Editorial: Criticism of Cuphead Art Style is Unwarranted

Much ado about nothing.

By Robert Marrujo:: Studio MDHR's Cuphead employs an art style which draws heavily from Fleischer Studios' and Walt Disney Productions' cartoons of the 1920s and '30s. It's a very stylized look, utilizing thick and thin lines along with exaggerated character designs most notable for their large eyes and bombastic body proportions. Often referred to as "rubber hose" animation, the artists who utilized this look frequently crafted characters with no joints, as well as employed the Rotoscoping technique where the assets in a given scene are constantly in motion.

The game's art direction has been lauded by countless critics and fans alike for both its creativity as well as authenticity, but not everyone is happy with it, apparently. Yussef Cole of Unwinnable recently penned an article lambasting Cuphead for "[dredging] up the bigotry and prejudice which had a strong influence on early animation." He takes umbrage with the game for "sanitizing its source material and presenting only the ostensibly inoffensive bits." It's an impassioned but flawed piece of writing that pulls from multiple corners, sometimes disparate ones, to assert that Cuphead is attempting to "whitewash" history.

It's, frankly, an outlandish assertion that is incapable of providing any kind of legitimate objection to Cuphead's visual style. To be clear, early animation of the '20s and '30s was indeed guilty at times (note: not always) of a variety of stereotyping traits, not all of which being limited to race; take a gander at Betty Boop, for instance, and you'll see exaggerated breasts and eyes that wouldn't look all that out of place in a modern day anime. Yet, for all the things that animators working in the Fleischer mold of the era might have gotten wrong or done distastefully, it doesn't mean that in 2017 any sort of creation that utilizes this style needs to apologize for the work of artists from almost 90 years ago.

Imagine someone watching Star Wars and stating that they're uncomfortable with the portrayal of the Empire in those films because it bears a passing resemblance to the Nazis in World War II. Black and red iconography, an oppressive regime, and so forth. This person then goes on to say that because Star Wars has employed the basic look of the Nazis, Disney is now obliged to address and comment on the Nazis and the various atrocities that they committed. It would be absurd. That the Empire bears some resemblance to the Nazis is simply meant to convey as clearly to the viewer as possible that they're bad guys. It isn't necessary to go beyond that and provide a history lesson to the audience on the off chance that someone in the crowd might be offended at the very thought of the failed Third Reich. This example is virtually no different than what Cole is pushing.

What Cole has done with this essay is ostensibly say that although Cuphead itself doesn't have any racist or harmful stereotyping contained within it, the fact that it makes him think of those things of his own accord is enough to label it as offensive. That Studio MDHR not playing six degrees of separation to connect the Hays Code, Jay Z's The Story of O.J. music video, jazz musician Cole Callaway, and Samantha Blackmon's writing to the game's art style has somehow failed society. Cole even goes so far as to say that it is "hard to overlook a style that was also used to belittle and stigmatize blackness to the extent that we are still fighting to regain our own image." It's an astounding thing to say considering there is no universal consensus that Fleischer animation as a whole is inherently racist and that nothing within Cuphead utilizes the style to promote racist stereotyping.

Perhaps the most telling sign of how misguided Cole's essay is can be found in his dissection of the character King Dice. Cole touches upon how Cab Callaway was used as inspiration for the design of King Dice and states "[t]hat Cuphead follows the path of the Fleischers and hides what could have been his likeness behind an anthropomorphic talking dice is historically in line with black representation in animation. Once it became faux-pas to depict black characters as minstrels and racist caricatures, then the solution appears to be not depicting them at all." This entire statement is a microcosm of the glaring flaws in Cole's argument.

For one thing, King Dice is inspired by Cab Calloway, he isn't supposed to be Cab Calloway. Furthermore, Cole's assertions fly in the face of his own objections. So, Cole doesn't want to see black stereotyping, but is upset that Studio MDHR didn't make Calloway, a famous black musician, into one of the antagonists in the game? Does that mean Studio MDHR should have completely rewritten the character and redesigned him to actually be Calloway and make him a good guy? That sounds pretty strange, considering King Dice is supposed to be a villain and, outside of a handful of design choices, isn't anything like Calloway as a person. Not to mention that Calloway isn't the only real life musician that helped to inspire him. Or that King Dice, is, you know, not a human being.

Even more confounding is Cole's allegations that somehow Studio MDHR is "whitewashing" history with this game. Cuphead makes no attempts to be a historical account of the '20s and '30s, nor does it portray people of any race or creed. Again, it's simply employing the Fleischer style, which is not considered to be racist, for aesthetic purposes. Along with the music and writing, it's meant to evoke the look and feel of a cartoon from that era. Nothing more, nothing less. It's also odd to complain about Studio MDHR "sanitizing its source material and presenting only the ostensibly inoffensive bits." Does that mean racist stereotypes should have been included? That would be antithetical to Cole's argument. Also, if Fleischer animation isn't racist by nature, how is it "sanitizing" to not include something that wasn't present in all cartoons of the era? That would be like saying that if someone wants to make a movie about NFL players, then they all should be depicted as women abusers, despite the fact that only a minute number of them are.

Cole's attempt to string together a myriad of unfortunate bits of early 20th century American history into a treatise demonstrating the racial insensitivity of Cuphead has fallen woefully short of proving anything of the sort. The Fleischer animation style was never created as a tool to demean or diminish any race or creed of people, just like rap was not created as a vehicle for belittling and objectifying women. To say that Cuphead is beholden to address racism simply because some pieces of animation of the era it draws inspiration from contained racist depictions of black people is like telling a farmer growing cotton that there should be placards all around her farm expounding upon the history of slavery in America. If Cuphead was intended to send a message about racist animation from the '20s and '30s, or if it contained any sort of racially insensitive content, then I could see Cole having something to say. Thankfully, that is not the case here and the result is his objections come across as utterly unsubstantiated.That Cole or anyone else would want to project their own views about history onto Cuphead and force it into being something they find offensive is, frankly, alarming and unconscionable.

Comments are closed.