A few years ago I stumbled upon (electronically, because somebody left it right there in the middle of the internet) the blog of the British illustrator Michael Renouf, who challenged himself to post one drawing a day, more or less. He stated that they were supposed to be silly, with no particular theme.
He made me question my definition of “silly,” because these drawings are expertly crafted visual puns. Some are topical or illustrate a certain editorial idea, some are purely for fun, and a lot of them require a rewarding second look in order to spy the subtle “joke.” But they’re almost all clever and inventive, especially considering how many he did – several hundred, until pausing in December. Anyone who has tried their hand at illustration or political cartooning knows how hard it is to truly combine familiar images or icons in a fresh way (Bob Staake’s cover for this week’s New Yorker is another example of how to do it right), and so I’ve been amazed at how ingenious and how effortless some of these are. But enough of my yapping. I’ve posted a few random ones below, but you should go to Michael’s blog and spend some time sorting through them yourself.
If you’re lucky enough to be dining with cartoonists on your birthday, and if you’re also lucky enough to be dining at a restaurant where they don’t mind people drawing on the tablecloth and ripping it apart, then you might get some gifts like this. Sam Gross, Sidney Harris, Karen Sneider, and Bob Eckstein all drew me some cake, “colored in” with coffee and wine. Thanks, lady and gents. Notice how nobody actually wrote my name on any of them? I am so going to regift these to other people.
One of the first times I went into Bob (cartoon editor of the New Yorker) Mankoff’s office he said something to me about people’s needing to “get over their infatuation with their own brilliance.” Those weren’t his exact words, but that was the sentiment. It was a blanket statement against cartoonists in general, but it was made while he was commenting on one of mine specifically. My initial reaction was “who does he think he is?”
And then I realized he was right. It’s great advice, and it doesn’t just pertain to cartoonists. It’s universal. If you’re a creative person you need a solid sense of confidence in your own material, but you also need a healthy suspicion that your material might not be all that special. It’s helped me to try and push myself.
The ephemeral nature of the cartoon world often brings this issue to the forefront. When a new idea enters the cultural consciousness, it seems as if every cartoonist is there to pounce on it at the same time, but we all think we’re the first one. We all thought of swines getting the human flu and we all thought Lincoln would have Tweeted the Gettysburg Address. Half of my good ideas, it seems, have already been thought of by somebody else, and many of the ideas I think are so fantastic are really just awful ideas that only appear fantastic in the moment because they are mine.
And that’s the case, I’m pretty sure, with this cartoon. It was actually destined for publication at one point, but eventually the magazine returned it to me via the FedEx envelope of death, and I don’t really blame them. It’s not worthy, and probably never was.
Choosing the right words for a caption is harder than it seems. You can’t have too many words or too few, and they’ve got to communicate the right things. They’ve got to sound natural to whatever your particular character would say. There are a lot of potential captions you could insert into the above image, but I chose the simplest one, and one that let the image stand by itself, rather than try to make a pun or some other joke on top of the initial idea. I’ve observed the same principle in everyday signage, and so I’d like to illustrate the point.
Here’s an example of using way too many words to make your point. When did “Employees Must Wash Hands Before Returning to Work” become insufficient? Which of you North Carolina lawyers is to blame for this? If you’re going to write at this level of detail, I’m going to be forced to read this sign in a whole new way, and not the way the signmakers want. Shouldn’t it be each employee’s “hand”? What is an Approved Hand-Drying Device, and how do I know that there is one in this bathroom? Does the soap need to be approved also, or are we using some rogue brand of hand cleaner? I was surprised to see this sign in a Carolina fast food joint, because it looks like it came from a Massachusetts government building.
Here is an example of using too few words. This sign is pretty clear, but it really should say “HOLD YOUR CHILD’S HAND,” right? If I’m a parent I might choose my child having to contend with the collapsing escalator steps rather than having to fend off strangers trying to hold my child’s hand. Especially because this sign is from an escalator at Port Authority.
And sometimes you nail the caption, but the idea just doesn’t cut it. Because the terrifying set of problems that you unleash on yourself when you eat one of these 99 cent things speaks a lot louder than the problem of hunger that you “solve.”
This blog is about cartoons. Comics. Keen observations. Parking tickets. Graphic novels. Light hors d'oeuvres. Permanent markers. Ransom notes. Shakespeare. The funny-looking coffee stain on your shirt. Stuff like that.
Words, Pictures, Humor · This blog is about cartoons. Comics. Keen observations. Parking tickets. Graphic novels. Light hors d'oeuvres. Permanent markers. Ransom notes. Shakespeare. The funny-looking coffee stain on your shirt. Stuff like that.