In This Chapter
^ Checking out the venerable tradition of comic strips ^ Getting political and in-your-face: Editorial cartoons ^ Going gaga over gag cartoons ^ Looking to the future: webcomics artoons are as old as man. Just take a look at the walls of early cave ^^ dwellers. Although you don't find any talking woolly mammoths, you do find something intrinsic to all cartooning — simplification. The very heart of cartooning is the simplification that allows an image to communicate across almost any barrier — race, gender, culture, and beyond. And therein lies the power of a cartoon — instant familiarity.
A cartoonist uses this kind of shorthand to achieve an entire spectrum of effects — from primitive doodles to detailed comic book art. It's astounding when you think of all the permutations the simple cartoon has spawned. The major categories are single-panel cartoons, multipanel comic strips, editorial cartoons, humorous illustrations, and comic books. But with subcategories such as journal comics, webcomics, clip-art comics, graphic novels, manga, and photo comics, it's clear that cartoons have dug deeply into how we communicate.
The world of cartooning is vast, so try to expose yourself to all the possibilities by working in all the genres. At the very least, you'll pick up some tricks in one form that you can apply to another. More important, by experimenting with different genres, you may find out that you have an aptitude for a category that you hadn't originally considered.
Getting Funny with the Standard: Comic Strips
Comic strips are a true American art form. The format is a short series of panels that communicate a brief story — usually ending with a punch line. Most strips have recurring characters, and some feature an underlying story line that continues from strip to strip.
The power of the American comic strip is most evident on the Web. In a medium whose craft has no limits whatsoever, it's no coincidence that the simple, three-to-four-panel strip dominates the landscape. This section takes a closer look at comic strips, including what they are, where they come from, and why they're so popular.
Eyeing a comic strip's characteristics
The comic strip is the format that readers of newspaper comics are most familiar with. Garfield, Dilbert, and Peanuts are all comic strips. Comic strips have a deceptively potent ability to develop strong bonds between readers and recurring characters, as each new strip over the course of time adds layers of meaning to those characters — making them more real than perhaps any other characters in fiction.
The following are the characteristics of a comic strip that make it easily identifiable:
✓ Consecutive panels: A comic strip uses consecutive panels to tell a short story. Usually, but not always, this story ends in a punch line.
✓ Iconography: A comic strip uses all the standard cartooning iconography — word balloons, narration boxes, movement lines, and so on — to convey its message.
✓ Recurring characters: Often, a comic strip's characters return throughout the strip's life. Sometimes the strip has only three or four recurring characters, and sometimes — as in the case of Doonesbury — the cast is seemingly endless.
From the late 19th century on, newspaper publishers like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer understood that comics sell papers. The big papers of the day competed fiercely for the best comic strips. These strips quickly gained popularity, and newspapers added more as time went on. This tradition is what we call the "funny pages," and you can find it in every large newspaper today.
Hearst realized that he could get more bang for his buck by distributing the comics he bought for one newspaper to all the newspapers in his chain. He started the Newspaper Feature Service in 1913 to do just that. Its success was monumental, and it was soon spun off into a separate entity, serving newspapers beyond the Hearst chain. In 1915, it was renamed the King Features Syndicate.
The newspaper syndicates of today operate the very same way: They develop distinctive titles to offer to publications on a subscription basis. As a result, cartoonists can reap the rewards of having their comics printed in several papers across the country (after the syndicate takes its cut, of course). Unfortunately, because of the poor health of the American newspaper industry, this has become an increasingly dim prospect. I discuss syndication more fully in Chapter 19.
Many comic strips have come and gone over the last century, but a few pioneers are worth discussing, because they contributed greatly to the art of cartooning as it exists today. The following are two early strips that have important lessons you can apply to your own cartooning.
Pogo, perhaps the first comic strip to employ many of the traits of the best-written editorial cartoons, was groundbreaking in many ways. Pogo stood out from other cartoons of the day for the following reasons:
✓ It had masterful art by Kelly. One of the primary reasons for the strip's appeal was the special attention Kelly paid to the art. In comparison to the rigidly illustrated panels of other comic strips of the era, Pogo featured a loose, expressive line that belied the nonconformity of the strip's content.
✓ It broke accepted conventions. In Pogo, characters might lean against the edge of a panel, allowing it to stretch, as if to convey flexibility or movement. Albert the alligator would strike a match against the nearest panel edge to light his cigar. These characters were aware of their presence in a comic strip, and that added to the strip's countercultural attitude.
✓ It used sharp political satire. Political commentary was virtually unheard of in the funny pages, but in Pogo, Kelly presented his stories from the viewpoint of his social and political beliefs. Politicians often walked into the strip disguised as fellow denizens of the famed Okefenokee Swamp. Perhaps most notably, Senator Joseph McCarthy was lampooned as a wildcat named Simple J. Malarkey during the height of his red-scare-era influence.
