Who Censored Roger Rabbit?,
by Gary Wolf. NYC, St. Martin's Press,
October 1981, 214 pages, $10.95; ISBN: 0-312-87001-9
One of the most difficult works to create, and one of the most enjoyable to read when it’s done successfully, is that which is both a straight example and a parody of a genre. A classic example is Fredric Brown’s What Mad Universe, which is one of the best space operas ever written at the same time that it gently pokes fun at the genre. Gary Wolf has brought off this trick in Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, a whodunit in the Raymond Chandler tradition which sets his hard-boiled hero in a world where ‘toon (cartoon) characters are as real as humans.
The narrator is Eddie Valiant, a stereotypical cheap private eye whose cynicism masks a basic idealism. He operates in Los Angeles, the stereotypical Tinseltown whose glittering stars have empty heads and rotten hearts. Except that it’s not as stereotypical as all that. Wolf has done much more than simply postulate live Mickey Mouse-type characters mingling with humans. He’s changed the basic laws of physics to integrate the common attributes of cartoon characters into normal existence. ‘Toons don’t speak vocally; word balloons float over their heads for a few moments before dissolving to dust. Or symbol balloons with the familiar light bulb to denote a bright idea, and so on. ‘Toons can also create mental duplicates of themselves, usually in dream-fulfillment roles. One of the hallmarks of a ‘toon actor is that he or she can create a mental duplicate realistic enough to serve as a double – a doppelganger – in difficult movie shots, eliminating the need for a stunt actor.
These distinctions aren’t just tossed off to make Eddie Valiant’s world seem amusingly wacky. They’re integral to the plot. When Eddie finds his client murdered, the rabbit’s body has collapsed over his final words, preventing the speech balloon from its normal disintegration, enabling Eddie to find out what they were. How much is an alibi worth when half the suspects could have set up doubles of themselves? In this world newspaper comic strips aren’t drawn, they’re photographed with ‘toon star actors, and an important subplot involves the salaries and royalties that a ‘toon star should get from his syndicate. All of these elements are handled with comedic overtones, but with a basic seriousness that makes the novel a legitimate murder mystery rather than a comedy dressed up as a mystery.
Who Censored Roger Rabbit? has two main interest hooks for the reader. The first is the mystery itself, an intricately tangled plot in which a varied cast of suspects is gradually discovered to have disreputable secrets. Eddie is hired by Roger Rabbit, a moderately successful Hollywood comic-strip star who feels he’s being screwed by his syndicate.
“’About a year ago, the DeGreasy brothers, the cartoon syndicate, told me that if I signed with them they would give me my own strip.’ He laid his half-eaten carrot on an end table beside a display of framed and autographed photos, some human, some ‘toon. They included Snoopy, Joe Namath, Beetle Bailey, John F. Kennedy, and, in a group shot, Dick Tracy, Secret Agent X-9, and J. Edgar Hoover. ‘Instead they made me a second banana to a dopey, obese, thumb-sucking sniveler named Baby Herman.’
‘So find yourself another syndicate.’
‘I can’t.’ The rabbit’s face collapsed. ‘My contract binds me to the DeGreasys for another twenty years. When I asked them to release me so I could look for work elsewhere, they refused.’
‘They give you any reason?’
‘None. Being somewhat an amateur private eye myself, I did some legwork.’ He displayed a hind limb that would have looked exceptionally good dangling from the end of a keychain. ‘I nosed around the industry and uncovered a rumor that someone wants to buy out my contract and give me a starring role, but the DeGreasys refuse to sell. I want you to find out what’s going on. If the DeGreasys won’t star me, why won’t they deal me away?’
Sounded horribly boring, but one more look at his check convinced me to at least go through the motions. I hauled out my notebook and pen.” (pg. 3)
Eddie learns that Roger has a reputation for being paranoid, and that Roger’s wife Jessica, a knockout humanoid ‘toon beauty, has just moved in with syndicate head Rocco DeGreasy. Eddie figures that Roger is just trying to make trouble for DeGreasy, and he is about to drop the case when Roger is murdered in his home. Then DeGreasy is also found slain. The police figure that Roger killed Rocco for stealing his wife, and then Jessica followed Roger home and killed him for murdering her lover. But Eddie can’t buy that. Roger was too much the cutesy-wutesy bunny-rabbit to kill anybody. Also, minor inconsistencies that Eddie had ignored when he hadn’t taken Roger seriously now look very suspicious to him. To cap it all, Roger returns! – or his doppelganger, which the real Roger had created to send on a shopping errand just before his murder:
“[…] ‘I returned home about ten this morning and found the place crawling with cops. I overheard two of them describing what had happened. That I, or rather the real me, had been killed. I didn’t know what to do. I’m not very decisive when it comes to emergencies. I suppose I should have identified myself to the police, but I was afraid to. Then I thought of you.’
‘Don’t mention it. Since I’m supposed to be dead, I didn’t want to wait for you out in the hall where somebody might recognize me, so I picked your lock. I didn’t think you would mind. You don’t, do you? It’s actually my first try at it. As I told you before, I’ve always had a hankering to be a detective. I believe every detective should know how to pick locks. I’m sure you do, don’t you? So I bought some lock-picking tools I saw advertised on the inside cover of a matchbook.” He showed me a set of picks only slightly smaller and less clumsy than the iron bar I use to pry hubcaps off my car. ‘They came with a self-instruction manual. Pretty neat, huh?’
‘Tell me,’ I said, after giving the office bottle another howdy-doody. ‘How long before you start to, you know, fall apart?’
