Animation as a Genre

Genre theory often sets out to answer how any genre can be understood as an identifiable subject with clear boundaries. Rick Altman’s work on generic semantics and syntax is particularly useful in understanding the ways that animation as a method of production has influenced, but not overshadowed, notions of animation as a genre. Altman argues that genre is too often thought of has having one, set element that gives it its qualities. Instead, genres may be classified as such because they share the same semantic elements – defined as a film’s ‘building blocks’ (sets, props, plots, etc.) – or because they organize those elements in a similar way (in the themes, plot structures, character relationships, etc.).[1] Most importantly, Altman argues that these concepts are most productive when they are taken in tandem; the most recognizable genres are those that show coherence between the semantic and the syntactic elements.[2]

Understanding that early animation was advertised as a technological marvel of the new film industry creates a syntax for the animated cartoon genre: it helps define one of the genre’s overarching concerns and its relationship to other film genres, but it does not complete the picture. Most of all, animation-as-style does very little to explain American animation’s predisposition toward a recognizable aesthetic in the figures nor the predisposition towards comedy.[3] It is the gradual influence of the cartoon – or (more literally) newspaper comics and flipbooks – and the cartoonists themselves that helped to define the medium as a genre.

In contrast to the dismal treatment of the comics section in newspapers today, “the funnies” were once a central component to the daily newspaper. As early producers looked for ways to incorporate more narrative into their films, the serial comics in the papers seemed a useful source. The newspaper comics had the benefit of having already-popular, recognizable characters, familiar gags, and allowed viewers to come into the theater with at least some basic expectation for the kinds of situations that would be found in these comics.[4] It did not take long for films based on comics to become a reliable pillar for early narrative cinema, although the collaborations usually featured live actors playing the parts of the popular newspaper characters. Before embarking on his time-consuming animation projects Little Nemo and Gertie the Dinosaur, cartoonist Winsor McCay allowed the use of his characters in the film Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend (Edwin S. Porter, 1906), with live actors playing the comic characters’ roles.[5] Similar techniques were used to bring the “Katzenjammer Kids” and “Mutt and Jeff” comics to the cinema[6]

Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend (Edwin S. Porter, 1906)

Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend (Edwin S. Porter, 1906)

It was not until the early 1910s that filmmakers began to borrow from the aesthetics of the comics as well as the characters and gags. McCay’s Little Nemo (1911) is one of the earlier efforts. Another early adaptor was animation pioneer Emile Cohl, whose animated cartoon based on the strip “The Newlyweds” inspired the publicity for the film to clarify that “The Newlyweds are not real people dressed up to imitate the famous McManus cartoons, but are drawings that move! The trick photography required to produce such wonderful effect is the work of the ‘Eclair’ people.”[7] Here, the beginnings of the concerns of animation as modern, technological style of filmmaking begins to blend with the aethetics and themes of the comics. This is also the first known instance of the phrase “animated cartoon” being used as a descriptor for an animated film.[8] By 1916, popular comic “Mutt and Jeff” had become a regularly produced animated film series, and a number of other comic strip characters, including Krazy Kat and Happy Hooligan, had been given short-lived careers on the silver screen.[9]

Advertisement for one incarnation of "Mutt and Jeff" circa 1933

Advertisement for one incarnation of “Mutt and Jeff” circa 1933

More than just borrowing ideas and characters from the comics, early animated cartoons also drew a large portion of their personnel from the newspaper comics. As animation in film began to take off, animators for syndicated comic strips were quickly snapped up by film corporations to help produce the enormous number of cels needed for each cartoon. These animators were regularly hired away from one studio to work at a rival film studio, allowing early animation to develop a relatively uniform style, both in terms of drawing styles and comedic influences.[10]

While there is quite a difference between the Mutt and Jeff or Krazy Kat animated cartoons and the animated cartoons seen today, these comic characters were integral to the initial development of the recognizable aesthetics of American animation. Modeling the theatrical animations after comic characters gave American animation a distinct “look” that was widely copied throughout the developing industry in the early days of animated films and helped to establish the initial possibilities how slapstick gags might appear on the big screen.

So, while discourse about animation as a style of filmmaking gave the animated cartoon one important element of its generic identity, it took more to begin to develop a style into a genre. With the influence of the comics, animated cartoons were able to not only develop an initial, recognizable aesthetic, but also a relatively similar approach to comedy, character types, and plot structures (or lack thereof). This early marrying of the developing technology to the already-popular drawn medium may be seen as the basis for the animated cartoon as comedy, as a story, as a fantasy, and the beginnings of a niche appeal to younger audiences (since comics, like later cartoons, were intended for all audiences but known to be particularly attractive to children). It is these elements that have helped to make ‘animation’ a recognizable genre in its own right for American audiences.


[1] Rick Altman, “A Semantic – Syntactic Approach to Film Genre,” Cinema Journal 23.3 (Spring 1984), pp6-18; Altman, Film/Genre, pp84-87

[2] Altman, Film/Genre, pp87-90

[3] Not all American animated cartoons are comical, of course, but those exceptions are marked as remarkable outliers rather than exemplars of the genre.

[4] Donald Crafton, Before Mickey: The Animated Film 1898-1928. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press (1982), pp36-27; Leonard Maltin, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons. Rev. ed. New York: New American Library (1987), pp12-17.

[5] Crafton, pp37

[6] Crafton, pp43; Maltin, pp13-15

[7] Moving Picture World Feb. 22, 1913; cited in Crafton, pp81-83

[8] Crafton, pp83

[9] Maltin, pp15-17

[10] Maltin, pp16


1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Book Review – “Funny Pictures: Animation and Comedy in Studio-Era Hollywood” | 540 Feet

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