Interview with David Perlmutter, author of Collidor story “Toontown Riots of 1949: A Critical and Historical Analysis“.
Your story deals with the idea of racial segregation and discrimination. How much did you draw on your education in history for this story?
A great deal. Most of the essays I wrote as a high school and university student seemed to touch on racism and prejudice of all kinds. It is one of the great evils of the world that we have never managed to completely exterminate. As soon as we figure out how to protect somebody from it on an institutional and societal level, it finds another more vulnerable target to fire its cannons at.
What fascinates me about racism and prejudice, looking at it from a distanced, nuanced historical perspective as well as a contemporary one, is that the mechanisms of racism and prejudice rarely change on an operational level. It typically begins when a more powerful group chooses to oppress a less powerful one simply because the former group has sociopolitical, religious and financial “advantages” the latter does not. Hence, for example, Jim Crow in the southern U.S. up to the mid-1960s, or apartheid in South Africa up to 1990. Usually, this is the result of a small and narrow-minded group of people holding jealous and possessive financial and political control over something until their own old age and/or societal and particularly generational change forces them to relinquish it. In the latter case, it is often because the public finally comes to understand the evils of what has been allowed to occur because of those supposedly on their “watch”, and has elected new governments with more progressive ideas to replace the ones with older, conservative ones, because progressive-minded people habitually embrace the change conservative people want to simply deny exists at all to protect their narrow interests and ideals. We have seen this happening recently with the election of the provincial NDP government in Alberta and the federal Liberal one last year. However, my native Manitoba recently replaced its NDP government with a Conservative one, and Newfoundland’s recently elected Liberal government has done considerable damage to that province’s morale with its decisions, so this is not a universal trend, by any means.
It is utterly ridiculous to me that someone should be judged solely on their physical appearance, their gender, their financial means or lack thereof, their religion, or whoever they want to make love to, in any sense of what that very complicated verb really means. People should be judged based on their words and deeds and not their appearance, because that it is the only fair way to assess whether they have merit as people or not. This is the 21st century, with all that that implies. We need to kill what made the 19th and 20th centuries so bad, including racism and prejudice, while saving what matters about it. Including the popular culture that I have dedicated myself to studying and interpreting to the public as a historian. Because the novelists, filmmakers, musicians, poets and scholars of the past have much to teach us if we only give them a fair hearing, as do most of the ones working today, for that matter.
Why did you decide to talk about such series issues in today’s society through the channel of animated characters? Were you worried at all that people would interpret it as a ‘joke’?
First, because animated cartoon characters of all kinds, if they existed according to our definition of “reality”, would be the targets of the most inflammatory and deadly types of racism and prejudice by any sense of the imagination. Anyone who does not conform to a bully or racist’s standard of “normality” is targeted categorically and without exception for the level of “difference” they possess. Human beings or animals capable of defying the standards and logistics in any way possible, as the vast majority of animated cartoon characters are whether or not they have superpowers or other magical abilities, represent the same kind of ingrained psychological threat to the shrinking and biased Caucasian “majority” as others do. You need only to substitute them for Donald Trump’s blithering idiot rants against Mexicans and “terrorists”, or as the target of blatantly prejudicial acts as the North Carolina government’s religiously-biased denial of the rights of transgendered people to use the bathrooms they wish, for that point to come out crystal clear.
Nobody deserves that kind of treatment, fictional or otherwise. And that treatment and how it is responded to has formed a great deal of my fiction. My Cartoon Republican Army story cycle, for example, deals with this by having the characters create political unity to defend themselves from the wider world, in the fashion of the IRA, the Black Panthers, SDS and AIM before them. Yet, as with those groups, they are still divided by simmering political divisions: old vs. young, liberal vs. conservative, human vs. animal and so forth, since that is unavoidable in these situations. And my novel “Orthicon”, which chronologically precedes those events, deals with this on a much more vast scale, with a massive evacuation of all cartoon characters from their individual realms to supposedly live “peacefully” together on a specially designed place, only to have it all fall apart when the public, originally kept in the dark about it, learns about its existence.
Secondly, yes, I was concerned about it regarding the subject matter being a “joke” to people encountering it without the right context to explain it. But that is not, thankfully, the case in its entirety. When I proposed doing a study of television animation for my History MA thesis, I received nothing but support and encouragement, particularly when I gave my defense. Then, when I expanded that into my book, “America ‘Toons In”, McFarland and Co. accepted it because they liked my writing as much as I did a lot of their books that I used for source material. They actually told me they were waiting with baited breath for the next thing I’d send them! Then, I got to have a full-scale book launch at the fanciest store in my hometown, and then present myself as a delegate at the annual Society for Animation Studies conference in Toronto, where I met tons of similarly-minded people doing research on the animation of their home countries and elsewhere. One being an editor who invited me to contribute to a planned encyclopedia being edited by the eminent animation scholar Jerry Beck, who is one of my great role models. Now I’ve gotten into a similar arrangement with Rowman and Littlefield, who have commissioned me to do an encyclopedia on regularly scheduled television animation programs in the United States, something very much needed and necessary in the field right now. And I convinced Dag Rambaut, who interviewed me for his blog SFF World. Com a little while ago, to let me have a go as a digital columnist on the subject. This is in addition to the great level of fiction I’ve written about the mechanics of making television animation, speculation on what cartoon characters would be like as “real” people interacting with themselves and others, and inventing new roman a clef narratives for the shows and characters I love and desperately want to live beyond the limited time and narrative frames of their stories. Most of which has been published in a variety of supportive venues. So, even if everyone doesn’t get how important cartoons are to me and a lot of other people, there are some that obviously do, and that’s all the encouragement I need to keep on doing all of this.
