The Uniqueness of the Art

Posted by on February 21st, 2011 at 8:13 PM

What makes the art of cartooning unique among the visual arts is that it blends pictures and words to achieve its narrative purposes. Probably the best way to understand the way in which words and pictures blend in cartooning is to look at a few single panel gag cartoons. Take a look at these.

In a good gag cartoon, the picture doesn’t make sense without the words. The picture is a puzzle; the words explain in some fashion the puzzle. By the same token, the words don’t make sense without the picture—or, more precisely, the words don’t make the same sense as they have in the cartoon without the picture. To read the captions in the cartoons above, click on the image; and then click on it again when it crops up again. And do the same on all the rest of our visual aids.

In our first example on the left, the words give some sort of meaning to what the dogs are doing in Rob Harrell’s cartoon. Ditto the caption of Jerry Van Amerongen’s Ballard Street panel. Both the captions make perfect sense without the picture; but not the same sense.

Try a couple more.

At the left, the comedy in our first example by Gary McCoy arises from the dog’s having misunderstood what the conductor is doing with the stick. But neither words nor the picture make the same hilarious sense without the other. In Mike Baldwin’s Cornered cartoon, the words give humorous meaning to the picture; and vice versa.

And again in another Baldwin cartoon.

Without the pictures, the words “wishy” and “washy” don’t quite make sense. In the next Baldwin, the verbal and the visual blend for comedic meaning, but there’s something else going on here, too. I can imagine a movie short that makes the same joke, but it would seem awfully contrived. Here, Baldwin doesn’t have to work so hard: the pictorial fake explains in some sense the trick played on the innocent consumer. And it’s done with such economy that it makes the joke.

Some comedy, like the last cartoon’s, is possible only in the medium.

Dan Piraro’s Bizarro cartoon on the left is a sterling example of comedy possible only in the comics. Ditto Bill Whitehead’s Free Range joke.

Sometimes, admittedly, the principle can be carried a little too far.

The miscreant in the New Yorker cartoon at the left is making off with an ‘H,” perhaps having stolen it from the London bobbie’s speech. Yes, it can happen only in a cartoon, but the giant ‘H’ is not something you find around the landscape every day. Verisimilitude teeters and threatens to tip over.

London policemen are called bobbies as homage to Sir Robert Peel, who launched the London police force; in Ireland, cops are called “peelers” for somewhat the same reason. Aren’t you glad you dropped in today? Such a font of knowledge hereabouts.

To the right of the ‘H’ gag is another Bizarro panel. Piraro’s gag here is not an example of our text for today: I’m including it because it’s pretty funny, and as an in-group joke, it derives added entertainment if you know that the speaker is Piraro’s self-caricature.

This next specimen could happen only in comics.

Next time out, we’ll look at some comic strips the humor of which can happen only in the cartoon strip medium.

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