Monday, January 3, 2011

Going Postal

It's a small world after all...filled with a large number of marketable characters

Stamps. They are something which are required to mail a letter, but most of the time, we don't really think about them. Generally, the design on a stamp is representative of the history or the culture of the country that issued it. In many cases, that includes fictional characters...especially those of the animated variety.

The United States was somewhat late to the game in honoring their own famous cartoon characters on stamps- perhaps due to the fact that stamp designs were not copyrighted until the 1970s. (The stamp honoring Walt Disney issued in the late 1960s featured none of his studio's famous characters, but rather children of various nationalities inspired by the "it's a small world" attraction.) In more recent years, the U.S. Postal Service has featured a large number of people whose likeness are owned by a third party. Real famous people in particular are now more likely to have their likeness require a license to use, and a good number of them have been honored with stamps in more recent years, the most famous of which is Elvis, whose 1993 stamp is still the most popular of all time. (Elvis's likeness is now owned by the same company which owns American Idol- which, not surprisingly, changed the Elvis estate's long-standing dislike of Elvis impersonators- or, as they prefer to call them, "Elvis Tribute Artists.")

In 1997, the first well-known fictional character appeared on an American postage stamp, and it was certainly a good one to pay tribute to- Bugs Bunny. (This does not count the familiar government mascots of Smokey Bear and McGruff the Crime Dog, both of whom were honored with stamps in 1984.) Bugs was soon followed by his other Looney Tunes pals, and eventually, other well-deserved fictional characters were honored with their own stamps, including Snoopy, Kermit the Frog, DC and Marvel superheroes, the familiar faces of Star Wars, and a parade of familiar Disney stars led by Mickey Mouse. In 2009, the Postal Service even honored the 20th anniversary of The Simpsons by featuring them on stamps, which were advertised during the show itself with their usual style of sarcasm: "Simpsons stamps- proof that the government is getting desperate."

To paraphrase a line from Men in Black 2, the Postal Service has not kept up with today's youth, which is perhaps for the best. Although a number of people (including myself) have a casual interest in them (which explains why I'm writing this post), stamp collecting is perhaps the most stereotypically nerdy of all the nerdy hobbies. No matter what anyone tries, stamps never were and never will be cool. Even if you put Buzz Lightyear on them.

A failed attempt by the Postal Service to appeal to the youth of America

Recently, the Postal Service unveiled its 2011 stamp designs. For the most part, it is a standard mix representing various aspects of American culture, with designs honoring Mark Twain, Helen Hayes (designed by Drew "Greatest Poster Artist Ever" Struzan), Gregory Peck, the Civil War, Edward Hopper (whose stamp surprisingly doesn't feature his most famous painting, Nighthawks, otherwise known as "that painting of the diner"), and the fourth member of the Republican Holy Trinity (otherwise known as Ronald Reagan). One issue in particular, though, is rather interesting for a number of reasons.

The familiar faces of Pixar show up on an issue entitled "Send A Hello." Pixar celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, and their films and characters are definitely a part of American culture. But is it a little too soon to be honoring them? I think so. For a number of reasons.

My biggest qualm with the stamp designs themselves is that (other than the fact that Woody isn't on the stamp alongside Buzz Lightyear), other than Toy Story, none of these films or characters seem to be worthy of a stamp. I don't care how much money Lightning McQueen makes for Disney- he does not deserve his own postage stamp. Actual people may not be depicted on a stamp unless they have been dead for at least five years- four of the five characters depicted on these stamps come from films that have been released in the last five years. (Oddly, were Lightning a real person- and dead- he actually would be the only one eliglble other than Buzz.)

In the past, when the likes of the Simpsons and such have been honored with stamps, there were concerns that the Postal Service had gone commercial. Their own guidelines regarding stamp designs read that "Commercial products or enterprises might be used to illustrate more general concepts related to American culture." And most of the designs that have featured well-known characters- including the Simpsons- have fallen under that- the characters chosen are American institutions, and using their likenesses on stamps shows to both the country and the world that they are worthy of tribute- which they are. Pixar characters? Certainly an American institution known both here and abroad, but worthy of a stamp? Not yet, anyway. Jeff Harris, a very smart guy and a member of my Twitter Secret Circle, probably puts it better (and in fewer words) than I could:

It seems a little too soon to put Pixar characters on a postage stamp, doesn't it?

I mean, yeah, Pixar has been making films for almost 20 years, but they're still too fresh in the public's consciousness. Up, Wall-E, Ratatouille, and Cars are amongst the stamps, but they haven't been around for ten years, let alone five. If they did the same cycle for Dreamworks' Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, Prince of Egypt, Antz, or How to Train Your Dragon on postage stamps, the animation constituency lauded by Amid Amidi, the John K. acolytes, and the Pixar crowd that feels they deserve everything would be crying foul saying they don't deserve stamps.

Unlike Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, the DC comics characters, and the Marvel characters, they haven't been around long enough to make a significant impact on pop culture. Well, Toy Story has, but the others haven't. The Simpsons, while still in production, personifies America more than any television program before or since its creation. The Pixar stamps look like those stickers you'd buy near the card section of a store. It's just too commercialized.

...And yet, despite my (and others') concerns, I'll probably buy the Pixar stamps when they come out anyway. So will a lot of people. That's the power of Disney for you- can't live with them, can't live without them. Given that people don't use stamps as much as they used to, the fact that the Mouse is able to get people talking about them once again by putting characters they own on them is proof enough of their power. And that, perhaps more than any character, is their true contribution to American culture.

Stamp designs ©2010 United States Postal Service, characters depicted ©Disney/Pixar. Photo at top was taken by myself. Thanks to Jeff Harris for allowing his comments to be reprinted here.

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