Although Pogo is more than 50 years old, you can discover an awful lot about modern cartooning by examining it. Studying Kelly's work can help you
✓ Be a better caricaturist. With a few deft lines, Kelly was able to graft the features of a widely known politician onto the visage of an animal. It's no small feat, but in isolating dominant facial characteristics, he conveyed the image gracefully.
✓ Become a better artist. Kelly's attention to texture and perspective gave his art a keen realism, even as his expressive lines and playful compositions pushed toward the surreal.
✓ Appreciate language more deeply. Sure, schoolteachers cringed, but Kelly's dialogue read more like poetry than prose. His characters' thick Southern accents were laid out phonetically for all the world to see. Kelly used the way his characters delivered their lines to convey as much expression as the words themselves.
✓ Appreciate social satire. Kelly wrote from a distinct political and social viewpoint. He used his targets' own gestures and syntax against them as he lampooned them not only as politicians but also as archetypes. Rarely heavy-handed, Kelly typically delivered his thoughts quietly — he never shouted.
The most successful comic strip of all time centers around a boy and his dog. It may be called Peanuts, but its overall influence has been anything but! With this quiet comic strip, Charles Schulz dramatically changed the landscape of American comics. In large part, the Peanuts mystique can be distilled to the following:
✓ It had simple, accessible art. The entire Peanuts universe is drawn in an almost childish manner. As I discuss earlier in the chapter, simple images allow people from all walks of life to project their interpretations into the drawings. In other words, we see so much in Charlie Brown because we put so much there to begin with.
✓ It used philosophical humor. Although the drawings were simple, the writing was complex. The standard Peanuts gag is far from the slapstick frolic you'd expect about a group of children. Instead, the kids deal with angst and feelings of insecurity. They brood and they sigh. Schulz's observations were powerful and provocative — making the reader laugh and then think.
As a beginning cartoonist, you can take away several lessons from a study of Schulz's work. You can
✓ Gain a better understanding of the appeal of creating characters that readers can relate to. Schulz used the concept of archetypes in developing his characters. In other words, Linus represented the young, questioning philosopher, Charlie Brown was the lonesome loser, Lucy was a bully, and Snoopy was an embodiment of wild abandon. By providing his characters with such strong personality traits, Schulz made them instantly familiar to his readers — all of whom surely had met their share of philosophers, losers, bullies, and crazies.
✓ Understand the ways you can incorporate your own personality traits into your characters. Peanuts wasn't an instant success. In fact, it took years for readers to appreciate the quiet philosophy present in Schulz's humor. But instead of trying to change to please popular tastes, Schulz stayed true to his inner voice. In many ways, instead of adapting to his readers, Schulz was able to convince readers to adapt to him.
✓ Grasp an appreciation of the beauty in minimalist art. Schulz is a wonderful counterpoint to the lush, textured illustration style of Walt Kelly. Schulz's drawings are geometric and somewhat rough. He uses no perspective and little in the way of nuance. It's a perfect counterpoint to the writing's complexity — almost reassuring the reader that nothing is as bad as it may seem. After all, it's hard to get too worked up about your own feelings of inadequacy when the issue is being raised by a kid with a round head sporting a single, curly strand of hair.
The Peanuts' creator in a nutshell
Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts, was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1922. Schulz loved to read the comics section of the newspaper so much that his father gave him the nickname Sparky after Sparkplug, the horse in a popular comic strip of the day, Barney Google.
Schulz was a gifted child who skipped two grades and copied pictures of his favorite cartoon characters from the newspaper. Recognizing his passion for drawing, his mother enrolled him in a correspondence course from an art instruction school. Following a stint in the army, Schulz had his new comic strip picked up by United Features. He originally called his strip Li'l Folks, but the strip was renamed Peanuts without Schulz's knowledge. The first strips focused on the iconic characters like Charlie Brown, Shermy, Patty, and Snoopy. Within the year, Peanuts was appearing in 35 papers, and by 1956, that number increased to well over 100.
By the 1960s, Peanuts was appearing in over 2,300 newspapers, and Schulz was famous worldwide. The cartoon branched out into TV, and in 1965, the classic Christmas special "A Charlie Brown Christmas" premiered to an entire generation of young children, followed by several others. Many volumes of Schulz's work were published over the years, and many made the New York Times Best Seller list.
In 1999, Schulz was diagnosed with cancer and subsequently announced that he would retire the following year. He died on February 12th, 2000, the night before his farewell strip was set to run in newspapers.
