version are not the characters. Even using the same script the results would probably be pretty different.

w.w.i.i.g.g.s.s. said...

John sed: "Other specific characters in comics and cartoons tended to evolve. Popeye wasn't quite as weird as he became later."

I sez:
Hey John, Popeye actually started out kind of weird in the original Segar strips! The cartoons, wonderful as they are, all seem to have the same basic plot elements usually involving a rescue and that can of spinach (which wasn't used as frequently in the strips). Segar's Popeye is a more well-rounded character.

Coincidentally I saw a documentary on Will Eisner last night that brought up this very issue with the stereotypically depicted Black character, Ebony in the Spirit. Eisner offers no apologies for the character because back then, anyone that was different -Jews, Italians, Chinese- was called out because of their differences. Its just the way people thought back then. Important racial issues aside, I found the connection between his explanation and your post today very interesting. The essence of slapstick relies on visual shorthand.

Anonymous said...

What would you call Beavis and Butthead? Generic or specific?

Roberto González said...

Sorry, that "maribel" who posted there was really me, Roberto. I used my mother's account by mistake.

introducingpants said...

"send you to get your head blown off" ? Last time I checked, there was no draft. In fact, the last time there was a draft for a big war (ie Vietname), Democrats were in charge

drawingtherightway said...

In the image with Daffy, Elmer and Bugs, it looks like Bug's left cheek is drawn off perspective somehow. Anyone else think so?

Rick Roberts said...

"In fact, the last time there was a draft for a big war (ie Vietname), Democrats were in charge"

Which further proves neither party is any different. They just switched roles over the past 40 years.

I must say this is one of your best posts John. Make a character have one generic trait that you can identify with him then add more to him or her funny.

C. A. M. Thompson said...

I think right wing radio hosts use hard rock music because it's second only to rap as far as having the most testosterone. Country is way too nice and doesn't evoke a confrontational atmosphere.

By the way these old B.C. strips are kind of a revelation. Thanks for posting them.

Elana Pritchard said...

What about artists?

Rick Roberts said...

I would also add Christopher Lloyd to the list of great character actors during the past 40 years.

David Germain said...

I'm surprised you didn't go more into depths with Daffy's character. He's probably the most complex character of them all, even putting many of the live action characters you mentioned to shame.

Although, I did my own Daffy analysis about 2 1/2 years ago. Feel free to elaborate on that if you want.

krakit said...

Please don't join the way
Christians present Jesus as
some pretty man that only
goes around carrying little

When Jesus told the high
priest that he would see
Him coming on the clouds
(Matthew 26:64)that was a
prophecy that He would
return to destroy Jerusalem.

He also said, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." Matthew 10:34

So yes, there are times where
Jesus says to love your enemy,
but He also presents Himself as
the one who will destroy those
who deserve destruction.

Marty Fugate said...

Every time I visit your site, it's like somebody forgot to lock up Fort Knox.