Coming to Terms with Bob Staake

I was up with Bonnie last night from 1:30 to 3:00. After finally getting her fed, changed, cuddled and back to sleep, I decided to check my email before heading back to bed.

Well, one link led to another and I found myself at Bob Staake’s relatively new blog. Bob, if you don’t already know, is one kick ass illustrator/cartoonist. Goodness knows he’s a brilliant guy and has probably already accomplished more this morning than I will the rest of this month.

But here’s the thing…

He wrote a blog entry entitled “If Cartoonists Only Knew How to Draw” that kept me up thinking long after I hit the sack again.

Here’s the crux of the article:

For cartoonists to believe that respect would be a given when the vast majority of them would fail to push any aesthetic envelope or embrace even a modicum of visual experimentation is as audacious as it is self-delusional. While illustrators, designers, graphic artists have always been open to a broader myriad of visual influences (from architecture to industrial design, photography to typography) informing their work and infecting their subconscious, cartoonists tend to have more parachocial mindsets and remain comfortably influenced by, well, other cartoonists. Find a cartoonist who has heard of Phillipe Starck or Charles Eames or Walker Evans, and you better check his fingernails for ink.

OK, I’ve belly-ached about cartoons as an art not receiving the respect they deserve like most others of my ilk. But I gotta say I think Bob’s missed the boat here.

I’d like to think he’s lambasting only cartoon-inspired illustrators, but this suggests otherwise:

The American comic strip in particular is mired in pop cultural predictabilty, most syndicated cartoonists falling back on a well-established vocabulary of visuals and a less than venturesome imparting of concepts, ideas, humor and characters. Curse the painful death of the mass market magazine gag cartoon, but it did clean house, insuring that only great gag cartoons — those in The New Yorker — survived the plague.

So the way I read this is it’s my own fault that the art world, nay, humanity in general, doesn’t respect my cartoons as true art.


That being said, let’s remember that more than half of gag cartooning, comic strips, editorial cartoons, and the like, is writing. To paraphrase Mankoff, it’s the think, not the ink that makes a successful cartoon.

I’ll grant that I’m not the greatest artist. I have no formal training, and, truth be told, I desire none. But I doubt any of my clients would buy a cartoon considered “great art” if the thing wasn’t funny. That’s just not how it works.

Let’s remember too that gag cartooning is almost entirely an “on spec” profession. I write a bunch of jokes, draw them up and send them out to make their way in the publishing world. You do this over and over and over and over until you can make a living at it.

Therefore I’m not laboring over each cartoon for days at a time. I sketch, ink, shade and scan three cartoons a day when I’m on a non-new-baby schedule. If I invested time for daily inspiration by great art I’d be living out of a shopping cart.

(BTW, I’d like to suggest that static visual artists can be influenced by other arts as well. I count among my greatest artistic influences jazz trombonist Carl Fontana, George Carlin, and bad B movies from the 50’s and 60’s.)

And I’m so sick and tired of The New Yorker being offered up as the litmus test for gag cartooning. It’s brilliant stuff and wonderful validation to be sure, but it’s possible to call yourself a successful gag cartoonist without ever grabbing the brass monocle.

More from Bob:

Truth be told, it’s doubtful that cartooning will ever be viewed with any legitimacy as an art form. If that happens, it will only occur when cartoonists en masse make the conscious effort to approach their work with a committment to fresh self-expression both viually and conceptually rather — than regurgitating its contextual traditions, relying on established forms and a resignation to stagnation over experimentation.

So when it all comes down, I’ll probably never be considered a legitimate artist, and Bob will. OK. All things being equal I’d rather be funny.

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