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The Existential Dilemma Of Wile E. Coyote

By Larry Tritten / July 10, 1990

ONE of the things I remember most clearly about my trip through Arizona on a Greyhound bus is the ubiquity of road runners - not the real ones (I never saw one), but the pins, pendants, and earrings that were displayed in all the bus depot gift shops. Golden and silver, some with jeweled eyes, they were inescapable, more than enough of them to make any visitor or tourist casually assume that the road runner must be the state bird of Arizona. In fact, it's the state bird of New Mexico; and its Latin name is Geococcyx californianus. In any case, I wasn't enamored of all this high-profile promotion for the road runner, which I knew through the classic Warner Bros. cartoon in which it appears as the b^ete noir of Wile E. Coyote. I was a Coyote rooter.

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The Road Runner had always seemed to me to be virtually characterless, with a somewhat priggish manner and a loony appearance that perhaps is a symbolic reflection of the real-life bird's relation to the cuckoo. But the Coyote struck me as being a figure of heroic stature - completely dedicated, ingenious (although plagued by terrible luck), endlessly resilient and perseverant in spite of continual defeat.

The Coyote is obviously a tragic figure (note the depths of Angst in those sorrowful eyes!), but that perhaps only exacerbates his appeal. I am, to be sure, a fan. A Wile E. Coyote doll sits on the bookcase in my bedroom. He is to me Sisyphus, the Texans at the Alamo, and Cool Hand Luke all rolled into one. And there are overtones of Chaplin's Tramp and Gleason's Poor Soul.

You can see where I stand in this seriocomic drama of predation - in this case, predation without success. What the Road-Runner cartoons do is as natural to comedy as it is unnatural in real life - they make the underdog (bird, in this case) the winner and the predator the loser. Cartoons are full of images of mice and birds outwitting cats, ducks and rabbits foiling human hunters.

This is akin to portraying jocks and muscular behemoths in general as strong and dangerous but essentially buffoons who are easily defeated. Apparently there is a strong cultural impulse to make fun of the mighty. Entertainment and art need not imitate life. And cartoons have carte blanche to express themselves in any manner - to be realistic or unrealistic, fabulously fanciful or astutely authentic.

The Road-Runner cartoons are the purest sort of entertainment art, which is to say they maximize the creative potential of their form, the animated cartoon. If, on one end of the spectrum, we have cartoons like Casper the Friendly Ghost that are cute, simplistic, and sub-juvenile, at the other end there is the Road-Runner series - drawn with impressionistic eloquence, superbly inventive in a way that draws fresh vitality out of the wellspring of the comic imagination, and featuring two antagonists worthy of Greek or Shakespearean tragedy.

The Road Runner and the Coyote are basically the creations of the legendary animator Chuck Jones, who was also instrumental in the creation of such other classic Warner Bros. cartoon characters as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, and Pep'e Le Pew. Warner Bros. cartoons, largely because of Jones, were traditionally highly sophisticated, really aimed at adults rather than children - they were full of satire and parody and conceived with no less comic ambition than human performers brought to the movies.