The bunny stared with deep foreboding at the far wall, as though the hand of God had just inscribed there the recipe for hasenpfeffer. ‘Hard to tell. Roger put a large jolt of mental energy into creating me. I could easily last forty-eight hours before I … until I …’” (pgs. 54-55)
So Eddie, who feels he owes the ‘toon star for not believing him in time to prevent his murder, sets out to find who really censored Roger Rabbit in time for Roger’s doppelganger to feel avenged before he fades away. Naturally this involves finding out who really murdered Rocco DeGreasy as well – a slimy con-artist whom everybody apparently had reason to want dead. The cast includes several DeGreasy ‘toon stars who felt they were being exploited; Rocco’s thuglike brother; Rocco’s son whom he tyrannized; Sid Sleaze, the porno comic-book king; a top strip photo-artist that Rocco was trying to blacklist out of business; a fence for stolen newspaper-strip art; Roger’s sultry wife Jessica; and two cops who each have personal reasons for wanting Eddie to drop the case. Everybody has a plausible story, but Eddie automatically assumes that anything he’s told may be a lie until it can be checked out. Therefore the case builds up slowly, like a jigsaw puzzle, with dozens of clues being matched against each other until they start locking together and forming a picture. Wolf plays fair, but the story is tricky – it’s told through Eddie’s thoughts, which are constantly considering possibilities to be checked out, weighing ways in which a literally-true statement might be deliberately misleading, wondering if he’s being overly suspicious. It’s up to the reader to remember what’s definitely been established and what’s still an unproven scenario. I won’t say that you’ll never guess who really did it and why, because at one point or another Eddie (and the reader) is led to suspect every character in the book, for not just one but several plausible motives. But I’ll bet that you’re unlikely to guess which of the many choices presented is the right one until Wolf is ready to tell you.
There’s a delightful sub-plot involving the theft of a teakettle off Roger Rabbit’s stove on the night of his murder. Eddie soon learns that most of the suspects are frantically trying to get it without appearing seriously interested in it. Wolf blandly establishes at the outset that the teakettle is ordinary iron and not hidden gold. Therefore the reader is given an enjoyable parody of the Maltese Falcon gambit with the promise that its secret will be something you don’t suspect. And Wolf generally delivers on his promises.
The novel’s second main interest hook is its human-‘toon civilization. Wolf has done an uncanny job of creating an imaginary world which is in many respects purely silly, but which is built up in such detail and is so logically constructed that it rapidly seems perfectly natural to the reader. This is one of the aspects in which Who Censored Roger Rabbit? seems a tribute to Raymond Chandler, whose Philip Marlowe mysteries have been acclaimed by literary critics as model descriptions of the Southern California lifestyle of their period.
“I took the rabbit to my place.
He didn’t draw so much as a second glance from the people out front on the street. Shows you what the world’s coming to. I can still remember the first ‘toon who moved into this neighborhood. A good-looking guy, humanoid, a dead ringer for Smilin’ Jack. Real personable, and as near normal as a ‘toon could be. That was twenty years ago, and people marched through the streets in protest. They lost; he stayed. Now we’ve got more barnyards than Old MacDonald’s farm. Every morning my next-door neighbor sticks his head out the window and crows at the sun. You go into a diner for lunch, and the guy on the stool next to you orders a bale of hay. […] And this is what the politicians downtown call social progress.” (pg. 62)
Although the humans and ‘toons coexist, the ‘toons seem to play the role of all the minority groups on our own world. Some of the passages, although intriguing (such as the integration of ‘toon bears and gorillas onto human football teams), don’t really advance the story any except in enhancing the general social background. But, again, the story is tricky – an apparently inconsequential passage may contain an important clue, since the abstract information about the relationship between humans and ‘toons becomes specifically applied in the relationships of the human and ‘toon suspects between each other. This isn’t to say that Wolf tries to make his human-‘toon world believable. Many of his incidents are obviously for comic relief, and demonstrate the impossibility of such a world.
“’Wow!’ Roger’s buoyant balloon sailed up so high, it wrapped itself around the single light bulb that illuminated my office. I had to stand on my desk to peel it off. […] I crushed Roger’s balloon, which the heat from the light bulb had baked into the crackly consistency of a fortune cookie, and dropped it into my ashtray.” (pg. 91)
Yet they are all consistent and some of them are important clues to solving the mystery. Indeed, the mystery itself is one which could only have taken place in such a unique world; but enough clues are presented that the reader has the same chance that Eddie Valiant does to come up with the answer.
Finally, Wolf’s writing is just plain fun to read. It’s lively and colorful, full of vivid images. There seem to be two or three to each page, and many are so good that you’ll be tempted to start compiling a list of your favorites.
“She wore a casual outfit – blue jeans, T-shirt, and tennis shoes. If she was dressing down to my level, I hope she brought her pick and shovel because she still had three miles deeper to go.” (pg. 124)
“He studied it through a magnifying glass large enough to have started life as a porthole in the Queen Mary.” (pg. 102)
“He turned his smile into a smarmy grin that hinted he and he alone had a foolproof method for beating the system.” (pg. 101)
“Sleaze spread his hands, so I could see where the spike would go when an inflamed public nailed him unjustly to a cross.” (pg. 140)
If you like unusual murder mysteries, offbeat humor, or fiction about the comic-art industry, then you should find Who Censored Roger Rabbit? to your taste. If you don’t feel like paying eleven bucks for a hardcover novel, then wait for the movie. Who Censored Roger Rabbit? is on Walt Disney Productions’ list of forthcoming features, announced as a combination of live-action and animation filming.
The Comics Journal #75, September 1982, pages 94-95.
Letters To The Editor
Gary K. Wolf; Harvard, MA
I want to thank you for the great review of my book, Who Censored Roger Rabbit? (Journal #75). Fred Patten caught almost every nuance I threw in. The book’s been reviewed more than 150 times, including once in the New York Times. Every review’s been favorable, but I enjoyed this one the best by far.
The Comics Journal #85, October 1983, page 23.