The success of Peanuts has inspired the creation of clothes, stationery, toys, games, and other merchandise. The financial success of Peanuts and the wealth it brought Schulz was unprecedented in the comics world. At the peak of his earnings, Forbes magazine estimated his annual income at 830-850 million a year. And Schulz would have made considerably more if it had not been the custom of the day to sell the rights to your feature as part of the syndicate contract.
Comic strips have been around for over 100 years since the first strip, Mutt and Jeff, appeared in print, and readers continue to revel in their favorites. Today, the comic strip landscape is populated with such luminaries as Garry Trudeau (Doonesbury), Berkeley Breathed (Bloom County), Bill Amend (FoxTrot), Lynn Johnston (For Better or For Worse), Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes), and Scott Adams (Dilbert).
Cartoonists such as these stand above the rest in their ability to form strong bonds with their readers through their work. For Trudeau and Breathed, that bond is built on satire and political opinion. For cartoonists like Amend, Johnston, and Watterson, the connection comes from their ability to communicate a unique view of family life. And Adams lampoons the sometimes absurd inner workings of the modern workplace, which many readers can relate to.
The next sections take a closer look at the work of Watterson and Adams.
Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes
Calvin and Hobbes, by cartoonist Bill Watterson, was a comic strip about a young boy and the stuffed tiger that came to life in the boy's imagination. Although there had been many previous strips about kids and family, Calvin and Hobbes was fundamentally different:
✓ Its art expressed as much as the writing. Watterson was an expert draftsman, capturing the frenetic energy of 6-year-old Calvin in his lines. His graceful touch with watercolors made its way into the Sunday features, and they were beautifully and colorfully rendered, harking back to strips of another era. Watterson combined attention to illustrative detail with an appealing brush quality and fun character design.
✓ Its emphasis was on a child's imagination. Watterson presented most of the strip from the viewpoint of Calvin's overactive imagination. When Calvin was alone, his stuffed tiger Hobbes sprang to life as a rambunctious — if not more thoughtful — playmate. In school, his teacher was often seen as a hideous monster whom Calvin — sometimes in the persona of Spaceman Spiff — was constantly trying to thwart. In a clear homage to Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland, daydreams and reality often collided — with hysterical results.
✓ It presented a decidedly postmodern view of family. Calvin's dad often remarked that, if it were up to him, they would have had a puppy instead of a child! This strip didn't present the shiny, happy, Family Circus family; rather, it showed a frustrated father, an overworked mother, and a hyperactive kid. In the heyday of the strip's run — late 80s/early 90s — many parents could relate.
✓ Appreciate how pushing the limits of your creative imagination can benefit you as an artist. In Calvin and Hobbes, Watterson accepted the challenge of delivering the frantic imaginings of a 6-year-old boy seven days a week. To stay true to his character, he couldn't rely on repetitive gags. Even when he returned to certain themes (Spaceman Spiff, Calvin as a dinosaur, Calvinball, and so on), Watterson avoided retreading old ground — challenging himself instead to push the ideas further.
✓ Build confidence in your own vision as an artist. Watterson was against any type of licensing or merchandizing of Calvin and Hobbes. He also fought for — and won — the right to stop his Sunday comic from being forced to follow a decades-old format that allowed newspaper editors to resize Sunday funnies several different ways. Despite the fact that these decisions made him unpopular with executives at newspapers and syndicates alike, his strip was wildly successful — critically and financially.
✓ Appreciate the power of a simple concept executed well. Every budding cartoonist grapples with a new comic strip with: "Has this already been done?" Take a lesson from Watterson. Calvin and Hobbes was not a new concept. It had been done in popular culture dozens of times, from Winnie the Pooh to Little Nemo in Slumberland. But Watterson knew that it's not the idea; it's the delivery that truly makes a comic great. He took an old concept and brought to it something new and original.
Scott Adams's comic strip Dilbert originally revolved around Dilbert and his dog Dogbert in their home. However, Adams moved the primary location of most of the action to Dilbert's workplace at a large technology company. It was only after this shift that the strip began to take off and gain a much larger readership.
The success of Dilbert comes from some of the following:
✓ It portrays corporate culture as a world filled with red tape and bureaucracy, lives consumed with office politics, and a place where employees' skills and efforts are ignored and busywork is rewarded. Many American employees can relate to this!
✓ It accentuates the absurdity of the cubicle and corporate workplace.
Much of the humor and insightfulness of the strip comes from the reader seeing characters making absurd, nonsensical decisions that are the result of directives given by misguided managers.
✓ Understand the priority and importance of strong writing over art. No one can accuse Adams of being a brilliant artist, but no one can deny that he's a tremendously skillful humor writer. His fantastic abilities to write solid, consistent humor keep his readers returning, not his crude artistic style.
