What’s So Funny? The Soul of Wit – Part Trois: Single-Panel Cartoons

Thursday, September 30, 2010
By LinnieRed

“’…and what is the use of a joke,” thought Alice, “without pictures…?’”

- Loose Careless, Alice’s Misadventures in Misquotation

As we (and I’m delighted to report that this use of the term “we” is apparently known, appropriately enough, as the “majestic plural”!) here at “What’s So Funny?” continue to beat the dead horse (that’s a METAPHOR! A LITERARY DEVICE! **SIGH** Would someone please explain that to the angry PETA protesters outside?) of Humour in Shorte Forme (doesn’t it look classier with all those extra vowels?), we come to the mixed media portion of our programme (extra consonants, too!) and consider that pithy, popular visual/verbal art form known as the single panel cartoon.

Excuse me for a moment – I need to go restock my supply of parentheses….

Just as we can only speculate about the ancient origins of the “one-liner”, we must likewise take our best guess as to the source of the first cartoon. My theory, which I hope to use as the basis for a generous research grant, is that the famous cave paintings discovered in Lascaux, France, are in fact hilarious cartoons, rich in hip, pop cultural references from the time that, sadly, go right over our heads in these modern days.

Horse walks into a cave. Water buffalo to horse: "Why the long face?"

Single panel cartoons have evolved (Oh, great! Now I have Cartoon Creationist protesters outside!) and can arbitrarily be categorized into:
1. General topic, “one-off” cartoons
B. Recurring character cartoons
III. Political cartoons
(I know they can be categorized that way because I just did so.)


The general topic “one-off” cartoon has historically been a feature (or a creature) of periodical print publications (alliterally speaking). The British humour magazine Punch claims for itself credit for both coining the term “cartoon” as it is now usually used (as opposed to its original artistic meaning of a preliminary sketch for another work of art) and for inventing “the cartoon as we know it today.” However, as far as I know (and, as always, I am too lazy to actually look this up), no general audience print publication is more closely associated with the “one-off” cartoon than The New Yorker. This may be due in large part to the fact that the articles in this sage journal are simply too long for mere mortals to read in the typical human lifetime. I know this because I subscribed to The New Yorker for a year, back in the late 1980s or around 1990, when they were clearly desperate for readership and had dropped their usual highly selective standards for subscribers. I’m not sure I ever read anything but the cartoons and the capsule reviews for Broadway theatre productions I knew I would never, ever see. The cartoons were well worth the price of the subscription, so for my money (literally) The New Yorker reigns as the King of Cartoons. Plus, they’re still publishing, and Punch isn’t. So there.

By “one-offs”, I mean that not only are such cartoons not serialized in any sense, but neither are the characters given any sort of ongoing identity. In fact, they tend to be rather anonymous archetypes – the Single Woman, the Businessman, the Rabbi, Priest, Minister and Imam (oh, let’s not go there again.) It’s worth noting, though, that not every famous New Yorker cartoon featured such anonymous figures: Charles Addams’s best loved cartoons created characters who took on a long, prolific life of their own –The Addams Family.

Recurring Characters

Many single-panel cartoons – especially those syndicated for newspapers (remember newspapers?) – revolve around a single character or a recurring cast of characters. In my admittedly limited experience, many of these tend to be a bit on the tame, “family-friendly” side and not necessarily to my sick and twisted taste. For example, the old standby The Family Circus is just a tad too precious and heart-warming for me. Similarly, Dennis the Menace and Ziggy [Note: link not recommended unless you have a "pop-up" blocker!] don’t exactly fit most folks’ definitions of “edgy.” Ah, well – I suppose we need SOME cartoons that are suitable for both impressionable little Junior and reserved Reverend Whatshername. Happily, modern technology, most notably graphics software and the Internet, help those with nothing better to do pick what is ripe for parody. [Warning: "adult" (read: "risqué") content.]

