Thursday, September 13, 2007

What is a Cartoon?

If the word illustration poses certain challenges due to the narrowness of meaning associated with the term, cartoon poses the opposite problem. The word cartoon seems awfully broad, stretching from animated shenanigans to concept-driven sketch with caption to certain stylistic conventions and modes of drawing. So where does it come from? I cover this in a discussion of the Danish cartoon mess of 2005-06. Below, find an entry from the Online Etymological Dictionary.
1671, from Fr. carton, from It. cartone "strong, heavy paper, pasteboard," thus "preliminary sketches made by artists on such paper," augmentive of M.L. carta "paper" (see card (n.)). Extension to comical drawings in newspapers and magazines is 1843. Cartoonist first recorded 1880.

"Punch has the benevolence to announce, that in an early number of his ensuing Volume he will astonish the Parliamentary Committee by the publication of several exquisite designs, to be called Punch's Cartoons!" ["Punch," June 24, 1843] (copyright 2001, Douglas Harper)
And for a definition of contemporary usage, here’s The American Heritage Dictionary, 2006:
car·toon (kär-toon')n.
. A drawing depicting a humorous situation, often accompanied by a caption.
. A drawing representing current public figures or issues symbolically and often satirically: a political cartoon.
. A preliminary sketch similar in size to the work, such as a fresco, that is to be copied from it.
. An animated cartoon.
. A comic strip.
A ridiculously oversimplified or stereotypical representation: criticized the actor's portrayal of Jefferson as a historically inaccurate cartoon.
Pretty minimal and non-visual, eh? No attempt to capture the visual properties of such things, aside from symbolic, humorous, satirical. These of course are not descriptive terms, but interpretive ones. “A simplified figure with an oversize head and a bulbous nose” may be symbolic, humorous, and satirical all at once, but only the descriptors tell us what it looks like. It will be up to the visually engaged to describe the underlying figural and spatial codifications that contribute to our sense of what a cartoon is.

John Kricfalusi, the creator of Ren and Stimpy, offers up thoughts on animation and related topics at All Kinds of Stuff. Like many practitioners, he has very strong opinions about the field. His thoughts on “cartoons” are directed specifically at animated cartoons, and do not really contemplate other meanings or dimensions of the term. On July 22, Kricfalusi posed a rhetorical question that I too have been contemplating in recent months: what is a cartoon? [I tried to link to this post but it only shows up in the July 2007 archive: you have to scroll down to get to it.]

Kricfalusi (often referred to as John K, for short) writes,
No one wants to do what cartoons actually are and what they do better than any other medium. At least no one in charge. The cartoonists certainly want to make cartoons and the audience would love to watch them if they existed.

I figure it's my duty to remind everyone of what cartoons are and to come up with some defining characteristics. Now remember, I don't care if people make animation that isn't cartoony for those who like that sort of thing. But SOMEONE should be making cartoons. Let's go back to our roots.
Kricfalusi goes on to itemize 5 essential components of cartoons.
1) The Funny Drawing
2) Funny Motion. [Animation that doesn't move funny should be called "animation". "Cartoon" is a very specific type of animated motion.]
3) Impossible Gags [You can draw things that can't happen. Not in real life, or in CG animation or any other medium. So why don't we anymore?]
4) Musical Timing [All classic cartoons were timed to musical rhythms or tempos. That's why they automatically feel good when you watch them. Most modern animation is timed straight ahead and actions fall haphazardly with no definite or structural relationship to each other. They feel jerky and not as fun as old cartoons.]
5) Butt Stabs [Even Walt Disney, who is mostly anti-cartoon loves a good old butt violation. All real cartoonists think the butt is the funniest part of the anatomy and tend to do an inordinate amount of butt poking and crack exposure in their cartoons. If you are ashamed of buttcracks, you are probably ashamed to be drawing cartoons and shame on you for doing it.]

I emphasize that John K is not a scholar or a critic, but rather a committed practitioner with strong opinions. Fair enough. But it is important to note, especially for students, that these requirements do not involve any serious attempt to define terms, including, crucially, cartoon itself. The unspoken essentialist definition relies on styles and tropes from the 20s into the 40s. The exhortation to “go back to our roots” imagines a prelapsarian past in which “true” animation was produced, unlike today. This scheme of decline is a common one in craft traditions. For the record, Winsor McCay was appalled at the direction animation took in the 1920s; he regarded his early work as having established an art form, and saw it discarded and nullified by the gooseneck goofiness of the animated vaudeville which followed him. McCay’s work would not meet several of these criteria.

Later, Chuck Jones would decry the influence of UPA and the limited animation style that evolved to meet new demands for television budgets. Same basic approach, which is, in truth, a conservative sentiment: the past is better than the present. You hear the same thing from many illustrators. What’s more, the sentiment is a recurring one. William Morris, John Ruskin, and the entire English Arts and Crafts movement built whole careers on a philosophy of loss from the guild tradition.

John K has a new post up yesterday (9/12/07) which expands on some of these points, a little more descriptively, under the heading of “Quality.” His visual examples are thorough and wonderful. He really is historically minded, he knows his tradition, and his tastes are broader than they seem at first. But the mournful tone about traditional loss dominates and distracts.

From any particular point of view at a given moment in time, such assessments may or may not be valid. But here at Graphic Tales, we are committed to an empirical approach, beginning with description, followed by taxonomy. I would like to test these terms against reality, to establish their applicability.


Because ultimately I am interested in culture in the broadest sense. Various traditions contribute generously to modern graphic culture—modern commercial culture, to go a step beyond that—which is in need of explicating and understanding, especially as it parallels and gradually overtakes the high visual culture industry, in a society as thoroughly commercial as ours. So I want to push at these notions in a broader frame, to see what can be gained from it.

It's important to note that I am also interested as a cartoonist, illustrator, and designer. John K's notion of impossible action is a helpful idea. The rotational-screw golfer below is a response of sorts.

This brings the definition-of-terms festival to a close for the time being. Next time, I’ll engage a set of examples to try to establish what we mean when we say “cartoon” from a visual point of view. As I have suggested, the empirical visual investigation is likely to reveal dimensions of our common understanding that do not emerge in language.

Images: animation still demonstrating John K's "impossible action" criterion, Walt Disney Productions, Steamboat Willie, 1928; animation still, John Kricfalusi, The George Liquor Christmas Show, 2006; halftone engraving, Winsor McCay drawing the Little Nemo in Slumberland character Flip in a chalk talk lecture, circa 1910; animation still, United Productions of America (UPA), Gerald McBoing-Boing, 1952; benefit golf tournament poster, D.B. Dowd, 2007.

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