Which historical race riots were you considering when you wrote about the Toontown Riots?
Specifically, the ones mentioned in the text, particularly the “Zoot Suit Riots” in Los Angeles in 1943. The attitude of the police towards the ‘toons is modeled on that directed towards the Mexican-American hipsters in the real event. Also, the horrific one that occurred in Chicago in 1919, where a simple misunderstanding led to an unprecedented spree of killing and destruction in the African American district of the city by white hooligans. Not unlike what happened in the story.
Did you draw on any fictional inspiration for your story, as well as historical?
Definitely. The characters are all modeled on those featured in animated cartoons produced in the United States between the 1920s and the early 1940s, particularly those of Disney, Warner Brothers, MGM and Universal. And there was an actual character called Willoughby Wren who appeared in cartoons for Columbia around this time, and he did have a hat supposedly made from Samson’s hair that made him strong and invulnerable when he wore it. But he only did two cartoons before the studio retired him, and he hasn’t been heard from since. Although I suspect this story will make people check him out through the now-universal and invaluable video library known as YouTube. Anyway, I thought, this would be exactly the kind of guy who would have been involved in such an event, and I knew little about him beyond what Jeff Lenburg wrote about him in The Encyclopedia of Animated Cartoons. So, as with a lot of the unfairly-underwritten but attractively drawn characters in television animation I’m attracted to like a moth to a flame, I fleshed him out. And, knowing how Hollywood was as a whole back then, it was very easy to do.
What made you decide to write the story in the form of a journal or newspaper article, as opposed to strictly first person story?
The same reason why I wrote “Orthicon” and most of the CRA stories in the same format. Oral history, which is what they all are at their core, is cool. You don’t get one person shaping the events to fit his or her version of the story. You get multiple versions of the same event, and multiple ways of looking at things. One of my history professors was a specialist in oral history, and I learned from him not to trust a single narrative as the “only” or “definitive” one on any topic, because new works are added to the canon on all historical topics every year, just like new animated films and television series continue to be produced every year which add to that genre’s canon. And certainly anyone who looks at the late Studs Terkel’s oral histories of the Depression and World War II would come away from that experience knowing that history, as Walt Whitman famously put it about himself, is large and contains multitudes. I know for a fact that animation does also, so oral history seemed the only way to do all of their stories justice at once, instead of privileging one narrative at the expense of others.
Reality Skimming Press brands itself as ‘optimistic sci-fi’. Tell us what this phrase means to you.
Optimism means you have faith in yourself and others to create positive change in the world. I couldn’t think of a better way to describe all the fiction that I write in particular. If I have the odd pessimistic thought, I’m good at keeping it to myself most of the time.
What projects are you currently working on?
“Orthicon” and the CRA collection, “Nothing About Us Without Us”, have been respectively sold to Linkville Press and Dreaming Big Productions, and I am at this moment waiting for final instructions from the publisher on the latter while also waiting for edits on the former, which has been longer than I hoped. I also continue to respond to anthology calls from all over the place as best as I am able.
I recently completed a novella, “Honey and Salt”, featuring most of my stable of active superhero characters and some recently created ones, which I had hoped would be accepted by Book Smugglers Publishing for their Novella Initiative, but it was turned down. I have since sent it to Rebelight Publishing, an MG/YA publisher based in my home town of Winnipeg, which I hope to do business with on a long-term basis eventually. The jury is still out on that submission. I am also planning on taking the characters I have developed in short story series and make them stars of novels as well, because that seems to be where more of the prestige and money in the fiction writing game really is.
The aforementioned television animation encyclopedia is top of the line right now in terms of non-fiction writing. After that is completed, I hope to resume my relationship with McFarland by writing some monographs on the histories of some individual television animation programs I admire that I feel have not truly received their due in terms of academic scholarship. I have also developed a project involving another great interest of mine, American rhythm and blues music, modeled on David Thomson’s invaluable New Biographical Dictionary of Film. I sent a proposal for it to House of Anansi and they turned me down, so I’ll have to find somewhere else to publish it, if I can find the right house to work with.
Anybody who wants to get in touch with me can always drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d be more than willing to speak with you always, even if I’m busier than I should be for some reason.