On Courage, Part Two: Dustbowl Theater

Second part in a series of essays exploring the nuance and politics of Courage the Cowardly Dog…you can read the first part of this series here.

Reverie and Melancholia

Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt is a 2012 semi-illustrated chronicle of American “sacrifice zones.” These zones are defined as sections of America that were used, colonized and abandoned on behalf of the powerful market interests that lead the American economy. In this chronicle, authors Chris Hedges and cartoonist Joe Sacco explore the post-industrial wastelands – rural and urban – and the people that reside in them. The journalism is grim, and the stories are harrowing. They remark on the deleterious ways rampant drug abuse, poverty, exploitation and political disenfranchisement manifest in these forgotten societies. Their subjects span the country – from Pine Ridge, South Dakota to Camden, New Jersey.

Some may find this book alienating in its requested panacea: radical and immediate economic sequester. But its subjects and problems are impossible to ignore, and for that Days of Destruction performs a noble service. The American zeitgeist rarely gives these zones agency or provides opportunity to elevate their voice. Instead, they fester and rot under an economic and political system that refuses to even provide them the respect of visibility. The chronicle is also a graphic novel.  The provision of visualization to its accounts of suffering assists Days in delivering its message. These images force readers to appreciate the way inequities in our economic system rot not only the lives of our subjects, but also the aesthetic quality of their towns and cities. While economic and demographic data clearly support the anecdotes discussed in this work, by elaborating on these sacrifice zones with illustration, Days is able to communicate these dire straits in ways a chart or graph can’t. 

Cover of Days of Destruction. The series paints portraits of forgotten America to prompt readers on the suffering endemic to these locales.

Despite its upbeat introduction and comedic tone, the setting of Courage should be considered a sacrifice zone. For anyone ignorant or forgetful of the premise, Courage takes place on a farmhouse in the fictional Nowhere, Kansas. This locale is beautifully drawn – evoking depression-era dustbowl stories and American Gothic art in tone and illustration. The town of Nowhere is barren, containing a random assortment of citizens and some semblance of barely functioning civilization. Our protagonists, the Bagges, are poor and uncultured. Like the very real subjects explored in Days of Destruction, the Bagges are isolated and left to fend for themselves, surviving in these forsaken lands and avoiding the villains and monsters who stalk it.

Some may see the connection between these two works as tenuous, but the idea was acknowledged by the creator of Courage himself. In a great interview from 2008, series creator John Dilworth discloses the political context that informs the design of Courage:

I wanted to portray a pseudo-village, a reverie and melancholia of places in America that proved no longer an economic imperative. To me, when a national chain or an international company decides to shut its doors the town that was dependent on that industry becomes enchanted, as if put under a sleeping spell, went from somewhere to nowhere….

This is a bold feat, not least because this show premiered in 1999, far before the economic rot feared and discussed by Dilworth and chronicled by Hedges would metastasize into the populism that grips our politics today. Dilworth’s observation, made over ten years ago, feels like an adapt prophesy on today’s culture. In Courage’s art direction and subject matter, the dehumanization and struggle endured by inhabitants of American sacrifice zones are subtly explored in the show’s subtext.

A set of Courage’s city of Nowhere. Notice the dark and subdued color palete. In presentaiton, it feels quite similar to Days’ presentation of destroyed cities.

The Darkness of Courage

It is absence of agency – political, economic, cultural – that drives the conflict in CourageThe series’ intro aptly defines the basic plot structure followed by each episode: 

Abandoned as a pup, Courage was found by Muriel, who livers in the middle of Nowhere with her husband, Eustace Bagge…but creepy stuff happens in Nowhere, and it’s up to Courage to save his new home.

The “creepy stuff” plaguing Courage and his family are riffs on common tropes in the western horror cannon. These terrors run the gamut from horror staples like aliens and mummies to the hyper-obscure: the episode “Tulip’s Worm” takes inspiration from the 1973 psychedelic french arthouse film, Fantastic Planet. But other horrors presented in the series are less tangible and more dramatic – bigotry, incompetent authorities, and exploitative corporate systems are all common themes that Courage is dragged into confronting in order to save his home. Courage’s surrogate grandparents are clueless or powerless to the terror surrounding them: Muriel blinded by her unwavering kindness and Eustace distracted by his unshakable self-absorption. With occasional exception, each episode runs largely independent of one another; each returning to a status quo – specifically that of Courage and Muriel’s bucolic serenity, and with Eustace paying an ironic price for his selfishness. In essence, the show operates as an all-ages Twilight Zone.

