I’m a big fan of the movie, Who Framed Roger Rabbit (no question mark, thank you). I saw it in the theatre, and watched it on home video dozens of times. I had a bendable toy figure of the annoying ‘toon, and true to form, I made him bother my other toys. While I wouldn’t call it one of my top-10 flicks, it’s probably safely in the top-25.
So how in the hell did I go 25 years before realizing it was based on a novel?
Gary Wolf’s Who Censored Roger Rabbit? is, like the movie, a hard-boiled detective story with a cast of, and please excuse the easy pun, loony ‘toons. Be warned: This isn’t Dashiell Hammett with a warm slice of Peanuts on the side, it’s Mickey Spillane with Daffy Duck doing the ol’ burst-out-a-birthday-cake gag.
Don’t get me wrong, though. Despite the comedic elements, the setting, and the cast, this is a proper mystery. There are plenty of (potentially) guilty parties, red herrings, and twists. As our protagonist Eddie Valiant explains, “That’s why we call it a mystery. Otherwise, if everything was cut and dried, we’d call it an unvarnished truth.”
Set in Los Angeles, the anachronistic world is set in a period resembling the 1940s, touches on social issues seen in the 1960s (and, sadly, many other decades), yet it was written in the 1980s. I quite liked how Wolf drew comparisons to the modern world, but wish he would’ve kept the parallels subtler. Anyhow, the ‘toons are living with humans now, playing sports with them — they’re fully integrated. Some folks don’t care for this. Here’s where Wolf’s gimmick had to shine: This novel probably wouldn’t have stood out in the crowd if it didn’t have the ‘toons, but rather was set in 1960s Alabama, or 1950s British Columbia. I’m not saying it isn’t good enough to stand on its own — at least, I don’t think I’m saying that — but I do think Wolf should be happy and thankful with how he used the gimmick.
Unlike the movie, which dealt with the world of animation, the stars of this novel are classic comic strip stars. Hagar the Horrible, Blondie and Dagwood, and Tracy are a few of the familiar faces. We learn that comic strips aren’t the creation of talented writers and illustrators, but rather photographers. You see, the characters are posed with their props, snapped, and then positioned differently for the next panel. Letterers aren’t spared, either; each ‘toon ‘speaks’ via word balloons, and depending on their tone (i.e. icy, angry, sad, etc.), the balloon will take on different elements. Neat, eh? There are a few able to vocalize their words, but these ‘toons are very few and far between.
Wolf goes to great lengths to remind readers that regardless if they’re humanoid or not, all ‘toons were/are actors. Their ability to take on any role adds unexpected layers to this tale.
No matter how the ‘toon talks and looks, Valiant doesn’t like them. He doesn’t hate them, either. It’s just that Valiant has other things on his mind. He wants justice… and his fee, of course. Oh, and maybe a few other things now and then. “I checked my watch. I never drink until after six. It was then four-fifteen. Close enough. I buried the bottom of a glass under three fingers of bourbon, walked into the bedroom after her, and sat down on her bed.”
Eddie Valiant is brought into the story by our eponymous leporid. Roger believes his employers are creatively stifling him, so he hires the prickly dick. Unfortunately for Eddie, there’s a catch: Roger wants to help. He doesn’t come right out and ask, at least not at first. “He fiddled with his ear, fiddled with his sunglasses, fiddled with the buttons on his trench coat, until finally he ran out of externals and began to fiddle with his soul.” Valiant grudgingly accepts.
Roger is a good-natured B-lister, stuck with being the sidekick to one of the hottest characters in the world: Baby Herman. Roger feels he could — nay, should — be a star but his current contract holders – Rocco and Dominick DeGreasy – are ignoring offers put forth by other syndicates. That’s comic book syndicates, not shorthand for organized criminals, although… *ahem*
Rocco DeGreasy is surprisingly well spoken and learned, whereas Dominick is clearly the muscle of the operation. Rocco claims he respects Roger, and would not hesitate to release any of his clients from their contract should they receive another offer. He doubts one exists for Roger, and feels Roger’s ire stems from his relationship with a stunning siren named Jessica. She used to date Rocco, but suddenly left him for Roger. Around that time, the DeGreasys signed Roger to become the supporting character in the hit Baby Herman strips. After 18 months, she broke off her relationship with Roger, and went back to Rocco.
Jessica is one of the few people who dislike Roger (as opposed to how every non-male, and even many of those, loathes Jessica). She claims he became unbearable in those final months, but others disagree. Even Baby Herman calls Roger a kind soul. Well, aside from the time he threatened to kill Rocco. Then again, maybe Rocco isn’t such a nice guy. Strip photographer and notable ‘toon rights advocate, Carol Masters, routinely butts heads with the bigwig. She feels he treats his characters like slaves, and would never in a million years release them unless he profited off the deal as well. The plot thickens…
Wolf’s characters all have distinct voices, primarily those of classic archetypes, but with their own twist thanks to the ‘toon/human elements. I found the way his characters interacted with Eddie and each other rather compelling. We meet them often, because this isn’t just a mystery but a proper detective yarn. We join our investigator as he grills suspects, pokes around crime scenes, and actually (usually) attempts to solve the case(s) without resorting to his fists or gadgets.
With all the things that happened — and, trust me, all the above pretty much happens in the first third of the book — you’re probably expecting the page count to be rivaling the output of George R.R. Martin, right? Guess again. Clocking in at a mere 218 pages, this is a brisk read to say the least. This is partly because the story is literally set against a timer. If things are not solved quickly, let’s just say things will go pear-shaped in a hurry.
As you can gather, I enjoyed the novel, but that doesn’t mean I thought it was perfect. There’s something to admire about the ‘wrong place at the wrong time’ trope, but I think Wolf could have handled a specific moment with more finesse. I believe this to be a weak point in an otherwise strong novel. The funny thing is, glancing through the earlier pages, this — and other accompanying aspects — was foreshadowed, but in an incredibly subtle way. Well, at least in the early chapters. Wolf got a little sloppy leading up to the climax, making the actual reveal(s) rather obvious. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the resolution but would have preferred to see things tightened.
In some ways, I think I prefer the novel to the movie. Considering the feelings I outlined in the beginning of this review, I never thought that would be the case. To be fair, I also never thought the novel would be so different from the movie. If you decide to check out the book, hopefully you are as pleasantly surprised as I was. I do think that film is, consistently, at a higher quality than the novel.
If, for whatever reason, you’ve never seen the Robert Zemeckis’ film, correct that oversight now. Just don’t go forgetting about this strange little curiosity that is undoubtedly collecting dust in a library or a second-hand bookstore. Go forth, pick it up, and spend a pleasant afternoon learning the answers to these important questions: Who threw a major wrench in the DeGreasy’s comic book syndicate, what in the world happened to a generic teapot that is wanted by nearly everyone Eddie meets, and most importantly, Who censored Roger Rabbit?
Rating: 4 cream pies to the face out of 5.