Another gripe I have with some single-panel cartoons – and this may not be unique to the single-panel but is almost certainly exacerbated by the inability to develop a story line the way a “strip” can – is their tendency to be “one joke wonders”. The Lockhorns bicker. Love Is… [There go those pesky "pop-ups" again! You have been warned!] in sad truth a NO-joke wonder – it’s actually a daily sappy greeting card. Marmaduke is a really big dog. As if that weren’t bad enough, so is Howard Huge. Two separate cartoon series revolve around the same tired premise, when one was already arguably too many. Big Dogness was already created and perfected in the classic children’s stories of Clifford. If you’re going to do big dog, go BIG, already!

In recent decades, the “funnies” pages of your local newspaper and thus, the syndicates seemed to become more open to cartoons that did NOT feature named, recurring characters, though they often seemed to revisit certain themes. Such cartoons blur somewhat the distinction between the “one-off” and the character-driven cartoon, but I consider them the exception that proves my earlier-stated rule. In my book (or, rather, in my column) the granddaddy of all such cartoons would have to be The Far Side. Intelligent and quirky, Gary Larson’s cartoons clearly reveal his fascination with the scientific, particularly anything involving animals. Out of respect for Larson’s stated request for others NOT to post his work online, I will refrain from doing so, with one exception. I consider it worth noting that, long after he had retired from producing his daily comic, he was given the opportunity to create a cover illustration for none other than The New Yorker.

Editorial Cartoons

The most difficult type of cartoon to produce successfully – especially consistently successfully – must certainly be the editorial cartoon. I’ve not yet discussed the role of the drawing style in the context of the cartoon, mainly because a wide range of styles has become acceptable. Even stick figures will fly if the writing is right. With “one-offs”, visual consistency isn’t really an issue. With recurring characters, drawing the character the same way day after day is important, but you’re still starting out with imaginary characters who can be as simple or complex as you like. Furthermore, over time, a cartoonist can get away with a fair amount of “evolving” of the look of a character. For good examples outside the single-panel genre, compare very early Peanuts strips to those from late in its run, or the original Simpsons shorts from The Tracey Ullman Show to recent episodes.

And then there are editorial cartoons, wherein the poor cartoonist is always eventually forced to depict real live people. Worse yet, these real live people tend to be politicians, who are notoriously more thin-skinned than they have any right to be. Furthermore, the reading public expects that if the subject is famous enough, the cartoon depiction of same really ought to be recognizable enough for them to identify without a “Hello, My Name Is…” nametag on a lapel.

Discussion of how to visually depict real, well-known people in an editorial cartoon is a topic best left to an artists’ or cartoonists’ website, not one designed for writers. In other words, the drawing part is YOUR problem. I’m mainly here to talk about the writing bit.

Assuming you get the drawing part licked, now you have to come up with a gag that someone will find funny. If you’re doing your job right with an unabashedly political cartoon, about half your audience should find it funny, and the other half should be demanding of your editor the handing-over of your head on a platter. I’ve not actually tried it myself, but I’m thinking the “offending people” part should be a piece of cake. The “funny” part is the high hurdle – even when you ARE dealing with politicians, which the uninitiated would understandably think involves the jokes virtually writing themselves. That’s probably what makes it so difficult to create a funny political cartoon: how can you top for sheer hilarity what the politicians are actually saying and doing?

My favorite political website is that of the libertarian magazine Reason. They have, as a regular feature, a weekly post called “Friday Funnies.” As it turns out, about the only humor to be found is the “metahumor” running joke that the cartoons are almost never funny. The fun is actually to be found in the reliably snarky comment threads that invariably ensue.

“…interested in err…photographs, eh? Know what I mean? Photographs, ‘he asked him knowingly’.”

Before I close, I’d like to give a nod to a couple of humorous forms not unlike cartoons but without that whole tricky drawing thing. One can be just as funny as a cartoonist by applying just the right caption to the right photograph. Print publications have probably done this (or thought about doing it, but didn’t have the nerve) since the days of Matthew Brady.

