The Success of Failure

Posted by on September 20th, 2010 at 9:55 AM

The Success of Failure

I Thought You Would Be Funnier

Shannon Wheeler

Boom! Town

Black and White,

soft cover, 108 Pages

ISBN: 978-1608860340

$19.99

review by Kristian Williams

A job description for the single-panel cartoonist:  Using one image and one line of text, go make something funny. Now do it over and over again.

            It’s not surprising how many single-panels fail.  Writing is hard, drawing is hard, and humor is really hard.  And the simplicity of the form — one line, one image, that’s it — is a serious constraint.  What’s more surprising is that, given two elements, a great many cartoonists neglect one of them or the other.  Hence, we commonly see funny pictures with superfluous captions, or else stand-up-comedy-style one-liners underneath pointless pictures.  It seems that — though being restricted to fewer compositional elements may be more difficult than choosing among many — two may at times be even more difficult than one.  It’s not enough, usually, to draw a funny picture or write a little joke.  The text and the image have to work together, or as a cartoon the piece fails.

            Shannon Wheeler’s do not fail.

            Even when the caption is enough on its own — as in “I’d be more nostalgic if I weren’t so senile”; or, “It’s late, we’re tired, and I’m a little bit drunk.  I think it’s a good time to talk about our relationship” — the image still adds a sense of poignancy, depth, and often, hilarity.  In both of these examples, it’s the expression of the second party, the listener rather than the speaker, that really brings the gag home.  And in each of these, the setting, though understated in its rendition, helps to establish not only context but tone.  The “senile” old man is sitting comfortably in an armchair, a glass in hand, speaking to an even older friend.  The joke would read differently were they winos sitting on the curb, or were the speaker a hospice patient addressing his nurse.  In the second example, the setting actually gives us some sense as to what it is about the relationship that needs discussing.  The young couple are seated on a couch, each with a glass of wine.  Two plates, with the remains of dinner, rest on the coffee table in front of them.  A television does not appear in the frame, but it is implied.  The image suggests domestic complacency, and the death of romance.  The joke wouldn’t work half as well were the characters seated across the table from one another.

            In the best of these one-panel one-shots, Wheeler gives us something more than a gag.  He gives us a quick look into an entire life — or even, an entire way of life.  The one image and the one line of text implies, or sometimes contains, a complete story, or perhaps an essay.

            In another sense, however, I Thought You Would Be Funnier is a collection of failures.  These are, all of them, cartoons that The New Yorker rejected.  And so it is interesting how many of the cartoons take failure as their theme:  romantic troubles, social faux-pas, illness, professional disappointment, sexual frustration, bad fashion, writer’s block, poverty, moral ambivalence, prison, insanity, and death.  And even when Wheeler’s cartoons are about success, they’re about its unfairness, improbability, and absurd caprice.  In other words, they’re really about failure. I’ll resist the urge to psychoanalyze here, because, simply put, failure is funnier than success —

            — though, almost by definition, cartoons that succeed are more funny than cartoons that fail.

            Is failure is the secret to Wheeler’s success?

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