Monday, September 17, 2007

Caricature, Cartoon and Melodrama

Recent discussions about terminology have dominated this blog for the past week or so. Let’s get back to the visual evidence, and engage the question of what has been described as the language of cartooning. I won’t rehash recent discussions. Suffice to say that an open question remains: in purely visual, stylistic terms, what is a cartoon?

Although the modern usage of the term can be dated to 1843, the visual antecedents of cartooning may be found in caricature, early examples of which are attributed to Da Vinci. The development of caricature as a medium and a market occurs in the 18th and 19th centuries, in England and France, respectively. The primacy of printing technology in this process cannot be overstated. (More on this another time.)

Caricature relies on systematic but localized exaggeration. The peculiarities of individual characters observed in life provide an opportunity to push beyond the merely odd to the emblemmatically odd. This panel from a Valentine’s Day Little Nemo strip captures this symbolic drive, which McCay references. The "chamber of horrors" gallery of potential valentines mortifies Nemo. Individual physical characteristics are emphasized for comic effect, and are associated with or assigned (via text labels) interpersonal or psychological defects. The proud woman is over-costumed and intensified; the snoop is given gigantic ears.

For those with caricaturing impulses, the drive to narrate, report or describe is overridden by a desire to represent or signify, often for moral, melodramatic, or instructive purposes, if not all three. It cannot be argued but that caricature and cartooning, especially in printed variants, have aligned themselves with editorial purposes. (The “gag cartoon,” as it is termed, of the kind seen in The New Yorker and Playboy, to cite two important historical examples, is an exception.) Rowlandson's "Transplanting of Teeth" image at the top of this post provides an editorial take on the Georgian practice of securing teeth from the lower classes for (ineffective) implantation in the mouths of the rich. The coding of victimhood is provided especially by color: the tooth "donor" (a seller, to be sure) looks like the color of death. The frivolous rich are decorated by flamboyant hairdos and engaged in symbolic vanity.

The caricaturist's gifts can be cunningly deployed in other contexts. Norman Rockwell, for example, delivers hidden caricature to add emphasis and effect to his illustration. His volumetric handling and painterly verisimilitude mask the subtle but thoroughgoing exaggeration of his characters. Rockwell's exaggerations are minute, but extremely purposeful.

The most common associations with the word cartoon today revolve around animated cartoons. This strand of cartooning took a somewhat different route, focusing on entertainment and amusement largely free of political content. The roots of the performer-cartoonist can be found in the now-remote medium of "chalk talk," a variant of vaudeville that featured a self-possessed artist and a drawing pad. Thomas Nast and Winsor McCay both accepted lucrative engagements as chalk talk performers, the latter more eagerly than the former. McCay, a true entertainer, would have preferred to spend his days in comics and animation, but was chained to editorial cartooning by the Herald and Hearst, who kept him to his contract.

Animated cartoons have been enlisted in propaganda efforts from time to time, especially in World Ward Two. Recent releases from the former Soviet Union have included state-funded propaganda cartoons. From a satirical point of view, Cold Warrior mockeries made their way into Jay Ward’s Rocky and Bullwinkle in the early 1960s.

This post criss-crosses over the terrain of caricature. Sorry for the meandering path. But here is the argument I want to explore. Even if you wave off all propaganda and political satire, the melodramas of identification which are basic to fiction and intensified by the exaggerated languages of caricature remain in force in its descendant forms. I think that some of the scorn reserved for animated kiddie stuff has to do with the high degree of moral coding involved in the scripting and design. Good guys tend to be really good guys, and bad guys really bad. Likewise the tendency toward caricature in Rockwell eliminates the potential for diffidence and ambiguity, which simultaneously heightens and narrows our experience of the image. I think this is a hazard that descends from the heritage of caricature. The tension between identification and melodrama is a dangerous one. But this is as true for The Executions on the Third of May as it is for your average Rockwell illustration.

Note: this post has been substantially edited since I posted it very early this morning in a bleary state. I will be back to update an image or two and cite images more formally later.

Next time: beyond caricature and symbolic exaggeration, to distillation and abstraction.

Images:[Rowlandson, Da Vinci copyist, Thomas Nast, Winsor McCay, Norman Rockwell, Saturday Evening Post cover, [date]; Chalk Talk book, circa 1900; Bill Hines and Jay Ward, Rocky and Bullwinkle animation still, 1962; Bambi comic cover, [date].

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