In an article that I wrote for the Mensa Bulletin back in 2006, I described a class of words and terms that have entered the English lexicon from cartoons that I call “cartoonyms.” Among those elite terms are “gerrymander,” “McCarthyism,” and “security blanket.” There are about thirty more cartoonyms that can be found in any number of dictionaries, and all of them have interesting etymologies. About that, H. L. Mencken once said, “Comic strip artists have been unsurpassed as diligent coiners of neologisms.” That may be an exaggeration, or maybe it was truer during the 1920s when Mencken was writing, but cartoonists have contributed their share of new words to English—some have stayed. Other terms like “23 skidoo” have effectively passed into oblivion. “Dagwood,” an adjective that has stayed in the English language and is used to describe a rather tall sandwich, laden with ingredients comes from Chic Young’s cartoon Blondie.
A Dagwood sandwich is one that is stacked high with various ingredients and is so tall that a normal person would not be able to take a whole vertical bite of it. Typically, Dagwood, the character, is depicted leaving the refrigerator with ingredients in his hands and balanced on both arms as he goes to the dining room table to begin constructing the sandwich. He is often shown with the tall sandwich in his hands and a big smile on his face as he gets ready to eat the thing, but he is never shown actually eating it. That construction, drawing the impossible, is an aspect of cartooning that is acceptable in sequential drawings like cartoon strips, but is less acceptable in other media like television and movies. Consumers expect information to be missing between panels of a strip, but there is an expectation that nothing is missing from motion pictures.
First of all, the method Dagwood uses to transfer the ingredients from the refrigerator to the table is pretty incredible. The cartoon reader is not privy to how Dagwood balances all of the ingredients on his arms and shoulders. The reader only sees him strut confidently to the table in preparation for the construction project. In the following cartoon, Cookie, Dagwood’s daughter asks her father about his tradition of making sandwiches. She stands with her hands behind her back as her father walks the ingredients to the table, unconcerned about a mishap or mess. She has obviously witnessed this process many times before.
Following the construction of the massive comestible, the reader is treated to a smiling Dagwood reveling in the prospect of consuming his creation. Again, the reader sees that the sandwich is taller than anything that a normal human, Dagwood included, can possibly bite from top to bottom–as sandwiches are normally eaten. He is relishing (pun intended) the prospect of eating that sandwich so much that he is leaning in so far that his chair is tipped forward. And, while this strip ends with him preparing to take his first bite, other Blondie strips depict Dagwood wiping his mouth after he has presumably finished eating the sandwich (the sandwich is no longer in the tableau, and there are crumbs on the plate). Again, the reader is not privy to the knowledge of how the character consumes the sandwich; the reader only knows that it is gone.
Ed Hall, a syndicated political cartoonist from Jacksonville, Florida who draws for the Baker County Press, theorizes that the best cartoons show what happens just before an action or just after an action but do not show the action itself. Therefore, Dagwood will always be depicted carrying the ingredients to the table, but will not be depicted putting the ingredients on his arms and shoulders. As well, he will be shown just before he eats the sandwich and when the sandwich is gone and he is wiping around his mouth, but he will never be shown actually eating it. How Dagwood eats the sandwich and disarms the ingredients are among the many mysteries of the cartoon strip world, mysteries that are best kept secret in order to maintain that child-like faith that everything will turn out—if not always well, always humorously.
Over the past few weeks here in Austin, Texas, the issue of women’s health and abortion restrictions has been front and center, becoming a national story with the dramatic filibuster of SB5 by Wendy Davis (along with Kirk Watson, Judith Zaffrini, Leticia Van De Putte, Sylvester Turner, and others). Thousands of protesters filled the capital building, hundreds of thousands of people watched online (while CNN discussed blueberry muffins), and Wendy Davis became a national celebrity. Witnessing these events from both inside the capital and online, I was struck by the intense passion on both sides of the issue and by the ways in which humor might both express and relieve the tension that passionate political debate creates.
I understand that the issue of abortion is sensitive, so I will stick with the humorous responses to the issue. What struck me, as an observer, was the swift creation of humorous memes, the jokes on twitter, and the use of humor within the filibuster itself.
I can remember my first scholarly thought. Well, I should say that I can visualize the context of my first scholarly thought. Like a Polaroid of a younger me looking through a View-Master: I know that I saw something, and how, but can’t remember what.
