Strong Bad is probably not the guy you want to move in next door. The red and black Wrestlemania mask he wears all the time is a clue. As are the boxing gloves, which he keeps on even when he is typing sarcastic e-mails:
Hello Strong Bad,
I’m a long time watcher first time writer. I was wondering if you ever use a stunt double.
Voiceover in a gravelly Little Havana accent: Louis…Lewis…Louey
A stunt double?!? No way, Lucy! Only big wusses and lesser wimps use stunt doubles. I’ve always done my own stunt work. Check me out in this summer blockbuster we just finished. It’s called Dangeresque 2: This time, it’s not Dangeresque 1.
Strong Bad is a non-stop braggart, liar, manipulator, and egotist. He is a little guy, but callous to his much larger brothers, the melancholy Strong Sad, and the muscle-bound Strong Mad, who he turns into an unwitting henchman. He rewards his animal companion, the Cheat (who defies Linnean classification) for acts of destructive mischief. Recently he “upgraded” the Cheat to the “Medallion Gold Club,” the privileges of which include lounging in the refrigerator’s crisper drawer. He is absolute ruler of a vacant lot named “Strongbadia,” population: tire.
But if Strong Bad sounds like bad news, you misunderstand. He is one of the coolest characters on the Internet and the real star of Homestarrunner.com, which may be the most popular homegrown animation in the world.
Homestarrunner is the creation of the brothers Mike and Matt Chapman of Atlanta. And according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, their site attracts upwards of 200,000 visitors a day. Keep your eyes open and you will see Homestarrunner t-shirts, decals, and stuff almost everywhere. This success, moreover, is a purely spontaneous Internet event. No one advertises Homestarrunner, and the animation is strictly do-it-yourself.
One of the pleasures of the Chapmans’ cartoons is their playful combination of visual innocence and sophistication. They can’t be bothered to draw arms on the title character, Homestar Runner, or several of the other denizens of Free County, USA, such as Homestar’s girlfriend, Marzipan. But when Strong Bad sits down to answer his e-mail, we see the reflection of his face on the computer monitor, and the Chapmans excel in droll imitations. Among the Chapman’s best pieces are “Parsnips a Plenty,” a wry 1930′s-vintage animated cartoon, and its sequel in which a barbershop trio sings the praise of a dastardly opossum in “The Ballad of the Sneak.”
The humor likewise combines the innocence of slapstick with sharp satire of American popular culture. Characters face some of the usual perils of the cartoon world, like falling anvils, but other hazards are all their own. At one point, tired of being asked how he types with boxing gloves on, Strong Bad attaches fake fingers: a shrimp, a lit birthday candle, and an action-figure toy. But he is appalled when he sees Homestar Runner likewise fitted with artificial limbs.
Homestar Runner and his friends seem to live in one of those Anytown, America universes. The characters are a circle of acquaintances who usually seem several years post-high school. (The cloying sweet Marzipan is the only regular who is female.) Homestar Runner is the good-natured high-school jock, who has yet to fall into the existential perplexities of John Updike’s Rabbit. Maybe he is too dumb to sense any of life’s darker textures. His real opposite is Strong Sad, who is intelligent but bedeviled with Prufrockian paralysis. He has, as we’ve learned to say, a “self-esteem problem,” and the Chapmans make him pay full price.
Free County seems to be a multiethnic place. Bubs, the local concessionaire, is blue-skinned, bug-eyed, and speaks a sort of Satchimo lingo. Strong Bad’s machismo and gargled accent suggests he is from south of the border. Homestar and Marzipan are small town white America.
The Chapman’s humor tends to be cultural, not political. The most irksome character — Strong Bad himself says so — is the “King of Town,” a doddering fool in royal robes who mutters to himself and devours every edible item in reach: a whole flock of sheep in one cartoon, and Strong Bad’s sun-tanning cocoa butter in another. Having devoured his own sheep, the King announces a crisis and calls for help to defeat an imaginary dragon. I would not want to press the symbolism too far, but in Free County, the government is gluttonous, self-important, negligent of the citizens, and a general nuisance. The King leaves a message on Marzipan’s answering machine at one point confessing that, “I’m not very cool and nobody likes me.”
The Chapmans are also pretty tough on the counterculture. “Kind of annoying, overbearing, and a kind of a big hippie,” is how Homestar describes the tofu-eating Marzipan. The jokes frequently aim at deflating vanity and pretentiousness, in both their male and female varieties. Strong Bad, Bubs, and the rest imagine themselves as chick magnets, but obviously lead lonely lives. Free County is definitely a guys’ place, where video games, monster trucks, and smashing things take priority over sensitive male themes. Strong Bad even has his own animated series of shorts, “Teen Girl Squad,” featuring the four friends, Cheerleader, So-and-So, What’s-Her-Face, and the Ugly One, whose shopping adventures and hanging out are interrupted by Black Hawk helicopters, rampaging T-rexes, and a horde of opossums.
Strong Bad also dabbles in other media and, like Professor Cornel West, has even recorded his own rap, “Everybody to the Limit,” which builds on the delightful typographic implosion, “fhqwuhgads,” (pho-ho-gew-gahs in Strong-Bad-speak). The video is the Cheat’s directorial debut, which earns him a pizza. Professor West doesn’t come close.
Homestarrunner.com is the Internet equivalent to The Yellow Kid, the comic introduced by Richard Outcault in the New York World in 1896. Outcault (a superb name for a cartoonist) was by no means the first newspaper cartoonist, but he twisted the genre and made something new of it. His lowlife street urchin in the yellow nightshirt was the Strong Bad of another era, and similarly gained a huge public following. The back-and-forth contest for Outcault’s services between Joseph Pulitzer at the New York World and William Randolph Hearst at The New York Journal is memorialized in the expression “yellow journalism.” The Chapmans have similarly taken full advantage of flash animation and the tricks of the keyboard to create a cartoon world that really couldn’t exist in any other medium.
Actually, the characters did start in another medium. Mike Chapman explains that he originally drew Homestar and Strong Bad when he was 22 in 1996 and put them in a homemade comic book. But www.homestarrunner.com didn’t debut until 2000. Since then, month-by-month, the humor has gotten sharper and the following larger.
It is possible that at some point the Chapman brothers will spoil the wonderful improvisational quality of the whole thing. Insouciance must be hard to maintain in the midst of success and respectability, but so far Homestar and his pals haven’t succumbed. When a reader asked Strong Bad whether he could draw a dragon, he promptly drew the fire-breathing Trogdor the Burninator, a dragon with a human arm. Trogdor now has his own video game at the website (win points by stomping peasants and burning houses; avoid the sword-bearing knights) and popular following with the black T-shirt crowd. Similarly, challenged by a reader to imagine himself as a Japanese cartoon, Strong Bad redraws himself in the anime convention with dead-on accuracy.
Beloved as Peanuts might have been, Charles Schultz just never had that kind of immediate connection to his readers. Doonesbury may provide daily vitamin to liberals who need to keep up their sense of superiority, but Gary Trudeau never comes close to the inspired wickedness of “Teen Girl Squad.” Zippy is a marvel of American surrealism and deadpan observation of the disenchanted precincts of our public space, but Bill Griffith is just Strong Sad in disguise.
If you haven’t yet clicked into www.homestarrunner.com, now would be a good time.
— Peter Wood is author of Diversity: The Invention of A Concept and professor of anthropology at Boston University.