As with all other forms of verbal communication, the Internet has led to an explosion of opportunity for all of us to join in the fun. Speaking of Matthew Brady, to their everlasting credit, even the National Archives runs a weekly online photo caption contest for historical photos from their vaults. It’s not all about those wonderful parodies of the (in this writer’s opinion – and isn’t mine the one that counts here?) insufferable “Successories” posters, nor even “LOLcats”.

Technology has also given us the caption equivalent of “hidden tracks” for online photos in the form of “alt text”. Ostensibly created to provide a purely informational caption for web browsers that don’t allow for the inclusion of an image on a page, alt text can also be used to subtly provide humorous commentary for the savvy reader who knows to hover the mouse over the picture. For lack of a better example, I return you to the aforementioned Reason Magazine blog, Hit & Run. Not all those who post to this blog make use of alt text, but those who do, do it well. Hover your mouse over the photo of the political button in this post to see what I mean.

In long-overdue conclusion, allow me to trot out the old cliché about a picture being worth a thousand words, and to add that therefore, a picture – hand-drawn or a photograph – with a really funny caption must be worth at least a million words. And since I think I’m creeping up on that amount in my official Microsoft Word “Word Count”, I’d better quit while I’m ahead. (“Too late,” sayeth the reader. “Who asked you?” retorts the writer, peevishly.)

Next month – Good Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise: Humor in print advertising.

7 Responses to “What’s So Funny? The Soul of Wit – Part Trois: Single-Panel Cartoons”

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  2. Steven

    Ah, an article after my own heart. =) one of my favotite single panel comics is xkcd.com, but you have to be a true geek to understand half of what they’re about.

  3. HeRoCoMpLeX

    Great stuff Linnie!

    I’ve always kinda favored Gary Larson when I read cartoons, although for some reason Calvin and Hobbs still gets me to chuckling sometimes.

    As ever, full of laughter and information. You’re the master of Ha Ha…


  4. sandra

    I love your use of the ‘majestic plural’! How cool is that? You should be teaching humor history at the university level and making students laugh. I like the up to date content, including the most recent examples that I was unaware of.

    When I took 20th century art at university, I wanted to know the current scene of North American art and learn where art was going, what the current trends were. Unfortunately, the class material cut off in the 1970′s and after 4 years I didn’t find out what I wanted to know.

    Loved the interactive links and images. Really a great column! Take a bow!

  5. I am sorry I am late in reading your work. Ya knocked one outta da park wit dis one. I stayed with an Uncle, when I was a boy, and had scurried up to the attic one day to find anything to relieve the boredom of a rainy summer day. My Uncle was a funny guy and it would be no surprise that he had, in a chest, first edition, books of Charles Addams. I was transfixed, mind scrambled, sore-sided from private laughing. I was transformed and made different from that day forward. When I read your article I was astonished that I had forgotten (Short term memories disappearing would not astonish me)ingesting those words and images made me who I am. Mad mag’s Don Martin, Walt Kelly, Gahan Wilson, all wonderfully twisted folks that colored happily my young world.(As for Wilson’s work in Playboy…I also enjoyed the enlightening and well written articles and cutting edge fiction.) Certainly, humor is a universal and paradoxically personal thing (And your monthly take always delights)
    ’tis funny that the morbid and different is what colors mine own world. Perhaps, like the Contraries in America’s indigenous Plains People – humor is often found as a healing element of grief and strife. Humor does certainly heal and it is happily infectious.
    I have blathered on enough … again just a great job!

  6. Haha, I have to share some funny story which happened to me yesterday: I decided to introduce my elderly mother to the magic of the Internet. Our first move was to access the popular Ask Jeeves website, and I told her it could answer any question she had. My mom was very skeptical until I said, “It’s true, Mom. Think of something to ask it.” As I sat with fingers poised over the keyboard, she thought a minute, then responded, “How is Aunt Helen feeling?”