Five “Perfect” Cartoons

It was about 7:45 last night and my wife had just retrieved our Chicago Tribune from her Oldsmobile when, flipping through looking for the grocery ads, she told me there looked like a fun cartoon article in the Tempo section.

The article is fun indeed, and interesting too (although the online version doesn’t include any of the cartoons and you have to have a username and password and all that).

New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff discusses five “perfect” cartoons in varying disciplines:

“Slice of Life Cartoon”

I agree with Mankoff’s choice of Perry Barlow’s 1954 baseball cartoon in which an elderly woman says to a boy in a face mask and padding, “Aunt Claire asked you a question, dear. Are you the pitcher or the catcher?”

Sometimes, though, Mankoff’s analysis gets a tad too high-falootin’ for my taste – “…the protagonists are in different conceptual worlds though they occupy the same physical space. The subjective gulf…is too great for him to begin to traverse.”

Ummm… Yeah. I think I agree though…

“Captionless Cartoon”

Chon Day’s 1946 shoe salesman reaching for the pistol is dead perfect (and those of you who can’t see it thanks to the Trib are really missing something).

So often captionless cartoons still contain words in the actual art: a sign, or a name tag, or something that has some sort of language on it.

I’m especially guilty of this. Only recently has my brain seemed to have turned the corner and begun to take baby steps to find humor wordlessly.

This cartoon is great too because it makes you work a little. When a cartoon hides the joke a little it’s that much sweeter when you find it.

Day’s frustrated and soon to be homicidal salesman is just a beautiful piece of cartooning. It’s the kind of cartoon that makes me want to work harder.

“Gag Line”

“No, Thursday’s Out. How about never – is never good for you?”

You really don’t need the art here, as Mankoff notes. It doesn’t assist the joke at all. The actual Mankoffian dot/line-work merely serves as the gag delivery system.

Is it the perfect gag line? I don’t know about that. It’s certainly very good and it works in a variety of ways, but the gag is revealed a little too early for me.

For me the perfect gag line holds out on you until very often the last word. Or it includes a word in a phrase that is almost identical to a more common wording and it slips through the first reading.

Mankoff notes that his “is never good for you?” cartoon is the most reprinted cartoon of the last decade, and hey, it’s Mankoff, so it’s really really really good. But perfect? My cartoon jury is still out on this one.

“Topical and Yet Not Topical”

Regular readers of The New Yorker will recognize the boxy “BEK” signature of Bruce Eric Kaplan, whose post September 11 “It’s hard, but slowly I’m getting back to hating everyone.” street scene reminds us of how we all meant to change, and then somehow didn’t.

It’s almost more of an editorial cartoon than your typical gag cartoon, except that it focuses on the broader public response to news than the actual news itself. This seems to be a more common approach in editorial cartoons today, but Kaplan elevates it here avoiding the simpler couple commenting on the nightly TV news scene that so many cartoonists take.

I remember this cartoon running later that year and how it, and humor in general, found its way again. Laughing felt good, and it had been a while.

I’m not sure this is a perfect cartoon per se, and the category Mankoff gives it is a little goofy, but it was a perfect cartoon for its time, and that was no small feat.

“Gag in Which the Image and the Caption Mesh”

This type of cartoon is my favorite – where the caption and the art are so completely intertwined that one without the other isn’t funny at all. It’s the type of cartoon that I strive to do every day, and the kind I think are generally the funniest.

Tom Cheney’s ledge jumpers’ matchmaker (“There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”) is just wonderful. The art is great and the caption, a phrase usually so ordinary and commonplace, is twisted like a balloon animal into something entirely different. And like the shoe salesman cartoon, it’s the idea of something about to happen that’s really funny.

Well, this ended up being a much longer blog than I intended for today, but rarely am I offered such a wonderful chance to comment on gag cartoons. I guess I sort of got carried away.

And as long as I’m just blabbing on and on, it seems only right that if I’m going to comment on other’s cartoons that I throw some of my own up for examination. (I’d like to point out that I’m not purporting my cartoons to be perfect in any possible way.)

“Andertoons Slice of Life Cartoon”

A take-off on every one of those little TV Guide show reviews ever written.

“Andertoons Captionless Cartoon”

It’s sort of hard to see on the website, but the air freshener in the car is a cityscape with smokestacks and such.

“Andertoons Gag Line Cartoon”

This is I think a good example of the gag waiting to be sprung until the last possible second. There’s really no joke until the very last word.

“Andertoons Topical and Yet Not Topical”

Having just watched all the presidential and vice-presidential debates, this one seems to sum up politics in general.

“Andertoons Gag in Which the Image and the Caption Mesh”

This cartoon is one of my absolute recent favorites. Neither the picture nor the caption is funny alone, but put them together…

Well, that’s about it. I think I actually wrote a longer article than the original article here.

I’m heading downtown tonight to hear Mankoff and three New Yorker cartoonists speak. Should be a lot of fun! I’ll fill you in later.