I can almost replicate the place from memory, but will never replicate the time. Heraclitus, who was smarter than the average Greek, once wrote fragmentedly, “You cannot step into the same river, for other waters and yet others go ever flowing on.” True, but the Greeks widely preached the maxim to “Know Thyself,” and I remember helping my grandfather once, and being rewarded with a copy of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
To be precise it was The Annotated Huckleberry Finn, edited by Michael Patrick Hearn, copyright 1981 by Clarkson N. Potter, republished by Norton & Company. When my grandfather gave me the book it was still new scholarship, and I was no scholar, but the text fascinated me. Densely illustrated, the Potter edition uses marginalia to communicate the context of both the novel and Hearn’s Introduction like an analogue prototype for the internet. I was a babe in the woods, looking through the first book I ever owned that did not involve talking animals or a young sleuth by the name of Encyclopedia Brown. I was proud that someone thought me ready for such an impressive text, but make no mistake, the pictures helped. As a child I was not a strong reader, but I was wildly artistic. And the first page I opened had a caricature of two men, in nightgowns, with nineteenth-century facial hair, collecting clocks.
I don’t think I can reproduce it here for legal purposes, but Roman numeral lvi (56) of the Norton edition will show you the two figures identified as the authors George W. Cable and Mark Twain, drawn by Thomas Nast, on Thanksgiving, 1884.
There was no other description behind the cause of their act, collecting clocks at five before midnight, besides: “The two spent Thanksgiving at Thomas Nast’s home in Morristown, New Jersey.” I cannot fault Hearn’s lack of insight, because it sparked the first real academic inquiry in my young mind: What the hell is going on?
I can tell you that later I learned:
On Thanksgiving Eve the readers were in Morristown, New Jersey, where they were entertained by Thomas Nast. The cartoonist prepared a quiet supper for them and they remained overnight in the Nast home. They were to leave next morning by an early train, and Mrs. Nast had agreed to see that they were up in due season. When she woke next morning there seemed a strange silence in the house and she grew suspicious. Going to the servants’ room, she found them sleeping soundly. The alarm-clock in the back hall had stopped at about the hour the guests retired. The studio clock was also found stopped; in fact, every timepiece on the premises had retired from business. Clemens had found that the clocks interfered with his getting to sleep, and he had quieted them regardless of early trains and reading engagements. On being accused of duplicity he said: “Well, those clocks were all overworked, anyway. They will feel much better for a night’s rest.” A few days later Nast sent him a caricature drawing—a picture which showed Mark Twain getting rid of the offending clocks. (Mark Twain, a Biography, vol. II, part 1, 188)
But all this postdates my first academic thought. Before I knew Huck, Jim, the Mississippi River, or the author who sent them down it. I saw a picture and knew the name of the man who drew it. Thomas Nast. I remember I wanted to know more, and now I can share some of it with you, in context.
Most of the time, politics is a serious business. People tend to take the government fairly seriously–our laws, our government, our rights. True, traditionally Congress has been an object of fun, and politicians–from Abraham Lincoln to Sarah Palin–have been the butt of jokes. But the importance of political humor–from parody to cartoons to satire–might best be seen as a reflection of how seriously people take politics.
In this highly political year, I have been very interested in questions of how political humor functions in American society. Recently, I discussed the satire of the RNC and DNC conventions on the Daily Show. Similarly, Self Deprecate’s contributions to our site and his site have tackled the current state of political humor.
One political issue that I have been increasingly concerned with this year is distinctly not funny: voter suppression. While proponents of voter ID and other voting laws argue that voter fraud is a real issue (apart from their clownish attempts to prove voter fraud by committing voter fraud), critics of these laws have argued that they are better explained as politically motivated efforts to suppress the votes of people of color, the poor, and the elderly. As John Dean argued in a blog post entitled, “The Republican’s Shameless War on Voting“:
There is absolutely no question that Republicans are trying to suppress non-whites from voting, throughout the Southern states, in an effort that has been accelerating since 2010. It is not difficult to catalogue this abusive Republican mission, which unfortunately has spread, in a few instances, to states above the Mason-Dixon Line as well.
Other stories back up this argument:
Recent developments in voter laws in Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and other states also testify to the seriousness of this issue. Those with any historical sense hear echoes of past efforts to restrict suffrage for political gain and based on cultural prejudice. Serious stuff.
Where does the humor come in?
Let’s start with Gary Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” strip from July 23 of this year:
And from the next day:
But that wasn’t all…
A friend of mine recently moved into a new house that is about as far away from where I live as you can get and still say that it’s nearby. He lives in a new county entirely, actually, which is the county beyond the county that we in the city call “the county.” So basically kind of far away. I recently drove out there to visit and check out the new place, and I found myself suddenly aware of the sky. There seemed to be more of it. It was as though the horizon line had been lowered, somehow, and the sky was increasingly everywhere. Whereas city life tends to block it out or at least finds a way to put an ad in it, the sky in this distant suburb was unbounded and all over. And all I wanted to do was get away from it.