The home of the Bagges. Designed to reverberate the styling and isolation of dustbowl Americana. Despite the terror of these locations, there is also an element of warmth and comfort to the simplicity of its design. The duality of terror and comfort is a recurring conflict explored in Courage.

Courage wasn’t the first to introduce dark undertones or counter-cultural ideas to a younger audience, but to my knowledge it is the first to explore the world of the forgotten American. Ren and Stimpy embraced a wacko, maniacal, Zappa-like world of nonsense and buffoonery that stared down the corporate cartoons that preceded it, but had little connection to American society at large. Aaahh!!! Real Monsters reflected a childhood fascination with monsters but cast the show as a sort of irony, in that its monsters were friendly protagonists. Invader Zim (which premiered in the middle of Courage’s live run) embraced pitch black comedy and horror gore in ways that were truly harrowing; but the show’s lack of empathy or moral heart made it easy to compartmentalize and gawk at. Even the Rugrats, a nostalgia favorite of the 90s generation and Nickelodean cash-cow, had subtle digs at the bland suburbs that housed its protagonists. Indeed, many shows in the 90s courted an anti-establishment styling that butted against popular society, occasionally daring to veer into darker subject matter. But many of these shows were unable to escape the soul-sucking monetization that followed so many of these properties, which raised questions about the earnest of their jokes and critiques.

But despite Courage’s accessibility as a humorous cartoon, its characters and narratives are not as easily marketable as other shows of the era. This certainly has something to do with the darkness that defines the Bagges’ situation, which is one of consistent and omnipresent isolation. But its characters also do not represent a lucrative zeitgeist for corporate marketers to tap into. It’s hard for a corporation to buy-in on Courage merchandise when its leads are a timid dog, a plain grandmother, and a grumpy curmudgeon who live in the sort of isolated town that isn’t supposed to exist in modern, suburban, capitalist America. Dilworth lamented as much in response to a question about Courage’s marketability:

the lack of courage by the merchandisers still remains. “Pink” or “fuchsia” dogs will not sell in a boy dominated market place. This is rather complex, but the undercurrent of conservatism in America is strong and easy to intolerance.

Even further, Courage’s conception of horror was also presented in a nuanced way. Rarely was the antagonist plain evil, nor were they considered “bad” by way of deformity or strangeness. As in all great horror, monsters and villains represent and embody deeper human fears. Courage goes further, portraying many antagonists as sympathetic or even righteous. In confrontation, Courage rarely bests his foes through strength or combat. Crucially, he is able to save the day by empathizing with the villain, abetting a social wrong, uniting a cast of characters into action, or employing a clever manipulation of cartoon physics. While lack of merchandising may be a lament from the creator, Courage’s difficult marketability provides a benefit to the art itself: viewers can be assured that the themes and insights of Courage are not watered down or undercut for commercial success.

The Heart of Courage

The series’ call for adroitness and empathy afford it a moral center that make travailing its nuanced direction worth the investment. This morality keeps the show grounded and engaging, despite the thick dread that runs the plot of most episodes. If Courage were less rooted in heart, its narratives could be written off as overly cruel or sadistic; especially when considering the poverty, frailty, ignorance and isolation of its protagonists. But this heart not only gives meaning to the suffering of our protagonists, but also delivers value and agency to them.

Crucially, so much of each episode hinges on reinforcing the familial love between Courage and Muriel (and to a limited extant, Eustace).* Almost each episode is started or punctuated with a quiet scene of Courage contentedly relaxing on Muriel’s lap or waiting in anticipation for a home-cooked meal while a hokey jingle jaunts in the background. These are quiet moments that do little to advance the plot, but are key for establishing that Courage has something worth defending. Without this love, viewers may overstate the comedy of each episodes’ conflict, allowing viewers to interpret plight as schadenfraude. But love is the glue holding this strange clan together, making it impossible for us to write these characters off as useless or expendable. That familial love – the Bagges’ only thing of real value – is constantly threatened reinforces the heinous aims of a given antagonist, affording each encounter real stakes.

