Thursday, February 21, 2008

Marisa Pretended She Didn’t Notice The Cartoonist

I don’t think this cartoon needs any analysis at all! So, instead, I’m going to prattle on for just a bit about how I think about this style of cartooning.


It occurred to me a couple of days ago that many people looking at these images I’ve been putting up may think it’s odd that I call them cartoons. Nowadays the word ‘cartoons’ has become synonymous with ‘comics.’ The word ‘cartoons’ brings to mind, maybe, Charlie Brown and Snoopy from Peanuts, or, maybe, the mice and cats re-enacting the Holocaust in Maus. Or I suppose these TV-centric days the word may just bring to mind the Simpsons or Family Guy.

But right around the start of the 20th century when printing technologies, commercial practices and political expediencies were creating mass media as we know it (them?) today in the form of large circulation newspapers, cartooning was an integral part of appealing to ‘the masses.’ Cartooning, then, included comics as we know them today—abstract, symbolic line drawings—and also illustrations, beautiful, detailed and realistic drawings.

The comic form of cartooning in America is sometimes thought of as starting with Joseph Pulitzer publishing Richard Felton Outcault’s comics that came to include the Yellow Kid.

But that same era, however, also included illustrators doing amazing cartoon work.

I’m thinking first and foremost of Charles Dana Gibson. Gibson created wildly beautiful illustrations-as-cartoons, many dealing with the romantic habits of the times. The drawings are still beautiful, still funny, still insightful today.

And Gibson’s illustrations were so popular in his time that his conception of the dynamic, self-possessed ‘modern’ woman defined the era, the famous Gibson Girl.

I’m also thinking of John Tenniel. Tenniel is famous for his amazingly detailed illustrations for Alice In Wonderland, but Tenniel also spent fifty years as the staff cartoonist for the British magazine Punch.

When I first started sending out cartoons, I hoped the kind of retro aesthetics of illustrations-as-cartoons would be a novelty and help me make a sale. That never happened.

I think the modern world has accepted cartoons as synonymous with comics and the use of illustrations as cartoons has been appropriated by the advertising business where novelty of any kind can serve as a tool for branding and selling.

Also illustrations as cartoons are still popular as political commentary. Propaganda of all kinds needs identifiable images, not abstract symbolism.

The big downside of relegating illustrations to only propaganda uses is that it further de-humanizes pop culture.

Comics—the principal form of cartooning today—are understood to be the idiosyncratic creations of cartoonists. Cartoonists are allowed to indulge themselves, to be serious if they choose, or just to be playful or difficult or anything else they choose. Their work—abstract, symbolic—is considered self expression.

Illustrations—now used for business and politics—have to pass muster. That is, they must be approved and appropriate and serve some useful purpose in the eye of whatever businessman or politician controls the particular media in need of some propaganda. Illustrations in the modern world aren’t used for self-expression, but rather for some so-called ‘larger purpose’ (i.e., making money for some business or influencing the thinking of some voting demographic).

The days of Charles Dana Gibson seem to be gone and nobody seems to be interested in bringing them back. Which is too bad for me because I just barely can draw illustrations that now and then make people smile. But I have no skill at all for drawing comics and no desire at all to learn how to draw abstract, symbolic mice or cats or people or anything else in comic form.

I’m screwed.

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