I’m unambiguously aware that, as a person, I am indoorsy (which, unlike “outdoorsy,” is not actually a word according to the dictionary). This might be one of the reasons that I am so drawn to the work of Gabrielle Bell, whose autobiographical comics have been widely acclaimed for over a decade. She has been praised for the simplicity of her line work, her unorthodox use of shading, her judicious attention to detail, and her capacity to transform otherwise ordinary conversations into existential treatises without actually seeming to have done so at all. Bell is also clearly aware that her life and the lives of everyone around her are in a constant state of becoming-comics; she depicts herself incessantly sketching; writes comics about the difficulty of writing comics; and spends time with people doing things that everyone knows will all end up being drawn. It’s a little like if Bertolt Brecht had been a staff writer for Friends.
Her comics are also brilliantly contained, which is why I find a certain comfort in reading them on days when the sky gets too big. I’ve written elsewhere about the tendency toward small spaces in Bell’s earlier work, and her latest collection, The Voyeurs (Uncivilized Books, $24.95), continues to explore our relation to space — both in life and in art. Although many of the episodes in the book were originally published on her website, Lucky, the pages of The Voyeurs are mostly composed with a steady layout of six of the same-sized panels per page, and Bell frames the action with an almost unwavering full shot. For someone whom the Art Editor of the New Yorker, Francoise Mouly, has called a “master of exquisite detail,” it’s amazing how infrequently anything gets singled out or prioritized by a close-up. It’s actually almost never. Rather, Bell seems to want us to see the stuff of her life as… well, as we would actually see it. Sometimes her panels are densely detailed and overfull, but only when that’s the way the world looks. And other times, there’s just not a lot of stuff to look at.
By her own admission, but also obviously enough in the comics themselves, Bell can be quiet, shy, and reserved, and she often retreats into her notebook, sketching and writing even when there’s something else going on around her. But of course, her comics reveal this retreat, and the act of creating comics is as important to her comics as the events that inspire the comics. Part of the irony of her work, then, is that the act of withdrawing into a more private world is in some ways predicated on the future publication of her work. As readers, we are invited to see her world not only as she sees it – which is to say, as it is sketched onto a page – but also to see her sketching this world. In this way, her comics are at once process and product. There’s almost a fractal sense of repetition, by which we as readers are seeing what was once the notebook’s page, which is what Bell is in the process of creating in the story itself, but because she has to draw herself drawing, we are actually seeing her see herself. It’s like the opposite of jockeying for a better view of something in a crowd; Bell’s comics are like two people constantly stepping back and sliding around to get behind each other, further and further away from the action. Continue reading →
See this post for reactions to the Supreme Court’s legalization of marriage.
The reaction to President Obama’s changed stance on gay marriage is obviously big news. While I have argued before that proponents of gay marriage have a funnier argument than opponents, when it comes Obama’s decision the focus of the humor is less on the issue of gay marriage but on the politics of the situation. In the midst of an election season, Obama’s changing (evolving or flip-flopping? depends on who is drawing) view of gay marriage was bound to become a key instance in cartooning the major issues of the campaign.
We will be running some compilations of political cartoons as the campaign continues in order to examine how the visual representations of the candidates and the issues help shape the political conversation. As M. Thomas Inge noted in his essay “Politics and the American Sense of Humor,” “the editorial or political cartoon has been a mainstay in the media of this country from its very founding.”
The first thing one notices in looking at cartoons over the past few days is the rapid change in the situation once Obama came out of the closet in support of gay marriage (to use some popular metaphors). For instance, Mike Luckovich illustrated both the possible political “grenade” of the subject and one major theme of the fallout in two cartoons.
Mike Luckovich, the next day
many more below…
M. Thomas Inge
The comics occupy less and less space in newspapers in the United States these days, and even when they have a page or two of their own, each strip is so reduced in size that old timers have to squint to read them. Why don’t we give them more respect? These features occupy a few seconds of our time, but when well done, they can put a smile on our faces for the day, and maybe something to stick on the refrigerator door for others to enjoy? We should treasure them.
For as long as we have been recording our history, people have been telling stories and jokes through the combination of words and pictures, and most nations have had a tradition of sequential or narrative art and caricature. It was not until a little more than a hundred years ago that American cartoonists began to produce in the newspapers their own version of this distinct art form, which came to be called the comic strip and which would entertain millions of readers the world over with the antics of the Katzenjammer Kids, Mutt and Jeff, and Buster Brown.
Although few have recognized the cultural and aesthetic values of the comic strip, and its partner the comic book, the time has come to acknowledge that these are no ephemeral forms of entertainment, although printed on cheap paper and designed to be thrown away. Rather they are a significant part of our heritage to be cherished for their enduring artistic and social importance. Several publishers have recently understood this and are issuing handsome, hardcover complete collections of such strips as Peanuts, Dennis the Menace, Dick Tracy, Terry and the Pirates, and Gasoline Alley.