*Eustace’s presence challenges this concept to a certain extent. His psychological abuse of Courage, and his seeming ambivalence toward Muriel, can be seen as counter-productive towards my assertion. But I believe his presence actually rounds out the homeliness of the cabin. I’ll elaborate more on this in Part 3, where I’ll discuss Eustace as a theme and character in greater detail.

The Design and Presentation of Nowhere

Courage’s set design and art direction also reinforce both its elements of horror and its call for empathy. Backdrops in the show are beautifully designed, but unfilled and bereft of life and energy. This reflects the environment and character of Nowhere, and underscore its abandonment. Common sets are a barren field, an empty room, a dark chamber, a bucolic farm house, or an empty town. In the shows’ nightmare sequences, these arid sets give viewers the proper context to imagine the predators and disasters that plague forgotten America. Yet, in more blissful scenes, these same sets display a capacity for warmth and serendipity: Muriel strumming a sitar, Courage guffawing at a TV show, or the Bagges’ enjoying a meal together. This is crucial for reminding us that just because the Bagges live in a barren world, it doesn’t make them any less capable of love, serenity, or worth.

A more skeptical viewer may declare these parched scenes and empty sets as cost-conscious filler; a cheap way to pad out a given episode’s airtime and backdrops. In some cases, this critique carries some validity, but it may also belie a bias we have towards cartoons and animation in general.

As a child, I remember being confused by Courage. It wasn’t as vivid or lively as other cartoons, and its blending of fear and comedy challenged my young comprehension of what a cartoon should, or could, be. So much of animation, especially that geared towards children, has a tendency to manipulate its viewers senses with bright lights, constant action and loud sound direction. Mostly, this is to keep children engaged. But this styling is easily appropriated to manipulate children into associating action and energy with a consumer product. But Courage respects its viewers and itself enough to keep its pace slow, inviting viewers into Nowhere’s surreal aesthetic.

Courage, has a slow pace that contrasts with typical Western animation as a whole. Slow pacing isn’t unique to Courage; anyone familiar with Hanna-Barbara or early Anime are certainly intimate with slow pacing, detailed set design and stilted animation. But in these earlier genres, this is probably better understood as a technical limitation; slow pacing was necessary to keep costs low while still fulfilling aggressive production schedules. While Courage unquestionably pays homage to Tex Avery and Hanna-Barbera, the pacing present in the series feels like a deliberate choice meant to draw the viewer into the pastoral world of Nowhere and force rumination on the horrors present in it.

None of this is to say that Courage lacks dynamic animation; the juxtaposition between eerie stillness and explosive action is a key source of payoff, both comedic and dramatic. Some episodes take us to exotic locations, strange planets and busy cities that are laced with a sort of hectic menace. Many episodes partake in frenzied chases or spirited duels that grant the slow-build of tension before it a satisfying climax. But overall, a more frenetic beat would threaten the Gothic styling of the series, and undercut the malaise and poverty of Nowhere.

Did I lose you?

To be fair, my reading here may be called a stretch by some. Courage is a beautiful show full of dark themes and twisted affairs. But at its core, Courage is a comedy meant to bemuse and entertain its viewers with a simple juxtaposition: that of a simple family dealing with cosmic terror and precarious situations. The show has close to 100 individual story arcs, and not every one deposits the dark tone I’ve described. Some episodes drop the pretense of horror all together, instead telling a comedic story, light-hearted drama or irreverent tale. Although I have no doubt, as shown in the interview linked above, that John Dilworth crafted his series with a sort of style and theme that is meant to evoke deeper questions on class and society, I also have found no evidence to deny a primary objective of bemusing viewers with entertaining animation.

My examinations here address the subtext of the series’ tone and design as a whole. I am, without a question, applying modern day socio-economic language to an analysis of the series’ presentation and direction. This may not jive with your individual memory of the show. In fact, they may not have truly been implanted by the series creator at all. But I invite you to (re)watch the series as a pointed commentary on our socio-economic system. In its tone and design, Courage can be seen as a harbinger for and commentary on the political and economic isolation that would impact and exploit forsaken parts of America. But its heart and earnest prevent it from being standoffish, crass, or farcical, and allow us to expand the scope of the show to not only be descriptive, but prescriptive as well.

In Part 3 and 4 of the series, I’ll get into some of the more specific topics covered by the show, first discussing the Bagges’ in more detail. I want to unpack Eustace, Muriel, and Courage individually and explore what they say about the economic dustbowl they are stranded in, and how to salve it.