As you mayÂ know, Iâve been lobbying for visual-verbal blending as the heart and soul of the art of cartooning for several generations now. In short, in the best representatives of the medium, the pictures and the words work together to create a meaning that neither the words nor the pictures, taken by themselves, achieve. And hereâs a good example:
The pictures in Jef Mallettâs Sunday Frazz donât make much of a joke until we read the words in the speech balloons. Then, once we do that, the joke emerges.
Same thing happens in Sundayâs Zits by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman.
Although the pictures are hilarious in themselves (as they often are when Borgman draws them), the pictures are also, in effect, a puzzle that the words give meaning to.
Sundayâs Pearls Before Swine is another breed of the same species.
The picture in the fourth panel makes little sense until we “de-code” it with the words. Even then, the sense is somewhat senseless. In the last panel, however, neither the words nor the picture make comedic sense alone without the other.
But the joke to which the strip is building is in the fourth panel, not the last panel. In the fourth panel, Stephan Pastis has bent the blend of word and picture into a pretzel in order to create one of the outrageous puns he delights in torturing us with. These puns are deeply rooted in verbiage; they donât need the pictures all that much.
And on the same Sunday (just yesterday, tovarich), Mike Peters perpetrated a similar verbal offense in Mother Goose and Grimm.
It must be contagious.
The joke is verbal, but the visuals have an assignment, too. The cute pictures of Leif Ericson serve a subversive purpose: they divert our attention so we donât notice until itâs too late that Peters is cobbling up a genuine swine of a pearl to cast before us.
But Derf brings us back to the visual-verbal blend.
John Backderfâs assault on Sarah Livingston Palin is outrageous, no question. The pictures in the first two panels donât add much to the meaning of the words except in the sense that salt rubbed in a wound increases the discomfort. The picture in the third panel, however, adds a dimensionâor, perhaps, a nuance of meaningâto the implication of the caption. But in the last panel, this installment of The Cityâs punchline, the picture is the final gross-out (and therefor the joke).
So whatâs the political message here? That big boobs are essential to a political career?
Outrageous, as I said.
If you want to know more about Derf, you can find more (including an interview) at Brian Millerâs comicswaitingroom.com where Miller offers this intelligence: “Derf is the ink-stained madman whose incisive, bawdy, outlandish and consistently hilarious comic strip The City has graced the pages of scores of alternative newsweeklies for nearly two decades. The Ohio-based humorist has drawn a weekly installment of The City since it debuted in 1990, and it has since become one of the countryâs most popular alternative toons.”
At this informative website, you can find at least one more Derf strip about boobs and another about Sarah the Palin, whom Derf describes as “the second shooter at Dick Cheneyâs quail hunting mishap.”
Until concocting The City, Derf was notoriousÂ for attending high school with future serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, which circumstance DerfÂ regaled us with in his comic book My Friend Dahmer, subsequently praised as being of “genuine interest and quality” after being selected for inclusion by Paul Gravett in Holy Sh*t! The World’s Weirdest Comic Booksâ according to Wikipedia, which goes on: “Following a brief stint at art school, Derf worked for a year on the back of a garbage truck, an experience that was the basis for his graphic novel, Trashed.”
A year on the back of a garbage truck might well result in the world view and graphic style that dominates The City. Gross, as I say, but hilariously monstrous. Just think: without Derf, weâd have to contemplate Sarah as if she were actually serious.
Meanwhile, if youâre looking for a more exhaustive examination of how words and pictures blend to achieve the unique meaning of which cartoons (and only cartoons) are capable, you can find it at RCHarvey.com in the December 12, 2005 installment of Harvâs Hindsight, “Defining Comics Again”; or in one of my books, The Art of the Funnies, which is described at the same site. End of shameless plug (the first, I confess, of almost none). As youâll see, the “Defining” essay backs away from “defining” comics in favor of simply “describing” them.