In 2000 in the US, Flash animators seized the open forum of the internet, and wildly successful series like Homestar Runner dominated our consciousness. If you really look at the direction of animation and comedy after Homestar Runner, you’ll see a very straight trajectory that includes Brad Neely (Creased Comics) and all things Adult Swim.
We reveled at the childishness of these characters, we created more and more of them, and it’s difficult to tell where we might be in American animation if Homestar Runner hadn’t have been our Flash champion. In the UK, however, David Firth’s Salad Fingers series set a very different trajectory for animation, and it was decidedly weirder and darker. We talk about Firth and Salad Fingers now as though they had always been successful, but in reality, the series was online for at least six months to a year before it caught on, as Firth says, literally overnight, and he still has no idea why it was so popular.
A decade after its release, Salad Fingers is still Firth’s most popular cartoon, even prompting a Teens React To… episode, where various American teens described it as the strangest and scariest thing they had seen. And in Watertown, Massachusetts, Salad Fingers found its way into a courtroom deposition when a child predator was damned with evidence that he had underage developmentally disabled girls in his office to watch the first episode of Salad Fingers. Clearly, Salad Fingers was a “problem.”
Unlike The Brothers Chaps behind Homestar Runner and Brad Neely behind Creased Comics and Baby Cakes, David Firth’s cartoons aren’t just funny satires or outrageous cultural assertions. Firth’s work is him. It’s many characters with masks, but all are Firth and all are spat out from his dreams and worked and reworked in his many journals. When you put yourself completely into the spotlight, there’s bound to be some serious criticism, which is exactly why you see the same question in almost every interview Firth does: How do you handle the criticism? The Brothers Chaps, Brad Neely, the collective animators staffed on Adult Swim shows do not get this question, but Firth gets it constantly and can’t seem to escape it. Continually, he says he doesn’t spend much time with other people’s art, so he’s rarely affected by it, but being affected by life is another story. And this is possibly what has driven him to reinvent continuously.
Outside of Salad Fingers, Firth has amassed a large body of work, and the single most unique element of Firth’s work and what makes him such a genius is also what’s allowed everything except Salad Fingers to fly lower on the radar—everything he does is rendered in a different style. Often compared to Tim Burton in tone, Firth maintains the same voices—himself and his friend “Crust”—but the animations couldn’t be more dissimilar. There’s a specific David Firth style, but there’s no David Firth “style,” and by his own admission, he’ll basically refuse to give you what you’re looking for. Everything everything everything must be completely original, or Firth doesn’t seem comfortable.
Frustratingly insistent on remaining an outsider, a trait not often welcome in American culture, or really, any culture, Firth seems in a perpetual state of rebirth. There’s a certain rhythm to the artist’s life that feels familiar. You think you’re good, but then the world proves you awkward and unredeemable until you say fuck the world, make yourself from nothing, and the final stage is forgiving and joining your former foes. Not so for David Firth. After initial failures that led to great popularity and stints with the BBC, Playboy commissioned Firth to do a couple of cartoons for their network, but the animations were either never released by the network or were only available for a limited time. Firth tried searching for them, but they never showed up, and presumably he never heard from Playboy about the release. Maybe they were killed, maybe not, but Firth went ahead and released them on YouTube himself. On his website, one of his FAQs states, “You’re a sell out because you had stuff on TV / a corporate website,” with an answer of, “You think it paid well? HAH!” Happy with his former foes he is not.
And while he may not be a perfect corporate partner, Firth does get remarkably close to his fans and detractors. He gives interviews readily and often and wonders how much he has contradicted himself since he’s been in the spotlight. His self-awareness also makes his cartoons airtight, as he is the first to criticize his own work, like a protection from the bad critics, because he already knows what’s wrong. A couple of years ago, he announced he was working on a feature film called Meadow Man, though within a series of six months he went from stating it’s his absolute best work today to saying, “Forget about it for now, and I shouldn’t have mentioned it. Things were very different for me when I started that project.” When he started Salad Fingers, the creation of an episode was merely just a couple of days to a week. Now, his episodes take over two months. He says at that rate it could soon take him two years to finish a single episode, and one has to wonder if it’s that self-criticism sinking in, stalling out the creation when the initial concept was pure id with some editing.
Either way, the work pays off, because he’s consistently circumventing our expectations. For the kind of artist who seeks to build a “brand,” maybe that wouldn’t be so keen. But Firth is staunchly independent and comfortable in dark places, and it’s truly exciting to see our nightmares come to life, even if they take a lifetime to happen.
A Wolfe is a writer and director in Los Angeles. awolfeswolfworld.wordpress.com