The psychedelic experience forever burned into my brain is watching the opening title sequence of the 1967 Speed Racer cartoon on psilocybin mushrooms. The white dove Mach Five appeared, seen from a God’s eye view, against a solid red color field. The crimson sea covered one whole wall, floor to ceiling, of my basement studio. I had bought an overhead projector with the intention of enlarging my comic drawings to make “art.”
“Make it bigger and it will be art,” a professor told cartoonist Chris Ware. Ware has often cited this as an example of the stupidity and pretentiousness of the art world. Cartoonists frequently work small, sometimes the same size as reproduction, and the artwork is the final book, not the original drawings. I fell in love with drawing from looking at art in books, small, not from seeing big art in galleries. When I moved to Brooklyn, I’d take trips into the city to show gallery owners my comics, and they’d often say the same thing: “Could you do this, like, larger?” I wasn’t tall enough to ride. So I joined hundreds of other Brooklynite artists in purchasing a projector hooked up to a laptop. But I could not bring myself to make single pieces of “art.” The whole point of the drawings in the comics was that they were part of a story. If I didn’t have a story, I didn’t know what to draw. Why would I enlarge a single comic page? What point would I be making? This was not for me. What was I going to do with this newly acquired projector set-up? Watch cartoons, humongous, stoned.
I’m aware of the dancing mushrooms of Fantasia, but my taste leans towards “limited” or “low budget” animation. Too much gooey squash-and-stretch feels like overacting to me. I need my cartoons chilled out. I prefer the low budget 1967 Spider-Man druggy episode “Revolt in the Fifth Dimension,” directed by a young Ralph Bakshi. Or the disembodied Man Ray lips of Clutch Cargo. Masamune Shirow, the cartoonist who created Ghost in the Shell and now draws circuit board porn (don’t look at it on shrooms), has an early work adapted into an anime titled Dominion Tank Police (1988). He’s a cartoonist like Charles Burns in that everything he draws is made out of the same material. In Burns’s Black Hole, a woman’s hair is composed of the same slick, woodcut-like strokes that comprise the tree behind her hair. In Shirow’s Dominion, tanks, buildings, shoulder pads and human heads are all made out of a grimy mushroom texture! 100% organic! Perfect for shrooming! And, of course, the limited animation masterpiece Speed Racer.
In my red color field, the “camera” dollies forward. Remember: there is no real space in a cartoon. That Mach Five growing closer is just the car’s enclosing lines moving farther apart! The score is a harsh, trance-inducing repeating sound. Cut to a hypnotic spinning wheel, àla Anemic Cinema. Text appears: “Speed Racer.” The song tells us that he’s “a demon,” but he looks happy, waving at us, though his hand does not move. Speed Racer is all about movement, but the paintings are still. Like magic mushrooms, limited animation alters time by slowing down and even freezing specific moments. A car flies (one painting, sliding across a single airbrush blue painting) and explodes (a few sketchy abstract paintings!) Boom! In limited animation, as in life, there is a hierarchy between moving and nonmoving forms. Sometimes, a character is “still” but their lines (an abstraction, an invisible field made visible) wobble around them. Characters will shift slightly off model, inconsistent. It’s as if we’re seeing different facets of the same personality, flickering, quickly, through time. Too fast to capture just one. These are dead lines brought, Frankenstein-style, to life! It isn’t pretty, but this thing is awake and moving towards you!
One reason often cited for why stoners watch cartoons is the strong, bright colors. Art-school witticisms about color (“you look into blue, red looks at you”) become aggressively true facts. Find someone who looks at you the way orange looks at you on shrooms. But I propose another reason why cartoons are ideal: nothing is out of focus. Live-action movies throw everything the cinematographer deems unimportant into a cloudy blur. A stoner knows that, over the shoulder of Kate Winslet, there might be light shining through an icicle that is equally worthy of our attention. Everything must be in focus. As the Speed Racer cars round the bend, they stay crystal clear, again: just line drawings changing scale on an 8.5 X 11” sheet of celluloid, now blown up to my wall, so I can see the thin shadow of that celluloid falling onto the acrylic background rendering.
The cars drive across a globe, dividing the Earth into quadrants, which then form into a yellow-and-red racing-flag illuminati checkerboard pattern, the Masonic symbol of duality, good and evil, high and low. By obstructing the beams of the projector, I could distort the image. I once put a tall, slanted drawing table in front of the wall and watched this same yellow-and-red grid warped as if on a runway, launching away from me in space. A button on the projector flips the image upside-down! Why don’t normal televisions have this button? I used to have to lie with my head tipped, blood rushing down, skin growing purple, over a couch cushion to get this. The canvas I previously bought to attempt to make “art” was now a sheet for me to paint broad shapes to project cartoons onto. Speed is going to appreciate this: his entire episode shot onto a giant emerald green “Go” sign.
Speed, a sprightly pawn, hops out onto the checkerboard, his leg stretches forward, and, decades before Matrix “bullet-time,” the camera rotates as Speed remains still, frozen in time, the perfect expression of shroomy temporal distortion, until the “camera” spins to face him!
Then, the episode begins: “The Race Against the Mammoth Car.” Go, Speed Racer, go! •
Dash Shaw is the director of My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea.