The Case for Cartoons
Oslo Davis goes in to bat for pointless, hand-drawn nonsense.
What’s the point of cartoons? What makes them so special, especially since we now have GIFs that wiggle and memes that everyone can riff on? Since everybody on Twitter is a bloody comedian? What unique qualities do cartoons have that make them relevant, important or necessary? Or perhaps they’re not needed anymore. Perhaps they’re dead; dead like those jokes we told our friends in the 1980s about priests and rabbis walking into bars.
The viewer looks at the cartoon and sees no reason for it, gets nothing substantial from it, and yet is thrilled by it.
After about 15 years drawing cartoons, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no point to cartoons and – here’s the twist! – that’s exactly what makes them so special. Many cartoonists aim for comedy in their work, or take witty jabs at topical issues, but in my view the truly special cartoon is the variety that is completely frivolous.
To be clear, by ‘cartoons’ I mostly mean the New Yorker-style gag cartoons; the ones featuring a drawing and perhaps a caption, the ones designed to raise eyebrows, or even a lol if you’re lucky. I’m talking about the work done by modern-day masters of the no-point gag cartooning school – including artists like Glen Baxter, Zach Kanin, Edward Steed, Danny Shanahan and Michael Maslin. I’m not talking about political cartoons, which are in-joke opinion pieces, whose task is to remind us that the world is stuffed. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that … )
The goal of the cartoonist (if that cartoonist is me – I’m speaking personally here) is to create something that is not just funny but also supremely interesting, wickedly useless, wantonly nuts. A good cartoon may comment snarkily on social norms or modern relationships or whatever, but an upper-echelon cartoon has the ability to grab the viewer by the earlobes and yank them off the face of the earth into a spiralling vortex of nonsense. The viewer looks at the cartoon and sees no reason for it, gets nothing substantial from it, and yet is thrilled by it.
Many of us know this thrill because we felt it when we first saw Monty Python or read Spike Milligan or Lewis Carroll. Or when we watched TV shows like The Mighty Boosh, Big Train or anything featuring the genuinely, deliciously bonkers Shaun Micallef.
Michael Leunig’s cartoons – like the one with people watching a sunset on TV while a real sunset happens out the window – have been giving many of us tingles for years. And what was it about that ‘bummer of a birthmark’ cartoon by Gary Larson that made us want to show our friends, stick it on our fridge?
As an art form that found its feet in Punch in the 19th century and took flight at the New Yorker in the 20th, static gag cartoons, rendered in pen and ink, still have the capacity to surprise. Within the confines of their traditional form, great cartoons can still do new things, still reinvent time and space realities and still blatantly disregard physics and logic.
When it comes to setting a scene, a cartoon is the fastest thing around. From Neanderthals to nerds, from dudes on desert islands to post-coital couples, from psychiatrists’ couches to Santa’s workshop – a viewer gets what’s going on in a good cartoon in a nanosecond. In the best examples, the viewer instantly and simultaneously understands who’s who, where they are, why they’re there, what’s happening to them – everything! – in a flash.
Reading the caption, the viewer hears a voice, tone or form of angst that’s somehow familiar or zeitgeisty. The words draw them into the image until – bam! – the surprise hits. The joke appears in an instant, or in no more than a couple of seconds. You’ve been coaxed with familiar pictures and words, then suddenly muzzled with an intoxicating hankie and dragged behind a filing cabinet through a portal that waterslides you into the mind of John Malkovich. Or something like that.
Usually, you won’t laugh out loud at a cartoon. Inside your head you’ll smile, appreciate it, marvel at it, look over it again and try and work out how the magic was done. You might show it to someone else so you can look at them looking at it, wait for their expression to change, vicariously relive your experience of it. Then you might cut it out and stick it on your fridge so you will remember it, return to it, and let people see evidence of your high-order appreciation of comedy. ‘Look at this cartoon: I so get this! This is my sense of humour! Do you get it?’
Still, I may not have convinced you – I see you’re still chuckling at that GIF of a kitten swatting itself in a mirror. And a savage and hilarious Trump meme will be all we need to get the endorphins firing off in our tired brains at 3pm on a Thursday afternoon, no?
True, those things are funny, even necessary, as reminders of the wackiness of life generally or as take-downs of people who deserve it. But for me, there’s something magical about a joke that’s been hand drawn from nothing and yet seems to serve no specific purpose.
I’ll always prefer a mini work of art; the kind created by a lateral-thinking artist who has a certain je ne sais quoi, who has an ear for language, who has their finger on the pulse of modern times and yet is clearly a nutcase intent on dragging us into a vortex of nonsense. And in a world where everyone is a comedian, a GIF-forwarder or meme-maker, I’ll always hunt down and cherish those cartoons crafted from the ground up, that don’t feel the need to make any point at all.