There are times when it’s necessary to ask oneself about the essentialism of a certain artistic language. What makes something a film, for example, and nothing more than a film; or a play and nothing more than a play; or a cartoon and nothing more than a cartoon? The solution to the question entails eliminating anything that a given way of expression inherits or mimeses from other languages: taking out of film what it has borrowed from novels or theatre and contemplating the spine of what would be untranslatable into any other format. It’s a question that should be made in a classroom: inviting the students to undress a given work until what’s left is pure bone, something that can only be there and would be inconceivable anywhere else. An example (although I might be mistaken): to me, there’s something essentially cinematographic in a gesture (or visual gag) from silent comedies that can evolve into the movement of a dancing body or a sharp and precise cut in a golden age musical, and that can later evolve into the shape of an emotion transubstantiated into a stroke set in motion by an animator. Sometimes I think I can see a straight line from Buster Keaton to Fred Astaire and to a UPA character. Or an Untranslatable Oasis of Glory, for example, in a short film starred by Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner directed –and drawn– by Chuck Jones, in which he plays with time, amplified gestures and a precise choreography: discourse through form in motion.
Should someone ask me where do I think cartoons are more like cartoons, when have they reached a purer and less negotiable expression? I’d probably mention Georges Herriman’s Krazy Kat, a Josep Coll page, a Micharmut cartoon… or the Dot & Dash comic strips that, from February 21st, 1926, onwards, visionary pioneer Cliff Sterrett started drawing as a complement of the pages of his series Polly and Her Pals, which was also brilliant and graphically innovative in its synthesis of Art Déco, dreamlike distortion and pre-lysergic suggestion, but which never made it to the top of essentialism that his other apparently secondary and subordinate work did. Alfons Figueras compared the work of Georges Herriman and his Krazy Kat with the fragile poetics of a very delicate clown number in a dreamlike circus. Using a similar comparison, we could say that Dot & Dash is like a ghostly mime number in the two-dimension Parallel Universe of a CMYK dream. Dot and Dash were born, in the beginning, under another name and with a mixed taxonomy: they were a cat and a dog called Damon and Pythias, which expressed their bewilderment before the world in concise series of four vignettes that headed the familiar adventures of Polly and her bunch. On September 5th, 1926, the characters were re-christened as Dot and Dash, and on February 13th of the following year, the cat became a dog of identical morphology than his walking and treasure-finding colleague, although black (as black as the cat he had been until then). The universe of the characters was expanded from the first four-cartoon strips to two strips of, respectively, three (plus title) and four cartoons (with some variations on this structure every now and then).
In his foreword to the album published by Manuel Caldas as a homage to such synthetic characters, Domingos Isabelinho analyses in depth the density hidden behind the “Poetic of Simplicity” of the very subtle game proposed by Sterrett: “Apparently, nothing happens in Dot and Dash. There’s no dialogues, almost no action. The world of the series has almost no humans. For the two funny animals it’s at the same time a threatening and an interesting world. Dot and Dash are inexpert and, thus, the shyest and more scared creatures ever (they’re scared of their own shadow, as it’s usually said, and this can be seen a couple of times), and they experience, for their own horror and our joy, the strangest optical illusions. The most common being the ones that provoke a mistake in the identification of perceived figures. Dot and Dash feel constantly threatened by the most familiar and inoffensive of creatures (or things: a snowman, their own image reflected on a mirror, etc.). The names of the characters leave no doubt so as to the real place of the series: ‘dot’ and ‘dash’ form the letter ‘a’ in Morse code. It symbolises, in this case, both the characters’ naiveté (they’re only the beginning) and Sterrett and his characters’ playful nature (since it’s a game with the letter ‘a’)”.
The series’ comicalness is, almost always, based in a perception game: that of the characters before the enigmatic world that, instalment after instalment, they keep on discovering as though they were new-borns, but also, that of the readers before the conventions of a universe that exists only as a graphic distillation of reality and in which, for that reason, the shadow of a tree or a deep open ditch on the ground can be represented through similar signs. This Stolen Cartoon belongs to a strip published on May 27th, 1927. On it, Dot and Dash contemplate an enigma: a turtle has hidden inside its shell upon seeing the two curious and inquisitive dogs approaching. It could be the simplest image in the world. It could also be the clearest and easiest way of representing something very complex: stun –or perplexity– before a first experience with Otherness. In any case, one thing is clear: this (conveniently linked to the three cartoons that come before this image and the two that go after it) is a Pure Cartoon. And it could be nothing else.