The Editorial Cartoon

By | Monday, June 11, 2007 Leave a Comment
Interesting thing about comedy in general is that any sort of non-physical humor requires some fore-knowledge going into it for it to be funny. Let's take a look at this recent cartoon from Mike Keefe...
To really understand the joke, the reader needs some kind of baseline knowledge of Paris Hilton and her recent... well, "plight" seems generous here, but I'll go with it... as well as Scooter Libby's recent sentencing. Keefe does a good job here trying to make the strip funny even with as minimal outside knowledge as possible, but there's still the inescapable baseline of knowing how to read English.

I've erased the date from the cartoon itself, but I'd be willing to bet that most Americans (for whom this is directed towards) would be able to explain what the cartoon's about and even pinpoint when it was produced within a day.

Let's compare that against something that should have little, if any, contemporary resonance. Here's a cartoon by John Tenniel circa 1871...
Because it's not the best image, I'll inform you that the two swords read "Radicalism" and "Toryism". Now, what's the cartoon about?

Well, it will only make sense if you know several things. First, you need to know what radicalism and toryism are. I suspect most Americans could guess at radicalism, and assume toryism would be the opposite of that, but I daresay that's a stretch. Next, you'd need to know what that the subject of the cartoon is performing a Scottish sword dance and, more significantly, you'd need to have seen such an act performed to really understand what's involved in it. Third, you'd need to know that the cartoon is one of William Gladstone and that, fourth, he was Prime Minister of England at the time the cartoon was drawn. And even then, it would still help to know what platforms he stood upon and what speechs he had given in the latter half of that year.

The image, by itself, for most people simply doesn't make much sense today. It's a just a Scottish guy stepping over a couple of swords. Even after several setences of explanation (see above), it's still not as funny as Keefe's cartoon, despite the incredible execution of the final product and the probably-just-as-poignent topicalness that it would've had in 1871. But the base of reference is too far removed at this point, and the cartoon isn't funny.

The point of this is that good comic creators -- indeed good creators of all sorts -- do a good job because their work is as self-contained as possible. The less outside knowledge you need going into a comic, the greater its longevity and the greater its breadth of audience. Peanuts survived for as long as it did in part because every strip contains all the information the reader needs to get it. The same can be said of Garfield. A co-worker of mine just read Watchmen for the first time and noted how he didn't have to be concerned about knowing decades of back-story or continuity that held the story up. All of these creations have plenty of back-story and continuity in them, but it's not required to understand all the points they're trying to make.

Food for thought, especially if you're trying to start your own comic book or strip.
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