First part in a series of essays exploring the nuance and politics of Courage the Cowardly Dog…
Like many people who inspect the culture of our day, I’m constantly confounded by the deluge of bad news and terror that surround us. These are bleak times, and with the maturation of the internet, the horror of the world has never been so readily available to us. The American reality is constantly tested by bitter demonstrations of cruelty carried out across various cultural and political fronts. News media, unable or unwilling to balance their responsibility to tell us what we need to know in a clear and honest way, do little to abate the fears and confusions that bubble up from our sub-conscious. Outrage, real and imagined, grow in unproductive ways through the Twitterfication of our public engagement. Meanwhile, the world around us seems to be crumbling, with each month ushering innovative acts of environmental devastation that rip apart our most basic understanding of how the Earth works. Scariest of all, the rise of nationalism across the world has resurrected evil ideas thought to be long dead. There is seemingly no reprieve from this constant mental harassment.
Cultural works are important in times as raucous as our own. Our society is so drenched in chaos; the failure of political and economic structures to rectify discord pushes us to search for hope and meaning in culture. That so many national creative works are so vapid, unhelpful, and exploitative makes finding reprieve in culture that much harder. Film and TV has become larger and less definitive in order to gnaw at our attention, endlessly. Constant remakes and sequels crowd out alternative voices or unique stories that may otherwise inspire new ideas or inspiration. Nostalgia cash-ins are certainly not a new thing, but deep in the grip of late-stage capitalism, hierarchical corporations are clawing at our memories in order to ensure proper cash-flows for stock holders. It feels as though everything we once enjoyed or liked is at risk of falling prey to this sort of monetized revisionism. This all threatens the basic building blocks of our collective cultural conscious, leaving us divided in a world on fire.
The Novelty ofCourage
This brings me to Courage the Cowardly Dog, which recently had its full-series release on DVD. I was nervous to revisit this series, as I was afraid it would reveal itself as just another overrated children’s show that preyed callously on childhood predilections. But in re-watching the series with an adult sensibility, I was awestruck by Courage’s innovative design and novel conception.
So many cartoons released in the late 90s to early 00s take place in the same sort of suburban nightmare that so many of that generation has since flocked away from. In retrospect, a lot of these properties just doesn’t hold up. Our culture has slowly realized how soul-sucking the labyrinth sub-urban developments were. The structure of the 90s economy, which began to fully implement the corporate dream of the 80s, realized its own melancholic culture that we now callously refer to as a “90s aesthetic.”
Courage, however, rejected the common settings and conventions of the 90s and its traditional cast of archetypes: there were no spunky kids, heroic adults, or charismatic syphers.
Courage is weird. Its animations are strange and nightmarish. Its soundtrack is rustic and surreal. Its visual cues reference obscure B-movies, Gothic stylings, hokey Americana, and Tex Avery. Its protagonists are vulnerable people: old, poor and isolated. The animation is stilted, until it explodes into color and action. The dialogue, where it exists, is delivered by old, grainy actors. The rogues’ gallery is an eclectic mismatch of monsters and interlopers, from sociopathic to sympathetic. All of these bizarre ingredients blend into an unquestionable celebration of the strange that contrasts with its peers both in the past and present.
Consider the visage King Ramses. This is one of the most recognizable images of the series, and certainly the first image that pops into a given person’s head on mention of the series. An unsettling Frankenstein of digital and hand-drawn animation, Ramses’ surprising presence forced the viewer to dive deep into the uncanny valley. He glides, croaks, and glitches across the screen, breaking the style, and thus expectations, of the show. He is not a jump-scare; Ramses lingers on the screen, establishing his presence to taunt viewers in this act of unsettling animation. This approach is used liberally in Courage, and keeps it dynamic, haunting and engaging throughout its 50+ episode run.
Strange, Cronenberg-like creatures dominate the show. Rather than overwhelm the viewer with jump-scares, Courage deploys disfigured creatures to parade in front of our eyeballs. Viewers are forced to spend time digesting not just the grotesqueness of a monsters design, but also the implication of their existence. Consider The Creature in the Wall, an overgrown ulcer. Like Ramses, this is another disturbed, groaning creature whose subtle movements and fleshy detail demand our attention and interest. Bitter and filled with rage, his pulsing form also belies the suffering of the monster. As viewers, we experience terror in perception of the monster but also in empathy for their suffering. This is an important and deliberate strategy which keeps horror fans and agnostics alike engaged in the series’ surprisingly deep narratives.
While a lazier show may have coasted or even mocked this strange presentation as mere irreverence, Courage is grounded by its display of remarkable heart in the face of disturbing stories. In each episode, Courage contends with monsters and predicaments that exaggerate our darkest suspicions about society. The setting is spooky, old and neglected. Our protagonists are weak and vulnerable. They are beholden to the whims of supernatural and plain human horrors that have clear allegory to common predators of the weak. Courage mirrors back the vulnerability and skepticism its viewers have about the world and its inhabitants. Yet, Courage always prevails: his greatest weapon, crucially, is his ingenuity and empathy, derived and powered by the love he has for his adopted family. Through this triumph, Courage declares that bravery is more than just overcoming fear, but harnessing inspiration from the things you love. In having the bravery to inject heart and message into its strange and harrowing animations, Courage holds up as an endearing piece of nostalgia that provides both commentary on and reprieve from the discordance of our current cultural and political environment.
My reason for writing this is two-fold. First, I want to document my thoughts on this series as a sort of public accounting; I love this show, and hope to share my extended thoughts in a way that mirrors the care that was put into making it. Second, I hope to elaborate on the ways Courage is relevant to broader discussions and issues facing our world today, and how its creative presentation and nuanced narratives can provide us insight and comfort in a modern context. I will update this series with approximately four parts, which will be listed here but categorized on this blog for reference.