THE SPECTRE OF CARTOON APPEAL
Artist Number One Hundred and Fifteen, they called him. A skinny kid in shorts and an outsized Raiders t-shirt, with his glossy black hair in a crude bowl cut, the Hmong boy labored day in night in one of the evil Southeast Asian cartoon sweatshops, drawing cel after cel of American animation. So stuffed was his head with the uncouth imagery of his distant employers that he had forgotten all his native rituals and customs, his family, and even his own name. Taken by outlaw recruiters from his village after exhibiting drawing prowess at at early age, he was now and forevermore only Artist Number One Hundred and Fifteen.
Artist Number One Hundred and Fifteen's best friend, naturally enough, was Artist Number One Hundred and Sixteen, who occupied the drafting table and rickety, unpadded bamboo stool next to Fifteen. A kidnapped Korean, Sixteen did not even speak the same language as Fifteen. And yet they had managed to form a bond of friendship, each one helping the other. Some days Fifteen would massage Sixteen's aching wrists, while other days, Sixteen would share some of his ration of dried cuttlefish and counterfeit Pocari Sweat drink with Fifteen, who, after all, was still a growing boy, while Sixteen was an old man who had been drawing cartoons since the heyday of Tom and Jerry.
One day the cel-master stomped in, visibly outraged. The brawny, brutal overseer, a former Thai pirate known for his cruel way with the lash, clutched in his hand the printout of an e-mailed communique from the Cartoon Network in America. Artist Number One Hundred and Fifteen could recognize the letterhead. The Thai slavedriver shouted in pidgin English, the de facto language of the international bullpen.
"Who the motherfuckin' funny guy? Who put graffiti slur against Thai King in background of SpongeBob? Big riots all across American Thai communities. Plenty shit now to go around for everyone!"
None of the artists dared speak. The cel-master whirled on Artist Number One Hundred and Sixteen.
"Maybe it you, old man! Or maybe you know who! Either way, time for you to get whipped!"
Artist Number One Hundred and Sixteen's heart gave out after the tenth lashing. The Thai boss kicked the corpse, had it hauled unceremoniously away, then said, "You goddamn buggers all think on this! I be back in the morning to find out who really guilty!"
Locked in their dark, stifling, stenchy bunkhouse with his comrades, Artist Number One Hundred and Fifteen cried for two hours for the death of his only friend. But then he wiped his eyes and resolved to take revenge.
From the near-obliterated depths of his memory came the details of certain arcane rituals of his people. Fifteen set out to perform them. They involved nothing more than some bodily fluids, a handful of dirt, a lizard bone saved from supper, a pencil stub wrapped in cobwebs and a scrap of paper.
In the morning the artists cowered, awaiting the arrival of the cel-master and his whip. But he never showed. By noon, with their bladders bursting and stomachs growling, they dared cautiously to break out of the bunkhouse.
They found the overseer and the other bosses flattened to a lifeless two-dimensionality, as if they had been run over by a large macadam-smoothing machine. Incredulous at their good fortune, the artists dispersed, each making for home.
Back in his village, Artist Number One Hundred and Fifteen reunited with his family and soon was reintegrated into the ancient ways. He never spoke of his period of slavery, and showed little interest in matters outside his village.
Years later, a charity package of drugs with expired shelf lives arrived from the USA. The contents were protected with recent newspapers. Smoothing one out, the young man who was no longer Artist Number One Hundred and Fifteen saw pictures that made him smile.
Even now, years later, the American authorities seemed to be having trouble rounding up all the slavering, gibbering, whirling Tazmanian Devils that had slaughtered all those studio executives.