2016 has been a tough year for celebrity deaths. Two that have hit me hard are the recent deaths of boxer Muhammad Ali and comic book creator Darwyn Cooke. Both of these men widened the frame of reference for their respective fields through their work and their words.
I have no idea when Ali became politically aware, though he may have been from birth. In any case, after defeating Sonny Liston and winning the heavyweight championship, he changed his name from Cassius Clay, telling reporters, “I don’t have to be what you want me to be, I’m free to be who I want.” Later, he resisted induction into the U.S. military, refusing to fight in the Viet Nam war.
While there were certainly great African-American athletes before Ali -- Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson come to mind -- the times forced them to tolerate the racism they experienced and they confined themselves in word and action to their respective sports where they avoided controversy. Ali refused to just be a boxer and with his religion, politics, and taking his bouts to other continents, was an example of how a person could define himself regardless of how a dominant society attempted to keep him in his place. Ali was an outstanding athlete, but his impact owes as much to his life outside the ring as in it.
Darwyn Cooke grew up loving comics and managed at a young age to get a story published by DC. In those days, before Fedex and the internet, the fact that he didn't live in New York City pretty much ended his comics career right there. While he was no doubt disappointed, it ended up enriching his work.
Cooke spent time art directing music and fashion magazines as well as running a design studio. In doing this, he gained experience in the commercial art field, dealing with clients and absorbing aesthetics from fields other than comics. He then went into TV animation, working with Bruce Timm on the influential Batman: The Animated Series, a show that also brought in artistic influences from outside comics. It was at this point, after a decade and a half outside the field, that Cooke finally made it into the comics world.
Like Ali, Cooke was determined to define himself. He did so in terms of the design of his work and his treatment of the subject matter. Too many of the people in comics had graduated from being fans directly into the industry, and had a very constricted view of what comics were supposed to be. They had little to no experience in the wider business world. Comics art of the period was overly detailed and fussy. Fan-favourite art had a lot of lines in it. Cooke had a cleaner, more direct style that was counter to what comics were doing artistically and he was comfortable with incorporating modern graphic design. In terms of content, as former fans-turned-writers aged, they continued to write comics for themselves, taking characters intended for children into questionable areas of sex and violence. Having worked in the real world where he did business with women, Cooke treated his female characters with far more respect than those in other comics from DC. He also insisted on heroes being heroes, not psychopaths.
So what's this got to do with animation? From my perspective (and you're free to disagree), animation in theatres and on TV has gone stale. Too much of it is the same. The insularity is due to producers who imitate successes to line their pockets and artists who immerse themselves in animation while growing up and then graduate into the field. Ali and Cooke each brought some of the wider world into their professions. They enlarged their fields with their life experience. Animation needs that. Though the cost of production discourages it, animation needs to open up to more points of view. It's not just a question of a more diverse workforce or adding characters of colour or varying sexual orientations to the films. Animation needs to challenge what the audience thinks an animated film or TV show is supposed to be, the same way that Ali challenged how people looked at athletes and Cooke challenged how comics should be done.
In 2016, giants are passing on and leaving holes in our lives. While celebrating their accomplishments is appropriate, we should build on their lessons to create accomplishments of our own.