✓ Build the confidence to write what you know. Before becoming a cartoonist, Adams worked at Pacific Bell, occupying a cubicle that's all-too-familiar to the Dilbert landscape. His writing was always good, but it didn't truly resonate with readers until he started sharing his experiences as a white-collar office-dweller. After he started writing from personal history, his work reached an entirely different level.
✓ Appreciate the workings of the cartoonist/businessperson. Adams is a perfect antithesis to Bill Watterson. Where Watterson focused on the art of comics, Adams focused on comics as a business. The licensing and merchandizing of Dilbert has been breathtaking — from microwave burritos to a TV sitcom. Adams has been able to leverage his success as a cartoonist into countless lucrative opportunities for himself — without sacrificing the quality of his daily comic.
In this day of digital everything, hand-drawn (okay, possibly digitally enhanced!) cartoons are still the first thing that many people turn to when they open the daily news. So what makes comic strips so popular? Their longevity is based on the following reasons:
✓ Comic strips don't change. Unlike live-action TV shows, where the characters age and the kids grow up, comic strip characters can stay frozen in time (although some cartoonists do "age" their characters). Cartoon characters may stay the same, but the material is always new. You see this not only in comic strips but also in popular animated TV shows like The Simpsons, which is now more than 20 years old, making it the longest-running scripted comedy show in history.
✓ People don't change. Although society has changed and communication methods have changed, people still find family, pets, and work amusing — at least part of the time. People relate to the familiar, and most cartoons are based on familiar situations.
✓ Comic strips have something for everyone. Whether you're liberal or conservative, a family person or a single guy, an office drone or a construction worker, you can find a cartoon to appeal to your tastes.
Some still-popular cartoons are more than 50 years old, although most of their characters haven't aged a day over that time period. Here are a few examples of long-running comic strips, along with the year that they began:
✓ Blondie 1930
✓ Mary Worth 1938
✓ Doonesbury 1970
✓ Nancy 1922
✓ Garfield 1978
✓ Peanuts 1950
✓ Gasoline Alley 1918
✓ Shoe 1977
✓ Hagar the Horrible 1973
✓ Marmaduke 1954
✓ Zippy the Pinhead 1976
These cartoons still rank high in reader polls. A few of them are close to 100 years old! Even the youngest of these classics is more than 30 years old.
Making Readers Think: Editorial Cartoons
The primary intent of an editorial cartoon is to present an opinion. But more than simply present an opinion, an editorial cartoonist uses strong satire, caricature, and parody to drive home her point as strongly as possible. In short, editorial cartooning isn't a game for the weak-willed, middle-of-the-road thinker. This kind of cartooning takes sides and asks no forgiveness. Needless to say, America has a long, rich tradition of editorial cartooning.
The next sections look at the characteristics of editorial cartooning and how they've evolved over the last two centuries in the United States.
Eyeing an editorial cartoon's traits
The editorial cartoon is a mainstay of a newspaper's opinion pages. The reason for this is simple: People respond strongly to an editorial cartoon's ability to present a complex argument using an image and a few short sentences. In a way, this short, punchy delivery defines the art form itself.
Unlike comic strips, editorial cartoons don't have recurring characters (unless you count politicians). Here are some other characteristics of editorial cartoons:
✓ They're usually one-panel comics. Most editorial cartoons consist of a single panel presenting a solitary scene. A few practitioners (Tom Toles of The Washington Post, most notably) choose to divide the space into comic-strip-style panels, but overwhelmingly, an editorial cartoon relies on a single illustration of a key moment or scene.
✓ They make strong use of visual metaphor. Editorial cartoonists don't say it, they show it. If a politician is accused of stealing money from a government fund, you can bet that a cartoonist will draw him with his hand in the proverbial cookie jar. Because editorial cartoonists convey so much information visually, their words can be short and direct. The combination of the two can pack a wallop.
✓ They draw from a long history of icons. Editorial cartoonists can deliver parts of their message by using an entire repository of icons that have been developed over decades of cartooning. Donkeys represent Democrats, and elephants are Republicans. The United States can be represented by Uncle Sam, the Statue of Liberty, or an eagle — depending on which is most appropriate. Sometimes cartoonists incorporate these icons into the visual metaphor to make the message even stronger.
✓ They use caricature to ridicule their targets. Editorial cartoonists aren't polite. If a subject has somewhat large ears, their cartoon image may closely resemble Dumbo. Because their primary targets are people in authoritative positions, the use of harsh caricature may have the useful psychological benefit of making the subjects seem less powerful. Of course, psychology aside, such imagery also makes for prime comedy.