Comic art has much in common with other forms of literary and visual expression in the modern world. As in fiction, the elements of narrative, characterization, and setting are important, and as in poetry, ideas must be developed within a very short reading time through symbol and suggestion. As in drama, a story or incident must be staged before our eyes within a box-like frame and with sharp limitations on dialogue and compressed time. As in motion pictures, visual devices such as cutting, framing, close-ups, and montage are used by the comic artist, and settings can range from the realistic to the fantastic.
Among other things, feminism taught me how to play guitar. As a young white whelp who had never had to know any better, I was unexpectedly drawn to the menace and message of the riot grrrl movement in the 1990s. Although I arrived a little late to the party, Sleater-Kinney’s breakout Call the Doctor was one of the first albums that I ever purchased from a store where tattoos were mandatory business attire. From there it was all back catalogues of Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Boss Hog, to say nothing of bands whose names began with other letters of the alphabet. I never got all that good at guitar, but I certainly adopted all of the crass creativity and critical awareness that would first inform my politics and then my pedagogy. And which would also somewhat understandably inform the way that I came to regard female characters in mainstream comics, whom I felt were being artistically abused by their unrealistic proportions and seemingly undue salaciousness. (If you need some visual reference here, the new blog Escher Girls is committed to interrogating some of the most extreme skimpiness and impossible elasticity of female figure drawing in modern comics.)
Until a few years ago, this is why I thought I was being a good feminist by not reading Power Girl, the eponymous title of a DC Comics character whose most famous feature is the “boob window” on her costume. Yes, “boob window.” This is pretty much the accepted nomenclature for the oval absence that reveals her swelling cleavage through an otherwise skintight white spandex leotard. (A study of the history of her costume can be read here.) Whereas Superman’s chest was emblazoned with an “S” that proudly signified his Kryptonian family’s crest and Batman’s bat symbol signified, well, a bat, Power Girl’s permanent wardrobe malfunction seemed to literally embody the very worst of comics, which – despite my actual enjoyment of the medium and its newly warmed welcome at the fringes of academic interest – continued to endorse an anatomical ignorance of women’s bodies. This is even taking into account that, yes, we are talking about drawings of fictional women who are super-powered. Still, it seemed excessive. And so, as a devotee of Kathleen Hanna’s dictum of “revolution, girl style,” Power Girl was the last thing that I was supposed to want to look at.
I had arrived at this conclusion without ever having read a single issue of Power Girl in the first place, of course, which itself affirms the sad fact that I hadn’t learned anything from my deafeningly socially conscious music collection after all. To jump to a judgment based solely on bra size is perhaps as bad as just saying that all female superheroes suck – a prototypical fanboy sophistry (which I have literally heard actual human males say on more than one occasion). Because of course they don’t suck. It turns out, in fact, that Power Girl is pretty awesome. Despite a basically byzantine character biography and continuity within the shared DC Comics universe that dates back to her first appearance in 1976, Power Girl remained a member of the Justice Society of America (which is like the Justice League’s B-team – a mix of old-timers and ingénues) and was given her own ongoing title in 2009 with writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti and artist Amanda Conner. This series defied all that was static about mainstream comics by actually being fun to read. Whereas Superman could never deviate too far from his role as the world’s biggest boy scout and the brooding grittiness of Batman made him seem like kind of a bummer to be around, Power Girl was as punchy and powerful as she was annoyed with having to keep doing this shit. Saving the world and whatnot. Which, when you think about it, seems not only like a lot of hard work, but also a real impediment to ever making plans. Yes, Power Girl was still saddled with a boob window, but whatever was supposed to be sexy or titillating about the character was met with a sense of humor that juxtaposed brains with brawn (and breasts). As she balanced super heroism with the day-to-day business of running a major tech company as her secret identity Karen Starr – to say nothing of the demands of pet ownership – Power Girl became a character whose costume became less important than simply rooting for her to have an evening where she could throw on some sweatpants and do nothing like the rest of us.
Amanda Conner’s figure work is easily eclipsed by her attention to facial expressions, and as Power Girl vacillated between the joy of actually hitting space monsters and the mind-numbing tedium of constantly being hit on, Conner’s cartooning navigates the minute muscular differences between smirks and scowls. Despite her overt curves, Power Girl became a character whose character was literally written on her face. Traditional supervillains notwithstanding, Power Girl was also constantly besieged by the misguided and awkward advances of the various men and boys with whom she came into contact – ironically mirroring those male readers, I’d argue, who fail the “I’m up here” test of looking women in the eyes.
The series was therefore at its funniest and most subversive (and frankly maybe even a little feminist) when Power Girl was fighting both as a superhero and as a woman; the threat of inopportune and unwanted male attention became as persistent and tough to tackle as anything else.