“There was a choice between being an alcoholic drug addict or a cartoonist, and I chose being a cartoonist,” Bill Plympton said, referring to his youth in Portland, Oregon, where the cloudy, rainy weather tends to limit one’s recreational options.
And Plympton became not just a cartoonist, but a very famous one. On November 15, he screened a number of his award-winning animated films for a packed crowd at Sarah Lawrence College.
Plympton’s cartoons have appeared in national publications from The New York Times to National Lampoon, from Vogue to Penthouse. For many years he published a syndicated political cartoon called “Plympton.”
One of the films he showed at Sarah Lawrence was “The Fan and the Flower,” an endearing and tragic love story about a ceiling fan who falls in love with a flower and eventually kills himself to save her. The film is definitely not “his usual style,” he said, noting that it is the only film of his that his mother likes.
Despite lucrative offers from Disney and others, Plympton refuses to make cartoons for children. The things he thinks about are inappropriate for non-adults, he says—jealousy and hate and love and sex. “Sleazy is what I’m all about,” he joked.
It was evident from his films, however, that he is also about conflicts of the human spirit and battles of the conscience. His most recent film, “Idiot and Angels,” is a dark tale of an acerbic man who suddenly sprouts angels’ wings and is forced into doing good deeds. The film is ultimately about the man’s battle for his soul, and raises other cosmic issues of good and evil.
After each short or clip he screened, Plympton used a black marker to quickly draw the main character from the film on an easel. “You can see how I draw really fast and uncontrolled,” he commented.
It isn’t just Plympton’s drawing style that sets his work apart—it’s also the fact that he still draws at all. In the age of computer animation, Plympton still produces his films by hand, some of them requiring over 30,000 individual drawings. “You have to use a lot of economy and simplicity because you have to do lots of drawings in a short amount of time.”
While drawing, Plympton said the first time he realized cartoons were important was in high school, when he drew a controversial poster for a friend’s student council campaign. During class, an announcement came over the intercom: “Will Bill Plympton the pornographer please come to the principal’s office?”
When he returned to class, the other students looked at him differently—as a “maverick” artist. “I realized then that cartoons could be mediums of change,” Plympton said.
The screening was hosted by the Spencer Barnett Experimental Film Forum, which was created in memory of a Sarah Lawrence student who passed away in 2008. Barnett’s mother introduced the event, saying that like Plympton, Spencer loved animation and all things quirky in art.