John Deering

By | Tuesday, November 13, 2007 Leave a Comment
John Deering's cartoon Strange Brew from today...
One thing I like about Deering's work in general is that his cartoons often are a good symbiosis of text and visuals. Neither is particularly funny without the other; indeed, many are wholly incomprehensible without both. In this particular case, there is no actual dialogue, but the "Pleez Heulp" and "Give" are wholly necessary for the joke to work. Without those, you simply have two mice looking at another caught in a mousetrap. We need that text to tell us that the unfortunate mouse is not dead but merely "down on his luck."

What I find curious about this cartoon, though, is the layout. Roughly a quarter of the space is devoted to the black shadow of the mousetrap, and another significant portion in the upper left is left as dead space. All of the really necessary linework needed for the gag -- the text, the expressions of the onlooking mice, and a portion of the trapped mouse -- is in a small square-ish area centered around the "Give" cup. A large majority of the space used in this cartoon is wasted or, at best, not used very economically.

Now, admittedly, this would have to be a difficult cartoon to pull off. A mouse trapped in a mousetrap is not a particularly funny sight in and of itself. One would need the to also show that the mouse is in fact trapped -- bearing in mind that an anthropomorphic mouse should in theory be able to release himself from such a device. fairly easily. Which means that the mousetrap needs to be conveyed in such a way as to become something akin to a wheelchair -- a device that the mouse lives with voluntarily because of some other concern. I expect not finding a good way to convey that visually is what led to Deering's choice to show the trap from the back.

That being said, though, why devote so much space to it? We could truncate 1/5 of the image off the right and have no loss of information. This, I suspect, was from the dreaded deadline monster. Deering's strip appears daily, and the amount of time he has to work on any single gag is extremely limited. I've read of other cartoonists, notably Gary Larson, that while working on how to execute a particular joke, you eventually cross the point of no return. You run out of time to think of and draw another cartoon before your deadline, so you have to run with what you've got and just try to do better the next day. I think that's what happened here. Deering had the notion of a mousetrapped mouse asking for handouts -- which is an amusing idea in its absurdity -- but had difficulty executing it in a manner that best conveyed that idea. I can easily imagine Deering doing sketch after sketch after sketch all day trying to figure out the best way to draw this. Trying different perspectives and points of view. Trying to highlight different visual elements. Is it funnier to focus on the child's expression, or the mother's trying to shuffle her along? For that matter, what should the child's expression be? Amusement? Horror? Concern? Inquisitiveness? What should the trapped mouse's sign say? How "trapped" should he be? There are a million questions to be asked here in a short amount of time.

None of which addresses anything else he may have had going on in his life when he drew that. Maybe he just had a tooth pulled at the dentist. Maybe he had just fallen down the stairs and broke his ankle. Maybe his wife just left him. Maybe his mother just died.

I don't think this is Deering's best work. I suspect he's not wholly satisfied with it either. But that he does his strip day in and day out is impressive, and that it's usually (for me, at least) original and funny even more so. But it's useful, I think, to examine the good with the bad; and figuring out why something doesn't work as well as it could is just as productive as why something does work.
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