In 1911, famed cartoonist Winsor McCay debuted one of the first animated cartoons, based on his sophisticated newspaper strip “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” itself inspired by Freud’s recent research on dreams. McCay is largely forgotten today, but he unleashed an art form, and the creative energy of artists from Otto Messmer and Max Fleischer to Walt Disney and Warner Bros.’ Chuck Jones. Their origin stories, rivalries, and sheer genius, as Reid Mitenbuler skillfully relates, were as colorful and subversive as their creations―from Felix the Cat to Bugs Bunny to feature films such as Fantasia―which became an integral part and reflection of American culture over the next five decades.
Pre-television, animated cartoons were aimed squarely at adults; comic preludes to movies, they were often “little hand grenades of social and political satire.” Early Betty Boop cartoons included nudity; Popeye stories contained sly references to the injustices of unchecked capitalism. “During its first half-century,” Mitenbuler writes, “animation was an important part of the culture wars about free speech, censorship, the appropriate boundaries of humor, and the influence of art and media on society.” During WWII it also played a significant role in propaganda. The Golden Age of animation ended with the advent of television, when cartoons were sanitized to appeal to children and help advertisers sell sugary breakfast cereals.
Wild Minds is an ode to our colorful past and to the creative energy that later inspired The Simpsons, South Park, and BoJack Horseman.