✓ They often rely heavily on satire to make their point. One good and well-known example of satire in a political cartoon is a cartoon acknowledged to be the first political cartoon in America, written by Ben Franklin. His "Join or Die," which depicts a snake whose severed parts represent the American colonies, is based on a common superstition of the day that stated that a dead snake would come back to life if the pieces were placed next to one another. Franklin's main editorial point was that the new American colonies would always be one in spirit, despite attempts by the British to disrupt and break up the colonies' quest for independence as a new country. Franklin's snake became an iconic image that ended up being used on the "Don't Tread on Me" battle flag.
Editorial cartooning: An American tradition
The mid-to-late 20th century ushered in a new school of political cartooning. This approach moved away from the single panel/grease pencil style that had been in vogue for nearly 50 years and gave it more of a modern look and feel.
The new method was heavily influenced by the styles and tone of the British tradition of cartooning and focused more on vicious caricature, subtle humor, and sly wit while moving away from the iconic and sometimes patriotic or sentimental images seen in political cartoons in the earlier part of the century.
Two cartoonists were at the forefront of this new wave. They made a significant impact on editorial cartooning and strongly influenced what it has become today. They are as follows:
✓ Pat Oliphant: Oliphant played an enormous role in reshaping the way editorial cartoons look and feel today. His approach was new and fresh, and the young cartoonists of the day immediately began to emulate his brushy line quality. Oliphant's cartoons were more derivative of the Mad magazine school of satire than the more serious cartoons that appeared in the 1950s and before. Check out the nearby sidebar for more on Oliphant.
His style, like that found on the pages of Mad, was appealing to younger cartoonists just starting out, and it spurred a whole generation of Oliphant "clones." Aspiring editorial cartoonists who follow Oliphant's work can
• Understand great political caricature. Oliphant's caricature is grotesque to the point of being almost cruel. But that's exactly what a caricature is supposed to be. Oliphant knows how to exploit dominant physical characteristics to engender an emotional response in the reader.
• See how the cartoon's art can communicate to the reader. The overwhelming strength of Oliphant's work lies in its imagery. More often than not, he lets the tone, content, and implication of his illustrations carry his meaning, allowing the words to simply underscore the point. It's not the "Follow me" punch line delivered as Oliphant's childlike George W. Bush (sporting a 24-gallon cowboy hat) proudly marches off the edge of a cliff; it's the headless, hulking juggernaut stomping dutifully in tow, representing Bush's supporters, that carries Oliphant's true message.
• Feel the ferocity of political and social satire. Oliphant's work is indicative of the finest traditions of editorial cartooning — vicious satire. Even-handed reasoning is best left to columnists and essayists who have time to weigh both sides of an issue. An editorial cartoonist like Oliphant comes down on one side — hard — and delivers his points with the power of a sledgehammer.
✓ Jeff MacNelly: MacNelly was a three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, best known for his long-running comic strip Shoe. Aspiring editorial cartoonists who follow MacNelly's work can
• Understand great character style. MacNelly's illustrations are replete with detail. Each person in the scene, including any innocent bystanders and onlookers, is a fully realized being with personality and character. MacNelly's detailed character design speaks volumes about the people he draws — from pencil-necked geeks to denim-clad good-ol'-boys.
• See how whimsical art can be fun and appealing to the reader.
Like his contemporary Pat Oliphant, MacNelly created imagery that evokes as much meaning as the words used in the cartoon. But where Oliphant favored heavy, dark, brooding scenes, MacNelly's work emphasized the expressiveness of the brush strokes he used to build the scenes. The result is an almost buoyant lift to his illustrations — an emotion often belied by the cutting satire of the cartoon.
• Grasp the subtle aspects of political and social satire. MacNelly was more than capable of brutal satire, but often he favored a more subtle approach, allowing understatement to carry the day. For example, in a scene depicting a meeting of the "Evil Empires," representatives of Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, and China occupy a gigantic table with dozens of empty chairs. "Move that we dispense with the calling of the roll," deadpans the Chinese diplomat.
The influence of Oliphant and MacNelly has been so great that it has spurred critics to name this style the "Olinelly" style and to label those cartoonists who've followed them as "Olinelly clones." Regardless, their work represents a vital, legitimate form of social commentary with a long, rich tradition that continues to thrive.
Sophisticated Humor: Gag Cartoons
Cartoons can be sophisticated; just peek at The New Yorker and other magazines known for their urbane, highbrow humor. Although not as common as down-home, family-humor cartoons, comics that run in glossy magazines are often subtle and thought-provoking. This kind of cartoon, often called a gag cartoon, favors a quick punch line and a brief scene — rather than the multipanel, build-to-punch-line approach of a comic strip.
