Sometimes Dead Is Better

The life after death of once-beloved characters

In Luigi Pirandello's high school drama club staple Six Characters in Search of an Author, one character argues that by being fictional he can enjoy a kind of immortality denied to us hapless flesh-and-blood folk: as long as somebody, somewhere, is reading his story, he lives. But being fictional is no guarantee of immortality. Fictional characters, even the most popular ones, can fall out of the public consciousness so totally that they are effectively dead. A few years back I was visiting Long Beach's enormous used bookstore Acres of Books, and in a dusty backroom I discovered an entire bookcase crammed with Harlequin Romances that clearly hadn't been touched since Carter was president. That bookcase was a kind of cemetery, and each book a kind of tomb.

Nobody is going to shed a tear for a bookcase full of obsolete pirates and forgotten wenches, but it is a sadder thing to watch the once universally beloved characters of your childhood—characters like, say, the Muppets—fading inexorably from the public imagination. It stings to realize that a lot of kids today have no idea who Kermit the Frog or Miss Piggy is, but it's far more depressing to witness a witless attempt at generating some new buzz for the characters by pairing Miss Piggy with Jessica Simpson in those commercials for the most hideous-looking pizza I have ever seen. (Seriously, it looks like every slice is topped off by somebody's gangrenous toe.) Jim Henson was never reluctant to use his characters in commercials, but he got his start creating a series of revolutionary ads in the '50s and '60s, and he understood that there is a real art to making a good commercial. The new Muppet ads aren't just missing Henson in the literal sense, they're missing his spirit. I hesitate to speak for a dead man, but I can't imagine Henson would have approved of invoking Kermit's signature song "It's Not Easy Being Green," with its subtle but unmistakable message of racial tolerance, to pitch a damned car. The Muppets never really felt like puppets before, but man, they sure do now.

Corporations will often resort to desperate, Frankenstein-ian means to jolt a little life into a fading character, sometimes persuading people to buy a bunch of T-shirts and ball caps featuring that character's blandly smiling face, but invariably sacrificing the spark of life that made the character special in the first place. To look at all those ghastly Betty Boop figurines cluttering up your neighborhood Hallmark store, you'd never guess how hilarious, surreal and just plain dirty the original Fleischer Bros. cartoons were. (Betty sure was popular with the fellas for a girl with a face bearing such an unfortunate resemblance to the human posterior.) At least Betty's doing better than her old pal Popeye, who is nowadays mostly known as the mascot for a chain of restaurants serving fried chicken that's slightly less appetizing than a slice of pizza topped off by somebody's gangrenous toe.

Steering the corporate ship. © Walt Disney Co.

On very rare occasions, faded characters can survive the indignities thrust upon them by the marketing monkeys and eventually recapture the public's imagination. In the early '90s, long after the end of the original Star Wars trilogy but before those woebegone prequels, Darth Vader was in imminent danger of falling into irrelevance when some enterprising ad exec thought it'd be funny to have the Lord of the Sith square off against the Energizer rabbit in a commercial. It was shocking at the time to see Vader, the quintessential badass of Gen-X's collective childhood, shown up by a pink, drum-pounding bunny in a goofy ad for batteries. It seemed like a clear sign that George Lucas was officially washing his hands of the franchise and no longer cared how his characters were used, so long as it enabled him to continue employing wads of thousand-dollar bills as doorstops around the Skywalker Ranch. Then Lucas announced he was making the prequels, stirring up a whole new frenzy of interest in Vader. And now, with those prequels rapidly retreating in the rear-view mirror, many of us long for the days when Vader was brought low by a battery-powered bunny, instead of by stunningly inept dialog like "I don't like sand. It's rough and irritating, and it gets everywhere. Not like you; you're everything soft and smooth."

Once-popular fictional characters can linger on the brink of total obsolescence for decades, scarcely remembered but never completely vanishing into the void. That's just what happened to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Walt Disney's first hit cartoon character. When a shady distributor managed to screw Disney out of the rights to Oswald, Disney bounced back (and how) by creating Mickey Mouse. For the next few decades, Oswald eked out an increasingly meager existence as a character in cartoons for Universal, then Walter Lantz, then Universal again. When the public eventually tired of those, he ended up starring in a long series of Dell comic books. Through it all he underwent many redesigns and character changes, with only his once-valuable name remaining constant. By the end of the 20th century he still had an avid following in Japan, but in his home country he'd been reduced to a historical footnote. That changed a few weeks ago, when it was announced that Universal and Disney had reached a deal that would send ABC sportscaster Al Michaels to NBC, while Disney would reacquire the title to Oswald. (And we thought Darth Vader had it bad, getting his ass handed to him by the Energizer bunny; imagine being a respected broadcasting personality and waking up to headlines announcing your network has traded you for a cartoon bunny whose best days ended in the 1920s.)

Now that Disney owns Oswald again, it's a sure bet that the company is busy conjuring up crass new ways to exploit the character. Get ready for Oswald DVDs, Oswald dolls, Oswald jammies, Oswald shot glasses, Oswald condoms, Oswald everything Disney can think of. It turns out Oswald's not so lucky after all; if he was, he'd still just be a character in a bunch of yellowing comic books stashed in the dusty backroom of some bookstore, enjoying the quiet of his eternal retirement without the pressure to move a mountain of product for his corporate masters. If he was really lucky, maybe someday, somebody would even spend a few nickels on one of those comics, take it home, read it and enjoy it. And then, for a few minutes at least, Oswald would live again.

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