Friday, March 26, 2010

Hot Badger Action (And More!)

About a month ago I got a call from Jeanette Cooperman, a reporter for St. Louis Magazine, asking whether I would be able to write a few thoughts about the relative effectiveness of college sports mascots, with particular emphasis on local schools: the Saint Louis University Billikens and Missouri Tigers. (The University of Missouri-St. Louis has unveiled a new mascot, the Triton, which occasioned the miniature feature she had in mind.)

GT readers know, I have given some thought and ink to these matters, particularly in the department of American Indians: on Chief Wahoo, The Cleveland Stereotypes; on cartoon Indians in Dick Tracy and Walt Disney shorts, Wahoo, Yellowpony, and Graphic Indians; on the desultory relationship between Wahoo and Herbie the Husker, Indian Summer Roundup. Jeanette's inquiry afforded an opportunity to have a little open-ended fun. The April issue of the mag is out, which includes a slightly edited version of the email I sent back, below:

You can't even talk about this subject without acknowledging how silly it is. What is a college mascot, but a poor soul in a hot suit will lousy visibility? A sadistic concept, at heart. That said, the characters themselves bear discussion. They cover a lot of ground, from the utterly goofy (e.g., Ohio State's buckeye, a personified nut) to the comparatively documentary (the University of West Virginia's mountaineer, an actual bearded guy with a deerskin costume, not a suit at all).

From my perspective, I think there are clear rules. Number one, foam rubber humans are out. For example, Herbie the Husker (Nebraska) is unbelievably creepy. Humans just don't work. They're not absurd, and they're not funny. Number two, good mascots tend to have the same qualities as effective cartoon characters. They come with clear personalities and emotional confidence. They're mad, or at least cross, and determined. (Oregon actually cheats on this count, having brazenly stolen Donald Duck–complete with name and sailor suit, recolored yellow and green–from Walt Disney.)

Aside: turns out there was a deal between Oregon and Walt. Details here.

My two rules work against our local examples, especially the Billiken. Is he human? Strictly speaking I guess he's an elf, a miniature humanoid. I'll give him a pass on the first rule, but what about the second? Can you identify his emotional attitude?

Look at that meandering mouth, the blank yet slightly cross-eyed gaze. Doesn't he look like he's trying to pass a sobriety test? Does he have any hope whatsoever of intimidating an opponent? Of course not–he's trying to touch his nose! On the positive side, he's got enviable sneakers, and his italicized SLU seems slightly aggressive.

Truman the Tiger vaguely resembles Tony the (Cornflakes) Tiger, but without the cool geometry. His nose goes too bicycle-horn, and worse, his eyes are vacant–black ovals centered within white ones. Zero emotion. He's not hapless, in the manner of poor Billiken, but he's not authoritative either. The whiskers are a plus. Is it really possible that his black stripes are spray-painted on? A yellow cat with graffiti? I know times are tough, but it might be time to up the budget the teeniest bit. (The logotype for the Missouri tiger is a different story. Scowly-looking, fast, menacing. Alas, won't work as a suit.)

My favorite mascots go one of two ways–ridiculous, or truly pissed. In the first category, I suggest Bucky the Badger, of the University of Wisconsin, an excellently weird creature. (See top). He's got a cubist head, beady eyes, proportions like Simon from Alvin and the Chipmunks, and an outfit like he works in an ice cream shop. If you're playing Wisconsin, what do you possibly make of this giant skinny rodent, this love child of Picasso, Baskin and Robbins? How do you keep your head in the game? Bucky brings it.

Angry mascots are common enough, but among my favorites is Big Red, the Razorback from the University of Arkansas. He seems very upset. A snarling, charging hog, Big Red looks like a southern cousin to the KSHE pig (himself a mascot, of an altogether different sort.) On the down side? Snoozeable name for the character.

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