While comic strips and editorial cartoons rule the world of newspapers, gag cartoons dominate the landscape of magazines. They can be inserted on a page and stand on their own strengths, requiring no explanation or back story. For this reason, they're perfect for monthly publications such as The New Yorker and Cosmopolitan, which use gags to enliven pages and underscore the tone of the publication without expecting readers to remember installments of the cartoons delivered 30 days prior.
Gag cartoons are identified by the following:
✓ Single panel images: Gag cartoons aren't divided into panels; rather, they rely on a single illustration to drive home the punch line.
✓ Captions: Unlike comic strips, in which the text is carried in word balloons inside the panels, the pervading practice in gag cartoons is to present the text in a caption below the panel.
✓ Quick, concise humor: The content of a gag cartoon is always humorous. Moreover, they cut directly to the punch line, with little or no time spent on building tension. More often than not, the caption is a single sentence that, along with the image, contains all the context needed to deliver the humor. The result is a lightning-fast joke — as the term "gag" implies.
✓ Stand-alone stories: Gag cartoons have no recurring characters and no previous story lines. They're completely independent vignettes that don't rely on previous episodes for readers to understand them. For this reason, gag cartoons have tremendous "refrigerator appeal" — they're the kinds of comics you're most likely to find affixed to your neighbor's fridge or a coworker's cubicle.
Gag cartoonists are among the most talented cartoonists in the spectrum of the art. They must deliver the humor with a single image and one sentence — maybe two. This is a staggering feat to achieve, but not surprisingly, gag cartoonists who can hit the mark with consistency are among the best-loved comic creators in American pop culture.
✓ Charles Addams: Charles Addams was among the very finest of the pantheon of gag cartoonists whose work was featured in The New Yorker. His beautifully rendered panels and wicked sense of humor made his work some of the most pervasive humor of the 1950s. The TV sitcom The Addams Family was based on a series of his gag comics that portrayed a family of well-meaning, if not twisted, ghouls. Addams's work holds plenty of lessons for a novice gag cartoonist:
• Use tone to carry a message. Addams's images were rendered in an ink-wash style — painted in tones of grey created by diluting ink with different amounts of water. Under his brush, he used this method to create moody and evocative scenes. When the grisly family prepares to dump hot oil on a gathering of holiday carolers from the rooftop of their aging mansion, the ominous drawing of the building itself — with its classic haunted-house features — sets a perfect tone for the inevitable outcome.
• Learn comedy patterns. Obviously, no formula exists for writing good humor, but comedy does tend to follow certain patterns. One of these patterns is something bizarre carried out with the air of normalcy.
• Appreciate the power of composition. Many of Addams's strongest cartoons are scenes in which the punch line is carried by the image rather than the text. To accomplish this, you have to learn how a reader's eyes follow the composition of a scene. The trick is to delay the reader from seeing the crucial bit of visual evidence until the last moment. Done right, the effects are sublime, such as the Addams cartoon featuring a crowded theater of guffawing patrons — among whom is hidden a Mona Lisa, her half-smile a perfect foil to the surrounding hysteria.
✓ Gary Larson: No gag cartoonist has come to define the genre the way Gary Larson has (see the sidebar, "Going far out and out on top" in this chapter). Although he hung up his pens way back in 1995, no subsequent newspaper gagger who has achieved a degree of quality in her work has been able to avoid the derisive tag of "Larson wannabe." Ten years after his final, syndicated panel, Larson's reprints still grace calendars, coffee mugs, and books. Larson's approach to gag cartooning is indicative of much of the best to be found in the genre:
• Write from your strength. From zoology to chemistry, Larson has an overriding love of and fascination for science. And he brought that passion to his work in a way that laypeople could enjoy, just for the sheer silliness of it.
• Great writing can support simplistic art. Larson falls squarely into the category of the cartoonist whose art is secondary to his humor. Although his drawings aren't crude — like fellow gagger James Thurber — they certainly lack the detailed opulence of Addams. Regardless, his minimalist imagery is supported fully by a tremendous wit.
• When in doubt, get weirder. Larson's work is defined by a daring weirdness. He rarely approaches standard topics like family life or office politics except through the lens of a family of cobras or an office inhabited by sheep and wolves. Many of the best gag cartoonists take an idea and push it past odd, headlong into bizarre, and that hyperbole is what provides the energy behind the comedy.
Although it often focuses on the cultural life of New York City, The New Yorker magazine, which began life in the 1920s, has a wide audience outside of New York. The magazine has a long, rich tradition of publishing commentary, criticism, essays, fiction, satire, and poetry. But it's perhaps most famous for its signature cartoons.
