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Finding Nostalgia in a Florida Theme Park
At an Orlando theme park where never-ending thrills, and nostalgia, await.
🎧 🎤 BEHIND THE STORY PODCAST: FINDING NOSTALGIA IN A FLORIDA THEME PARK
LOCATED in the Islands of Adventure theme park, part of Universal Studios Orlando, where virtual reality rides and roller coasters determine not only foot traffic but the instant gratification guests clamor for, there is a place between – an ode to nostalgia – where people walk in, then out, called Comic Strip Lane in Toon Lagoon.
The Sunday Funnies, Betty Boop, Cathy, The Phantom, Heathcliff, Popeye the Sailor Man, and more. Signs of a forgotten era and cultural symbols lost to the drumbeat of progress and the Internet of things, as physical books, newspapers, magazines, and cartoons, have been all but replaced by glossy LED screens, computer generated imagery, artificial intelligence, and algorithms; a true Brave New World with ever-shrinking attention spans and lightening quick swipes –left, right, up, down – that reel us into a future of more, faster, shorter, easy, and eventually, another discarded past. For better or worse, this is, in part, technological determinism.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, technological determinism is — in a nutshell — the idea that culture, and cultural shifts, are defined by technological advancement and communication innovations; it’s the theory that human nature and existence change as new technology is introduced into our society, and that these changes, whether positive, negative, or even neutral, can’t be stopped. Technology, then, is what drives us forward and determines our present moment. It has the ability to erase or accentuate past artifacts. It even powers our ability to selectively remember.
But nostalgia is more than remembering; it’s a longing. It’s when the idea of going backwards, through passionate retrospect, to another place and time, offers more value and endearment than a present, or even future, moment. And yet, according to a few doctors and psychologists, nostalgia is dangerous. It can lead to both mental and physical disorders where people try to revive a past, or a snapshot in time, in order to reinvent the future.
While these assertions may be true on some level, nostalgia is essential, perhaps now more than ever, to remember who we are as humans, and the good things in our past, before the encroachment of electronics, social media, and digital technologies.
So take a walk with me on Comic Strip Lane inside Toon Lagoon, where nostalgia is on full display; big, bright, colorful, texturized, fun, and a reminder when times were different, and in some ways, worthy of passionate retrospect.
The Sunday Funnies
Near the turn of the 20th Century, when journalism was on the cusp of a golden age, and literacy rates were widely expanding, it was the Sunday morning funnies that both kids and adults wanted, snatching the full-color section of paper back and forth, over cups of coffee and orange juice, laughter and lazy yawns – children sprawled out on the living room floor, parents at the breakfast table.
Just like the oversized and daring three-dimensional art overlooking Comic Strip Lane, the Sunday Funnies were brightly-colored and bold, with subject matter ranging from adventure, humor, mystery, and drama. Though, not everyone was amused. Early on, several women’s groups and religious organizations sought to ban the strips, and Frederic Wertham, a well-trained psychiatrist, thought comics contained too much adult content for children.
And yet, Sunday Funnies and comic strips endured. Even today, in an era of digital news and mobile technology, syndicated comic strips can still be found in newspapers across the country, smaller in size, but still, a vivid reminder that good things do carry on.
When Betty Boop first arrived on the comic strip scene in the early 1930s, she was part canine and part girl – with floppy ears and a black button nose – before transforming into the fully female character created by Max and Dave Fleischer of Fleischer Studios – who were, indeed, rivals of Walt Disney. In fact, in 1933, Fleischer Studios produced their very own version of Snow White, four years before Disney, featuring the now cultural icon, Betty Boop.
Betty was a star from the moment she appeared on screen, always the focal point and main character of the show, scantily dressed with a round, doll face, perhaps simultaneously aware, and unaware, of her sexual appeal, playing roles such as a circus performer, Poor Cinderella, a judge, Red Hot Mamma, and more. Betty was a magnet, not only for the viewing audience, but also for the male characters who starred alongside her.
But Betty’s magnetism was also her downfall. Her character was purposely provocative, with voluptuous curves and a garter belt, and she almost always outsmarted and evaded the men who tried to brazenly and shamelessly overtake her with vigorous – and often physical – unwanted advances. And yet, unfortunately, Betty couldn’t outsmart the Hays Code, a set of censorship guidelines requiring filmmakers to comply with rules regarding nudity, scenes of passion, lustful kissing, and other related subjects. According to Mark Fleischer, Hays Code ended Betty’s buxom bravado, when she transformed, once again, but this time, into a modest character with a longer dress and domesticated motif.
Although Betty Boop and her toned-down cartoon character ultimately survived through merchandising, the old Betty, along with her legacy, long legs and cleavage are on full display overtop Comic Strip Lane inside Toon Lagoon.
Popeye the Sailor Man
In 1929, when Popeye was first introduced to the world by cartoonist E. C. Segar, he quickly became a lead character in comic strips and was soon featured in cartoon shorts when Fleischer Studios produced a series called Popeye the Sailor in 1933. After Segar’s death in 1938, cartoonists and scriptwriters including Doc Winner and Bela Zaboly kept Popeye alive and animated, propelling him even further into American comic and cartoon culture.
Popeye, the scrappy, tough-as-nails, one-eyed sailor, with superhuman strength courtesy of a can of spinach, enlisted in the US Navy in 1941, during the height of World War II, and starred in several propaganda films to promote patriotism and support for the war effort. His outfit even changed from a skipper’s hat and black rolled-up shirt into an all-white navy sailor’s outfit with a white sailor’s cap.
Though Popeye went through several changes and stages, his attitude never did. Tenacious, testy, and fiercely loyal to his love, Olive Oyl, Popeye will always be “I yam what I yam, and that's all what I yam,” and most certainly, one of the great cultural symbols showcased in Comic Strip Lane.
Cathy, the comic strip drawn by American cartoonist, Cathy Guisewite, debuted in 1976, as it chronicled one single woman's struggles with love, food, work, and her mother. Cathy loved – most dearly – chocolate and pizza and her mother’s cooking, and yet, she was always on a diet, obsessively weighing herself and cynically trying on bathing suits. She struggled in the romance department and through the work demands that almost got the best of her.
Though Cathy appeared in 1,400 newspapers, good natured and hopeful, oftentimes, she just couldn’t win. Whether it was defeat by a fattening brownie, an argument with her mother, or another bad date, Cathy’s common struggle represented the struggle of her readers. Perhaps not quite the modern feminist many would claim to aspire to, Cathy, nonetheless, became a cultural icon of the everyday woman, before social media influencers, the ‘Me Too’ movement, and Twitter and TikTok feminism. Like so many other women, Cathy simply wanted more from life. When the comic ended in 2010, Cathy and her husband, Irving, were expecting a baby.
Before the debut of Superman (1938) and Batman (1939), and long before Spiderman (1963), another crime fighting hero conquered the comic strips — The Phantom. Published by American cartoonist, writer, theater director, Lee Falk, in 1936, The Phantom was the first superhero to wear skintight clothes and a mask to match, and though he had no actual true hero powers, he relied on the myth of his immortality along with his natural strength and intelligence.
The 1930s was a trying time as the Great Depression left little money to spare and the Dust Bowl drove many farming families into foreclosure. Unemployment stood at 20 percent. Unsurprisingly, though, many Americans sought escape and cheap entertainment through movies, radio broadcasts, and comic strips. Superheroes such as The Phantom, Batman, and Superman provided the reality break society desperately craved and gave readers the champions and protectors needed to get the bad guys and save the day.
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