More Obscurism in Cartoons, Nos. 351-355

Posted by on August 25th, 2010 at 8:57 AM

The champion of baffling cartooning is Chip Dunham, whose Overboard is often so poorly drawn that we can’t understand the props essential to the gag. Take this one, f’instance.

(If the image is too small to read—which, for most of us, it is—the recommended procedure is to click on the image and it enlarges. For some inexplicable and presumably temporary reason, when you do that here, you and the picture are merely transported to another plane, where the picture resides more-or-less alone, same size as before; but if you click on it again, there, it’ll get much larger—large enough, usually, to read. Try it: you’ll like it.)

In the second panel (the first after the title panel), a creature seems to be spitting on a sleeping person. Only after long and careful study do I realize that the creature is supposed to be a rabbit. The long ears should tell me that, but it’s difficult to explain the huge powder-puff on his rear-end. Too much puff for a cottontail, I’d say. And the feet look more humanoid than rodent. But I’m fairly sure it’s a rabbit. Or supposed to be.

Staggering along after that pictorial puzzle, I reach the last panel, which, after due deliberation, explains the spitting in the first panel: the rabbit’s not spitting, the multiplicity of lines and flying matter notwithstanding. No, he’s blowing—blowing flakes of “anti-rabbit pepper” off the—what? cabbage?—in his hand. And now, last panel, he is contemplating eating the cabbage (or whatever it might be).

Okay: this one is decipherable. But our next instance isn’t.

The dog at the helm steered, apparently, a “little too sharp on the turn”—with what result? One of the sailors fell overboard. But what is that boxy thing that he’s bringing aboard after being rescued? Can it be a desk? With a pen set? And how, if at all, does that contribute to the “little too sharp on the turn” gag?

Our next specimens are more of the same.

What is that thing with the popcorn balls strung on it? Or—can it be that the popcorn balls are actually puffs of exhaust from Jonas’ midget airplane? And the elongated stringy thingy is nothing more than speed lines indicating the passage of a flying object? A species of con trail perhaps.

In the next strip, only the word “ladders” supplies the much-needed clue that explains the first picture. What appears to be rust or grass growing up the walls is, one gathers, evidence of the mice having attempted to paint the walls of the cabin.

If the mice were drawn larger (that is, clearer), we might see them carrying paint buckets, but they’re so small we can’t tell. If Dunham used a finer pen point for rendering his miniature mice, we might actually be able to make out what they look like and what they’re carrying.

In our next Overboard (a strip rich in material for sarcastic criticism of this sort), it is fairly clear what is going on.

But what is that block of solid, functionless black across two-thirds of the bottom of the strip? It looks as if Dunham drew the picture at the top, and then, after adding the “captions,” realized that he didn’t need all the space he’d left himself, so he just blacked in the unused portion at the bottom. Lack of foresight. Stunning.

Finally, just to conclude on a happy note, here’s one of Mike Baldwin’s Cornered panels from a recent Sunday.

Nicely colored—sharp, brilliant hues. The guy’s tied his sail-surfboard to the top of his car in order to save gas? Something like that. And we can see the function of all the props. Nice juicy line. Warms the heart of an old curmudgeon like moi.

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6 Responses to “More Obscurism in Cartoons, Nos. 351-355”

  1. michael says:

    I love these posts.

    I had never heard of Overboard before, but wow it almost rivals The Argyle Sweater in its aping of Larson’s style. The desk is the second strip was instant recognizable to me (though I did a double-take at the dog in the last panel). I think the desk contributes to the gag because not only did the force of the turn send a fella through the boards and off the boat, but a stationary, sitting fella and the very desk he was at — and it’s certainly his desk: he’s clearly wearing the hat of a man with a desk.

    Cornered is a bit better, and the colors in the panel are indeed pleasing. But — never having heard of this comic either — it took more effort for me to read that title of the strip than I’d like (for this I blame the odd letter coloring). As for the gag itself, Archie did it first.

  2. Caro says:

    These are the best posts on this site.

    I still don’t get the thing with the desk. How did the hole get there? I thought they ran into something. I couldn’t even tell it was a desk. Those are abysmal.

  3. siegfriedsasso says:

    I think Gary Larson still carries the gold standard for inscrutability. After all, his nineties Far Side strips tended to have obscure punch lines. But at least you could never accuse him of incompetence like the cartoonists discussed above.

  4. no no no i think this is far to harsh, these are good strips. This is an odd world perhaps it has naive aspects but the humour is very strong. With the rabbit strip i really like the off kilter drawing its very playful. Why can’t a strip have ambiguity? why should your eye just glide across it? Some sentences are harder to read than others.

  5. michael says:

    In response to Jean-Pierre:

    I have no objection to ambiguity or obstruction, as long as it’s motivated. This seems like sloppiness.

    And even if it were a product of artistic intention, I don’t know if this is the proper venue for such a challenge; I think that the gags of modern newspaper strips are meant to operate at a certain level of ease and accessibility.

  6. R.C. Harvey says:

    Big THANQUES, folks. Thanks to you, I’ll never be at a loss again about the dubious or indecipherable meaning of a comic strip gag. At least, I won’t be baffled once I’ve posted the question.