Gary Larson grew up in the Seattle, Washington area. While he was a young man working in a music store he discovered he had surplus time to draw and doodle. He decided to try his hand at cartooning and drew several cartoons, submitting them to a Seattle-based magazine. He followed by contributing to a small local Seattle paper, and later to the Seattle Times. The paper liked his work and began publishing it on a weekly basis under the title Nature's Way.
In an effort to make some extra money from cartooning, Larson pitched his work to the San Francisco Chronicle, which bought the strip and sponsored it for syndication through its own Chronicle Features syndicate. The syndicate also suggested he change the name to The Far Side.
The Far Side ran for 15 years, ending with the announcement of Larson's retirement on January 1, 1995. Larson chose to end the cartoon because he didn't want to fall into predictability. Larson went out on top, and as of 1995, The Far Side was carried by nearly 2,000 daily newspapers, had been collected into 22 books, and was reproduced extensively on greeting cards, which continue to be popular today. In addition, two animated specials were produced for TV. Most recently, Larson published a 2009 calendar and is donating all his author royalties to conservational organizations.
The magazine's stable of cartoonists has included many important talents in American humor, including Charles Addams, George Booth, Richard Decker, Ed Koren, George Price, Charles Saxon, William Steig, Saul Steinberg, James Thurber, and Gahan Wilson, just to name a few.
The New Yorker employs its own cartoon editor who oversees the selection of cartoons in each individual issue. Perhaps the first notable cartoon editor was Lee Lorenz, himself a cartoonist and contributor going back to 1956. Lorenz remained in the cartoon editor position until his retirement in 1998, after which it was assumed by Robert Mankoff, who continues as the cartoon editor today.
New Yorker-style cartoons are recognizable for the following characteristics:
✓ They focus more on the sophisticated nature of the subtle punch line and less on slapstick. Instead of Larsonesque hyperbole, New Yorker cartoons are defined by a much more cerebral, quieter wit. Often, the punch lines aren't built around humorous concepts so much as on the nuances of words and attitudes. In a Thurber classic, a giant seal is perched above the headboard of a couple's bed. The wife growls, "All right, have it your way — you heard a seal bark."
✓ They generally eschew an overly cartoony style of art. The drawing style can range from minimalist line art to sophisticated and elaborate charcoal pencil drawings depicting Gothic architecture.
Getting a cartoon printed in The New Yorker is an especially prestigious honor for many cartoonists, and the competition is fierce. In addition to its regular magazine, The New Yorker has published numerous cartooning collections over the years, and each of these compilations has been ranked at the top of the New York Times Best Seller list.
Perhaps no other single magazine has had so much influence on cartoonists (as well as comedy writers, stand-up comics, animators, gag writers, and the criminally insane) as Mad magazine. Mad first appeared on newsstands in October 1952. The first issue spoofed comics by genre: It featured mock stories about crime and horror. The stories poked fun at the standards of traditional comics. The artwork, by a variety of early Mad regulars, established the wild, satirical comic style that would dominate Mad; visual sight gags and wacky reinterpreta-tions of conventional mainstream values played out on every page.
The magazine originally went by the title of Tales Calculated to Drive You Mad. It wasn't until after issue # 17 that those first five words would be dropped and the magazine would from there on out be known only as Mad. The first several issues didn't sell particularly well. However, issue #4 in the spring of 1953 featured Mad's first parody of a specific character, "Superduperman!" Teenagers loved the witty parody, and magazine sales started to pick up as Mad gained a loyal audience.
This issue also marked the first time Mad ran into legal problems over its parodies and off-the-wall humor. After Mad poked fun at DC Comics premiere superhero Superman, DC Comics threatened to sue. Mad argued that parody was protected by the U.S. Constitution. The case never came to court because DC never bothered to push the matter. As a result, Mad subsequently made its reputation by zeroing in on other iconic cartoon characters, celebrities, advertisers, name brands, and the movie business.
What made Mad a hit and a symbol of its time? All the following, plus more:
✓ Mad connected with teenagers, in particular. The postwar culture of the 1950s tended to take itself very seriously, and Mad began skewering this father-knows-best world, in which citizens had become consumers and advertising dictated the public's taste.
✓ Mad hired incredibly talented people. The creative and inventive team of writers and cartoonists turned out high quality, innovative work.
Over the years Mad's layout and look have been updated. Over time the once-subversive magazine became an institution and, in a less hegemonic and more Internet-obsessed culture, it seemed less culturally significant. Most of the "original gang of idiots" (as the original legendary staff called themselves) are no longer with the magazine. In their place are a new, younger batch of cartoonists. Most people agree that the original lineup would be hard to duplicate.
Citing a challenging economy and falling sales, Mad' s parent company announced in the beginning of 2009 that Mad would cease its monthly publication schedule and now only appear quarterly. Nevertheless, Mad has played a crucial role in influencing an entire generation of young cartoonists working today. Without its contributions it's safe to say that many of the great comic features we see today may never have been.
