No jokes in this one, just some troubling insight I had this morning.
I’m a huge fan of weird, funny stuff. Besides the classic weird comedies like The Goon Show, Monty Python, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, SCTV, The Kids in the Hall, and Mr. Show, I also love love LOVE cartoons that make the most of the cartoon medium and play with what’s possible within it. I love the old directors like Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, and Ub Iwerks as well as the more recent shows like Rocko’s Modern Life, Eek! the Cat, Chowder, Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, and Gumball. And the emergence of a lot of those weird, wonderful cartoons since the mid-90s can be traced back to a show that came seemingly out of nowhere and changed TV animation: Ren and Stimpy.
Ren and Stimpy was like a lightning bolt. In the early 90s, we had been stuck with boring cartoons that were animated as cheaply and crappily as possible for about 20 years. Every show, it seemed, was either a dull script timed to someone flipping through the four most generic drawings ever made or a commercial for toys. If you were lucky, you got to catch Looney Tunes or Disney cartoons from the 30s and 40s, back when they were fun. Or at least you saw reruns of Rocky and Bullwinkle or Roger Ramjet, which at least had funny scripts and funny voices. (Roger Ramjet also hung a huge lantern on the fact that it was extremely cheap by zooming in or shaking the camera at a caption.) But for the most part it was cartoon Mr. T or cartoon 9th Derivation of Scooby-Doo or cartoon Average White Boy Hanging With a Talking Car and they all save the day by being nice and teaching us lessons about manners. Yawn.
Ren and Stimpy was gross and crazy and stupid and silly and everybody loved it except pearl-clutching Churchy Joes who hated fun. Doug and Rugrats were good, too, but Ren and Stimpy stole the show, and John K.’s name was scrawled over the title cards. None of us knew who Bob Camp or Bill Wray was, but we all knew John K., so he must be the mastermind auteur behind the Thing We Love.
Fast forward 15 or 20 years. Cartoons have come back to life in a major way. Adult Swim caters their comedy and anime to college students and grown-ups. Nick and Cartoon Network have a zillion in-house shows that dare to be funny. Spongebob has taken over the world. Some shows suck and some are fantastic and some are just okay, just like every other medium, but things are generally much, much better than they were in the Before Times. And we all know it’s thanks to that brave generation of shows on Nickelodeon, which began with Ren and Stimpy. John K. is a hero, but we notice he hasn’t done much work since he left Ren and Stimpy.
I’ve always loved drawing, but I can’t draw to save my life. I can doodle funny pictures, but I have little to no rudimentary skill. Somehow I happened upon John K.’s blog, which was mostly devoted to teaching animation. On his advice, I bought the Preston Blair book on animation and got to work practicing. It was fun! And I was learning! (I didn’t stick with it and still have little skill, but I use what little I learned when I doodle.) John K. came through for me again! But there was something a little weird.
In his animation school blog, John K. would occasionally digress into his old grudges with the other folks from Spumco. He would demand he was the sole artistic voice and driving force behind it all and that when he left, the show suffered a fatal blow. I didn’t know he’d ever left. His name was still scribbled on the title cards as the creator after he left. So I went back and watched them and…oh yeah. He was gone after the first season and the others took over. Huh. Well, the only one I’d ever heard of was telling us that he was the big deal, so I guess he’s the big deal. But man, it clearly hit a nerve whenever it came up. He’d get really mad about it.
There’s no graceful way to come at this. If you care about cartoon history, you heard the big revelation a few days ago. Two women accused John K. of grooming them as teenagers to be the victims of his gross perversion for underage girls. One was 16 when he was 39. I’d never heard of her. The other was Katie Rice. Katie was active on the blog and became John K.’s star pupil. Looking back, his public internet affection for the kid less than half his age was obviously gross, but I hadn’t learned to notice that kind of thing yet. For me and many other straight, cis, white males like me, that vigilance would come later, after the murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and the sexual violence of Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein and the other myriad events and movements and reactions that pried our eyes open to the reality we’d been ignorant of or actively turning away from.
I didn’t doubt the claims against him for a second. I was angry and deeply sad for the women he abused and disappointed in myself for idolizing a monster. I dashed off an angry tweet about it and figured I was done talking about it to the 4 people who see me online. Then this morning, it hit me: John K. is my Trump, and if I hadn’t learned to believe accusations, I might ignore the ones against him. Which is shocking to me. But it made me empathize — for the first time, really — with people who on paper should abhor Trump but stand by him despite his creepy behavior at the debates, history of sexual assault accusations, hair trigger temper, and “with me or against me” paranoia. He’s the same sort of cult figure as John K., just with more nuclear weapons. They constantly put out the message in varying degrees of subtlety that they are the right and good ones and anyone who says otherwise is a selfish liar or a complete moron. They’re the winning team. They’re the ones who achieved everything and did all the hard work. Everyone else is a disposable hanger-on and they have no problem disposing of them.
Except it’s a complete lie. And now animators, artists, and industry professionals are coming out of the woodwork to say, “Yeah, John K. is full of it. He only did a small part of the work and took all the credit and was an enormous psychotic turd the entire time.” That’s why we haven’t seen much of him in 25 years. It’s not because the world can’t handle his art; it’s because no one wants to deal with him when they can work with someone just as creative and talented but much less awful.
Stories are not even emerging, but being immediately shouted from all corners of the internet, “Yeah, he was always a gross, tantrum-throwing pervert but we needed our jobs and it made life hell for everybody there!” I’m very thankful that basically everybody except John K. quickly backed up the women accusing him. And, in retrospect, I’m glad he was kicked off the show and now understand why it wasn’t anywhere near as good when it was revived in the 2000s. We were played by a cult figure. And at least two women paid dearly for him to keep his cult reputation.
So let’s place John K. in the toilet bowl of history and pull the chain. I don’t know anything about the first woman he abused, but I know Katie Rice is a hell of an artist, so I hope her career is booming. And I’m gonna spend some time learning more about Bob Camp and Bill Wray and the other creative forces behind Ren and Stimpy, who from what people are saying this week are decent, fun people.
To tie it all up, it’s important first not to idolize anyone, which absolves them of their basic responsibility of decency. But if you do, keep an eye on it. Would you defend someone else if they did that? If Obama and Trump did the same thing, would one be a villain and the other be excused? If a man and a woman made the same accusation, would you believe one more than the other? It’s hard work to constantly check yourself, but it’s worth it if you don’t want to spend your time on Earth defending garbage monsters.