In Birth of an Industry, Nicholas Sammond traces “the connections between the animated blackface minstrel, the industrialization of the art of animation, and fantasies of resistant labor” (xii). His core argument is that early animators developed unruly, cartoon minstrels in response to their increasingly depersonalized workplace. On a broader scale, the project works to situate animation within “a larger and longer history of racial iconography and taxonomy in the United States” (4). To make his case Sammond navigates a historically grounded racial matrix of minstrel shows, vaudeville acts, as well as other complex and contradictory representational forums.
Sammond inserts animation into the matrix through vaudeville’s lightning sketch artists who dueled with their cartoon creations, much as interlocutors verbally jousted with end men Tambo and Bones. He frames cartoon minstrels in these terms: “[t]he figure of the minstrel epitomized [End Page 695] the rebellious commodity, and the performing animator (whether onstage or in the press) produced that commodity, then punished it for the very refusal that defined it” (71). As animation transitioned from an artisanal model with a sole animator to a management-driven industry with anonymous workers, an increasingly alienated labor force “created a commodity that appeared to speak back to its creators and assert its independence from the social and material order of its making … only inevitably to be put in its place” (110). Continuing minstrel tradition, these black-bodied, white-gloved cartoons functioned as unruly yet circumscribed fantasies at odds with their creators, as well as the conditions of their creation.
In chapter 1, “Labor,” Sammond uses Max Fleischer’s The Cartoon Factory (1924) to illustrate the alienation and containment of cartoon minstrels and their creators. In the piece, solo animator Fleischer builds Koko the Clown using an electrical animation machine that soon becomes part of the cartoon. This apparatus creates two-dimensional images and three-dimensional environments for Koko to interact with, but eventually Koko rages against the machine and builds a toy solider resembling Fleischer. With the animator now thrust into the action, he furiously draws on the walls and commands his creations to attack Koko. This self-reflexive cartoon wonderfully demonstrates Sammond’s argument, how both alienated animators and their minstrel commodities rebelled against an industry controlled by managers or automation rather than artists.
His most fascinating claim is that “cartoon minstrels became vestigial, edged aside by more virulent racist caricatures of the swing era” (139). By vestigial, Sammond means that cartoon figures like Koko or Mickey Mouse carried “all (or many) of the markers of minstrelsy while rarely referring directly to the tradition itself” (218). On the open access companion website, Sammond includes the sound cartoon Mickey’s Mellerdrammer (1933), which shows both a visual immersion in minstrelsy and a subtle distancing from blackface tradition.1 The premise is that Mickey and Minnie are staging Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a staple of blackface troupes, so the cartoon is clearly invested in minstrel tradition. Yet Sammond incisively highlights how Mickey functions as a vestigial minstrel because the iconic mouse must “black up,” with dynamite no less, to embody minstrel characters like Topsy and Uncle Tom.
Sammond later expands on this claim: “the crossover popularity of swing music among white audiences and its promotion through cartoons led to an increase in broad racist caricatures that overlapped in their stereotyping with the traditions of blackface minstrelsy yet were distinct from minstrelsy’s performance and iconic traditions” (181). To differentiate the two groups and demonstrate how they competed for animated space, Sammond uses Max Fleischer’s Betty Boop cartoon I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You (1932), which features Louis Armstrong, Betty Boop, Koko the Clown, and Bimbo the dog. Watching the film, the physical and behavioral differences between the cartoon minstrel sidekicks and the shockingly racist African caricatures are undeniable. But Sammond also argues that the violence inflected on these new caricatures was greater than on cartoon minstrels. In the end the “savages” are swallowed by...