February 12, 2018, 2:47 pm.

As much as I love to speak decisively, I also think it's important for me to discuss matters on which I am completely, unbearably torn.

Cuphead is one of those matters.

CUPHEAD IS BEAUTIFUL

As a kid, no style pleased my eyes quite like old Disney cartoons. The characters' movements entranced me; I could lose myself in the watercolor backgrounds; I felt so clever noticing the pieces of the environment that would soon move. And when I grew older and realized that all animation work was in 3D, my heart sank. Ever since, a piece of me has longed to return to the 2D animation days of yore.

Cuphead takes me back there.

For me, and for so many others, Cuphead allows us to climb through the watercolor hollow trees we once loved.

And I deeply admire Cuphead's artistic cohesion. Every piece of the game works towards a single aesthetic goal. No details fall by the wayside; even the words that flash across the screen reading "Ready? Wallop!" and "A Knockout!" were drawn by an old sign painter. The music, as so many before me have said, is unbelievable.

Furthermore, Cuphead's sheer inventiveness cultivates pure, childish wonder — cars that drive on the ceiling. A hot dog that shoots globs of ketchup and mustard. An inventor emerging from his robot. I sometimes feel that today's games, movies, and TV shows suffer from creative bankruptcy — they've lost touch with the pure joy that makes stories fun, exciting, and playful. In the midst of all this, Cuphead's never-ending stream of dazzling scenes and characters is not just a breath of fresh air — it's a beacon of hope, because it reassures me that we haven't forgotten the art of evoking wonder.

I honestly don't know if I've loved a game's aesthetic — or the effort behind a game's aesthetic — as much as I love Cuphead's. As an artist and animator myself, I dream of creating a piece of art as gorgeous.

BUT THERE IS ANOTHER SIDE OF CUPHEAD

So, artistically, Cuphead may be the most beautiful game I've ever seen.

And yet.

I cannot ignore the other side of Cuphead. The era of animation to which Cuphead is a love letter was inextricably tied to racism. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Maja Moldenhauer (who worked as the executive producer and as an artist for Cuphead) said, "It’s visuals and that’s about it. Anything else happening in that era we’re not versed in it. Blame it on being Canadian."

But it isn't just the visuals. Cuphead owes more than just its art style to the 1930s Fleischer studios — it bears vestiges of the racism that those old cartoons contained.

ANTI-BLACKNESS

Most contemporary representations draw the devil in red; Cuphead makes the choice to draw him in black. On top of this, the wide grin and round eyes of Cuphead's devil recall the racist caricatures of Black people featured in Fleischer cartoons.


Image: Studio MDHR.

Additionally, as noted by Samantha Blackmon, the Cuphead team initially developed a boss called M. Fang, and then scrapped the design. Besides having black skin, wide eyes, and a wide grin, the boss had pale, thick lips — another staple of racist depictions of Black people in the 1930's.


Image: Studio MDHR.

And in the final version of the game, the Ribby and Croaks boss fight features fireflies that similarly evoke the visuals of blackface.


Image: Studio MDHR.

The fact that these designs were conceived makes me fear that the racist imagery of the 1930's has not fully left the creators' collective subconscious. I cannot shake the feeling that Fleischer's degrading depictions of Black people pervade the world of Cuphead.

ANTI-SEMITISM

Racist portrayals of Jews also ran rampant during the Fleischer era of animation. The cast of Cuphead bosses is not free of this, either: the aeronaut Hilda Berg, whose name hints that she is Jewish, has a large nose:


Image: Studio MDHR.

This imagery is also inherited from the Fleischer era. Additionally, the flower boss Cagney Carnation owes his signature idle animation to a Jewish caricature from an old Fleischer cartoon:

 
Images: Studio MDHR and Fleischer Studios.

In and of itself, this seems fairly innocuous. However, the meaner Cagney Carnation's phase, the larger his nose grows.

  
Images: Studio MDHR.

Though surely unintentional, this imagery forms a link between wickedness and having a large nose — reinforcing a racist idea that cost people their lives in the 1930's.

ANTI-ARABISM

Finally, one of Cuphead's bosses is a genie called Djimmi the Great. With skin so brightly scarlet that it would not be out of place in "What Makes the Red Man Red," Djimmi's boss fight features symbols of Egyptian culture (sarcophagi, pyramids, mummies, and hieroglyphics) mixed in with Western visions of Saudi Arabian culture (genie lamps, turbans, and flying carpets).


Image: Studio MDHR.

By throwing together symbols from distinct North African/Southwest Asian cultures, the game implies that these cultures are homogeneous; that they are indistinguishable. Furthermore, by filtering these cultural objects through a Western lens, the game implies that actual North African/Southwest Asian culture does not truly matter. All that matters is what we see in Aladdin.

So despite what the creators say, I do not think Cuphead has fully abandoned the racism and prejudice that accompanied the Fleischer 1930's era of animation. I think the racism of the 1930's — in small, unintentional ways — lives on.

WHAT TO DO WITH ALL THIS

I am torn between two of my greatest passions. On the one hand, the artistic vision and courage that produced Cuphead is exactly what I think the games industry (and the TV industry, and the film industry) needs more of. Plus, my eyes just love looking at the darn thing. It's sumptuous to behold. It's an incredible work of art.

But whom do we silence if we blindly praise this work of art? If we indulge in this nostalgia without acknowledging the racism that existed in old Fleischer studios, and that still exists (in trace amounts) in Cuphead, how can we shuffle off our racist legacy? What does this mean for Black gamers; for all gamers of color? Are their histories not important? Is it not paramount that we do not repeat them?

I actually think that the real problem is much, much bigger than Cuphead. I think the problem is that artists and animators across all media use physical features as shorthand to convey a character's moral failings. In so doing, we code certain faces and certain bodies as bad or wrong, and this seeps into our brains subconsciously.

Just look at Scar from the Lion King: his wickedness is coupled with his dark fur, narrow face, and inky black hair. Look at Rasputin from Disney's Anastasia: his corruption is coupled with his large nose, stringy black hair, thick lips, crooked teeth, warts, bushy eyebrows, and pointed face. In both of these films, the good-hearted protagonists are smaller, rosier, lighter, and rounder-faced — just like Cuphead and Mugman.

This is the crux of the issue. When we use physical traits to convey a character's villainy, there are real-world ramifications for people with those traits. We must not use the darkness of a character's skin to hint at their wickedness. We must create art that does not use genetics to divide its characters into good and evil.