Cartoons both amuse and engage; they are able to point out the foibles and complexities of humankind in direct, illuminating, and original ways. From humble beginnings, the cartoon has progressed to address social, cultural, and religious taboos in provocative and amusing ways. It is the most subversive of mainstream arts. Though often intrinsically bound up with the Disney tradition, the cartoon has a variety of histories worldwide, and diverse practices reflecting the cultures of the nations in which it has been produced.

The animated cartoon emerged out of the early experiments in the creation of the cinematic moving image. As early as 1798, Etienne Robertson constructed the Phantasmagoria, a sophisticated magic lantern to project images. It was followed by Joseph Ferdinand Plateau's Phenakistascope in 1833, William Horner's Zoetrope in 1834, Franz Von Uchatius's Kinetoscope in 1853, Henry Heyl's Phasmatrope in 1870, and Émil Reynaud's Praxinoscope in 1877, devices that in some way projected drawn or painted moving images. With the development of the cinematic apparatus came the first intimations of animation, at first accidents or trick effects in the work of figures like Georges Méliès (1861–1938), and the emergence of lightning cartooning—the accelerated movement of drawings by manipulating camera speeds—particularly in the British context, where Harry Furniss, Max Martin, Tom Merry, and Lancelot Speed defined an indigenous model of expression related to British pictorial traditions in caricature and portraiture. It was also the Britons J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith, working in the United States, who saw the potential of a specific kind of animation filmmaking in The Enchanted Drawing (1900) and Humourous Phases of Funny Faces (1906), though these were essentially little more than developments in lightning cartooning.

While stop motion 3-D animation progressed in a number of countries, it was only with the creation of Émile Cohl's (1857–1938) Fantasmagorie (1908), a line-drawn animation influenced by French surrealism, that the 2-D animated film was seen as a distinctive form. Cohl was later to work in the United States, animating George McManus's comic strip The Newlyweds (1913), one of a number of popular comic strips that characterized early American cartoon animation, others being Krazy Kat , The Katzenjammer Kids , and Mutt and Jeff . Winsor McCay (1871–1934), an illustrator and graphic artist, made Little Nemo in Slumberland (1911), based on his own New York Herald comic strip, and one of the first self-reflexive cartoons, the aptly titled Winsor McCay Makes His Cartoons Move (1911). McCay's influence on the history of animation cannot be overstated. He created one of the first instances of the horror genre in The Story of the Mosquito (1912); "personality" animation in the figure of Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), which was featured in an interactive routine with McCay in his Vaudeville show; and "documentary" in an imitative newsreel-style depiction of The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918).

As early as 1913, Raoul Barré and John R. Bray were developing systematic, "industrial" methods for the production of animated cartoons using variations of what was to become the "cel" animation process, where individual drawings (later, cels) were made, each with a slight change in a character's position, and then aligned with backgrounds that remained the same, using a peg-bar system. By replacing each drawing in a sequence of movement and photographing it frame by frame, the

Winsor McCay's Gertie the Dinosaur (1914).
illusion of continuous movement occurred. As well, a production system was emerging that echoed the hierarchical organization of the Taylorist production processes characteristic of industrial America, as in the production of Model T Fords. Though the Fleischer brothers (Max [1883–1972] and Dave [1894–1979]), Paul Terry (1887–1971), and Pat Sullivan (1887–1933) with Otto Messmer all emerged as viable producers of cartoons, it was Walt Disney (1901–1966) who effectively took the Ford model and created an animation "industry." Disney's dominance has meant that Terry's Aesop's Film Fables of the 1920s, Sullivan and Messmer's hugely successful and graphically inventive Felix the Cat cartoons (1919–1928), and the Fleischer brothers' work in sound synchronization and the use of rotoscoping—the tracing of live action figure movement to achieve animated characters drawn frame by frame—have been largely forgotten. In his initial work in the early 1920s, Disney created Laugh-O-Grams , which were distinctive in featuring his own animation, and Alice comedies, which reversed the conceit of the Fleischer brothers' "Out of the Inkwell" series. The latter featured a cartoon clown in a live-action environment, while Disney placed a live-action Alice in a cartoon world.

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