The majority of animals represented in cartoons, whether animated or not, are anthropomorphized. While occasionally giving animals human characteristics and motivations is funny, most of the time it comes across as a shameless attempt at creating a character who will appeal to a human audience. It also strikes me as a sign of laziness on the part of the those involved with creating the character. While creations like Bugs Bunny were given witty and intelligent dialogue to make them appealing, most of those responsible for creating cartoon animals today rely solely on the their “humanness” in order to make them popular.
It is far harder to take an animal and turn it into a cartoon representation of itself much as you would a human. Cartoons about humans rely on their creator’s ability to exaggerate our characteristics in order to generate humour. The really good cartoonists also know not to exaggerate too much in order to ensure their audience can identify with the character. If we can see traces of ourselves in the characters we are watching on screen, or reading in our daily newspaper, we find them much more appealing.
Obviously we’re not going to see anything of ourselves in a cartoon animal if its being represented as an exaggerated version of itself. However if the cartoonist chooses an animal whose behaviour we’re intimately familiar with, like a dog or a cat, he or she can work with those characteristics to make a successful and appealing character.
One of the best examples of this today, in both live action and print, are Simon Tofield’s series of books and videos featuring the animal simply known as Simon’s Cat. Wake Up: A Simon’s Cat Book, published by Penguin Canada and Canongate Books, the fifth book in the series is just as funny as its four predecessors in the way it brings its hero to life.
Cat owners the world over are well aware of the variety of means cats will employ to get their human’s attention. Under most circumstances these range from the cute to the slightly annoying. Unfortunately a cat’s need for attention doesn’t change whether a human is asleep or awake and they will go to whatever lengths necessary to make sure their needs are met no matter what the obstacle. I’m sure everybody who has ever owned a cat can give at least one example of the means their pet employed to rouse them from a deep slumber.
As the title of this book suggests, it does have cartoons dealing with the ways cats have of ensuring their human’s wake up on demand. However, what makes it even more interesting is it explores all the variations on the theme of sleeping and cats you can think of, and some you may never have even considered. While there are a variety of cartoons depicting Simon’s Cat waking up his human, ranging from the real (sitting on the chest and yelling) to the unreal (peeling back the human’s eyelids or stuffing a toy mouse into his mouth) the cartoons dealing with other sleep related situations might even be funnier.
There’s the cartoon of the human negotiating a difficult staircase and almost tripping and falling over the cat tucked out of sight asleep on a riser. He was lucky, usually this happens when your arms are full and you’re trying to negotiate a particularly dark and difficult descent into a basement. Or, in another instance the hapless man is laying on his stomach reading and the cat curls up asleep on his back. Have you ever tried to dislodge a cat from this position? If so you’ll know it’s next to impossible. If you stand up too straight they will panic at the sensation of falling and dig their claws into – you. So the final frame in the cartoon of the man walking bent over with the cat on his back asleep looking for a way to remove the limpet from his back will be all too familiar to most cat owners.
Then there are cats’ sleeping habits, specifically the places they chose to sleep. Who hasn’t found their cat sleeping, and shedding, a pile of fresh laundry as is depicted in the book? Of course there’s also their astounding habit of trying to fit themselves into a box, or the equivalent, far smaller than them and either succeeding in contorting themselves into what looks to be an extremely uncomfortable position or destroying the item in question and falling asleep on its remains. Of course, nothing beats the contortions they will put themselves through in order to sleep on top of a hot water radiator in the winter. Once you’ve seen a cat cram themselves under a window sill in order to secure their position of warmth, you’ll believe them capable of anything.
As Tofield depicts cats, they don’t only victimize sleeping humans, they have no qualms about attacking members of their own species when they are asleep either. As the kitten introduced in Simon’s Cat In Kitten Chaos shows, the dangling tail of a sleeping cat is an irresistible temptation for another cat. In fact, a sleeping adult cat in general is considered an ideal cat toy by kittens until the adult cat puts his paw down, literally.
While Tofield strays away from realism on occasion, the mice holding up a teddy bear to frighten the cat or a hedgehog popping the balloon he’s carrying on his own spiny body, the animals rarely take on human characteristics. In his cartoons he relies strictly on the drawings to both tell the story and for humour. Even in the videos which first brought his creations to people’s attention the only sounds are those cats would normally make (which are generated by Tofield) and incidental music.
What has always impressed me about Tofiled’s creations are how he can accomplish so much with so little. Even in Wake Up, the second book of coloured cartoons, the majority of his illustrations are limited to just the cat and his immediate surroundings. Occasionally he will draw more elaborate panels, but his primary focus is always on depicting the cat’s behaviour and its reactions. The result, as in all his other work, is one of the funniest cartoons of an animal you will ever see. At some point every cat owner who either reads or watches one of his creations will find themselves exclaiming, “Why that’s just like (insert name of your cat here)”.