So What's the Attraction Of a Cartoon Character?

I couldn't believe it when several people told me I'd arrived in cartoon heaven by being mentioned on "The Simpsons." But I got the tape and there it was - Homer Simpson, in a conversation with Mo the bartender about an enemies list.

Homer Simpson: Oh, I can't believe it. I got an enemy! Me, the most beloved man in Springfield.

Mo, the bartender: Ah, it's a weird world, Homer. As hard as it is to believe, some people don't care for me neither.

Simpson: No, I won't accept that.

Mo: No, it's true. I got their names written down right here in what I call my "enemies list."

Barney, bar patron: Jane Fonda, Daniel Schorr, Jack Anderson. Hey! This is Richard Nixon's enemies list. You just crossed out his name and put yours!

Mo: OK. Gimmie that.

What struck me was that for many people my being mentioned in a cartoon was more important than a dozen commentaries or documentaries.

Next, I read a release from the US Postal Service saying its Bugs Bunny stamp was outselling the 1993 Elvis Presley stamp, until now its bestseller. The original order of 265 million Bugs Bunny stamps was being fast exhausted, and another 100 million were being printed.

What is it about cartoons that seems to attract people more than flesh-and-blood characters? In the New Yorker magazine, Kurt Anderson gave other illustrations of how we seem to be entering into the cartoon era. The big musical of 1997 looks like Disney's "Hercules," a cartoon. The Cartoon Network is the most successful new cable channel.

"Roger Rabbit" is a cartoon movie about an evil genius who wants to destroy cartoon characters and replace them with human beings. The cartoon characters survive, and now we have the sequel: "Toon Town Strikes Back."

What's going on here? True, digital animation has given us more life-like cartoon characters than we have ever known. But more life-like than life? And what is the connection between the rage for cartoons and the rage for going online and finding human connections in cartoon-like figures on the screen, and enjoying an electronic flirtation in a chat room?

I've long worried about the blurring of the line between reality and fantasy. But if digitally animated figures make better companions than flesh-and-blood figures, maybe reality's been oversold. Or maybe we confuse virtual reality with virtuous reality.

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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