On Cartoon Violence

The following will appear in the upcoming Quarterly Journal of Gremlins 2 Studies. Sign up for our email list to receive the journal for free.

“Fun, but in no sense civilized.”

At the climax of Joe Dante’s masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, the human protagonists, with the aid of Gizmo, spray the Gremlins with a fire hose. Anyone with an awareness of the basic rules of the Gremlins franchise know what this means: reproduction. Doused in water, the Gremlins contort and writhe as they begin the process of budding. They are still in this state of asexual ecstasy when the protagonists unleash the Electricity Gremlin on the crowd, massacring the little green monsters. Their deaths are not instant — they are cooked alive, slowly reduced to a sputtering green puddle where you can never be quite sure where one corpse begins and another ends. They are united in this fatal communion, achieving oneness in a puddle of gristle and teeth and lime green ooze. Baptism, birth, gruesome death.

Here we have cartoon violence pushed to the point of break. Even the jokes meant to make light of this moment — such as one Gremlin lamenting “What a world! What a world!” as he melts like the Wicked Witch of the West — do not detract from its disgusting, stomach-churning impact. It is an anti-punchline, a baseball bat to the gut after an hour of mischief.

But what can be made of this cartoon violence?

It was only a few years earlier, that in the Hawizeh Marshes on the Iran/Iraq border, Iranian forces were being slaughtered in a similar fashion. The Iraqi troops had laid high voltage power lines under the water. When the Iranian forces would order human wave attacks, these cables would be electrified, instantly killing countless young men. “We are frying them like eggplants,” one Iraqi officer told a reporter for the LA Times.

Was Joe Dante aware of this war crime? I propose that such a fact does not matter. What matters is that such atrocities did take place, but far from the view of western eyes. And more importantly, western cameras. That kind of violence, which had once turned Europe into a generational slaughterhouse, had been left behind, banished to the peripheries.

Gremlins 2 came out in 1990, around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was a time when there was an air of triumphalism — just one year earlier in 1989, Fukuyama had infamously declared the “end of history”. As we all know now, this statement is laughable. But for a time, there was a certain truth to it, if you were living in the affluent spheres that were benefiting from the accelerating pace of neoliberalism and globalization.

One thing Gremlins 2 satirizes is the rise of the 24 hour news network — CCN, Clamp Cable Network. The proliferation of media just happens to coincide with a point in history where nuclear armageddon no longer cast a shadow over world affairs. The spectre of mass death, which had been actualized in the world wars and continued as a sort of looming potentiality during the post-war period, had finally been cast out from the rational western mind. But not, perhaps, from the western imagination.

The mechanized slaughter of the twentieth century has never truly been confronted. Instead, it has been buried by the hyperreality of mass media. Like an alcoholic drinking himself into oblivion to forget the past, the Western world has intoxicated itself on the deliriants of consumerism and entertainment.

In Gremlins 2, violence becomes cartoon violence. Atrocity is sublimated into just another aspect of the all-consuming spectacle. It is only during the finale that the dream-world threatens to become a nightmare. And even then, there are characters on standby, filming and narrating the massacre without any considerations beyond the advancement of their own careers. The newscaster is dressed as a vampire — a literal bloodsucker — a metaphor which is so obvious that I hesitate to even call it a metaphor.

With the end of the Cold War, and the rise of the 24 hour news network, violence became something distant, surreal. But more than that — with the threat of nuclear extinction averted, the violence of war could be safely re-incorporated into the spectacle. The Iran-Iraq War barely made headlines, to the point where most Westerners are completely unaware such a war ever happened. But with the end of the Cold War, conflicts such as the breakup of Yugoslavia were fully televised, like the massacre at the climax of Gremlins 2.

There is an old joke, from the Yugoslav wars. In Bosnia, people used to insult one another by saying: “I hope you see your house on CNN.” War reporting, no matter how grounded its intentions, was destined to become just another aesthetic image in the never-ending swirl of 24/7 cable TV. Even serious reporting could not quite break through to the audience, anesthetized to the realities of war by the mediating fantasy-world of television. A vampiric industry, sustaining its own eternal, hollow existence off of bloodshed.

While the human characters were spectators to a massacre, it was a Gremlin that best understood the true nature of the televised world. In his interview with Grandpa Fred, the Brain Gremlin strikes a regal tone, and waxes poetic about the hallmarks of civilization. He wears a blazer, and speaks with an impeccable Trans-Atlantic accent. When a smaller Gremlin in a propeller hat rudely interrupts the interview, the Brain Gremlin asks us to “Look at this fellow here”. He calmly pulls out a revolver and executes the poor soul. The crowd of Gremlins watching the broadcast goes wild. “Now was that civilized? No, clearly not. Fun, but in no sense civilized.”

It’s barbaric. It’s an outrage. It’s damn good television.

“Fun, but in no sense civilized.” This is the mantra of Gremlins 2, but also of the entire modern entertainment industry. All violence might as well be cartoon violence now. It’s all just another part of the spectacle — that is what the Brain Gremlin understood.

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