Budding cartoonists can benefit from studying the work of New Yorker cartoonists by
✓ Understanding how intelligent writing can be funny, too. In some ways, hyperbole can become a crutch to a novice humorist. New Yorker cartoons show how a slight nuance — an appreciation for the subtle connotations of words and phrases — can lead to very satisfying writing. In one Gahan Wilson scene, a man comes home to see a "Happy Birthday" banner hanging above a table set for a party. His wife, seated, reading a newspaper, drones, "This was supposed to be a surprise party for you, but nobody showed up."
✓ Seeing how the tone of the art can prepare the reader. New Yorker cartoons are almost singularly identified by their light, airy images and graceful economy of line. This underscores the sophisticated tone of the comics — almost preparing the reader for a quiet quip rather than a powerful punch.
✓ Recognizing the importance of observational humor. So much of the New Yorker repertoire is based on observations of everyday life. This kind of humor is driven almost entirely by the excitement of the reader being presented something she commonly experiences that's contex-tualized in a unique way. For example, in a David Sipress vignette, as a couple greets another couple farther down the sidewalk, the panicked husband whispers to his wife: "Quick! Remind me — are they handshakers, huggers, single kissers, or kissers on both cheeks?"
As the Internet continues to define the delivery of news and entertainment, it's only fitting that a new breed of cartoonists has sprung up to take advantage of this exciting time. The Web allows cartoonists to self-publish their work to a worldwide audience with extremely meager means. On the Internet, a young cartoonist doesn't answer to an editor, nor does she wait for the approval of a syndicate. If the work is good enough, it finds its own success on the Web.
Webcomics are defined more by their medium — and the effect that medium has on their work — than by the format or theme of the cartoons. Webcomics can take the form of any of the previously mentioned genres of cartooning — strips, gags, or editorials — and push beyond with such things as interactive features and animations.
Some of the significant characteristics of Web cartoonists include
✓ They build a community. Perhaps the most striking characteristic of a webcomic is the strong bonds between the creator and the readers. In addition to being able to e-mail their reaction directly to cartoonists, readers of webcomics can become intimately involved in the world created by the cartoonist through blogs, message boards, and social networking media. As a result, readers not only form relationships with cartoonist but also build a community with the other readers of that comic.
✓ They make money by giving their work away for free. As strange as it sounds, that's the driving force behind the webcomics business model. Most Web cartoonists offer the entire archive of their work on their site, free for anyone to peruse. Sites rarely, if ever, have subscription fees. Web cartoonists are able to generate an income through selling advertising on their sites and selling books and other licensed merchandise based on their work.
✓ They're largely do-it-yourselfers. Because webcomics don't involve syndicates or publishers — and because advances such as print-on-demand publishing have allowed the beginner to self-publish books without a huge outlay of money — Web cartoonists don't need a large corporation to back their work. As a result, any money that cartoonists make can be kept in its entirety, without requiring a split between, say, syndicate and creator. With this expanded profit margin, Web cartoonists can make much more money by selling much less merchandise and advertising.
✓ They may appeal to a niche. Because Web cartoonists can make more money by selling less, it's more possible for them to cast a smaller net in terms of their subject matter. In other words, although a comic strip about librarians written for librarians would never appeal to a newspaper syndicate, Unshelved by Bill Barnes and Gene Ambaum has found tremendous (and lucrative) success on the Web.
Two examples of successful webcomics include
✓ PvP: PvP (www.pvponline.com) is one of the oldest webcomics still in production, and certainly one of the more successful. Cartoonist Scott Kurtz has built it from a generic webcomic about video games into a five-day-a-week office comedy that focuses on a small cast of beloved characters. His work on PvP (an abbreviation for the video game term player versus player) has earned him significant crossover success in the world of print comics. Image Comics publishes a monthly PvP comic book, and Kurtz has earned the Will Eisner Award, the highest honor given in the comic book industry. Studying Kurtz's PvP can shed light on the concept of webcomics.
✓ Penny Arcade: Penny Arcade (www.penny-arcade.com) is by far the most successful webcomic on the Internet. Writer Jerry Holkins and artist Mike Krahulik collaborate on a three-day-a-week comic that focuses on the video game industry. As with the vast majority of webcomics, their site and access to their entire archive (it dates back to 1998, which is akin to the early Jurassic period in Internet years) is free. Despite this unorthodox business model, Penny Arcade generates millions of dollars in annual revenue; operates a charity, Child's Play, to fund worldwide toy drives for children's hospitals; and organizes PAX, an annual convention for the video game industry. Penny Arcade presents a chance to understand webcomics more deeply.
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