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Why Are Cartoons Effective?

Updated on May 18, 2015
What the modern day computer user can create with hardly any talent.  This is my own self work.
What the modern day computer user can create with hardly any talent. This is my own self work. | Source

It’s Just Pictures, Right?

A picture says a thousand words. This is no excuse for not reading.

We buy the papers. We read the news and we’re depressed. Yes, we could read the latest humor byline by Dave Barry and his ilk, but sometimes we’re too tired and lazy to do that. What do we do then? We read the funnies. We see a group of drawing with a joke and a punchline and, for a nanosecond, we feel good.

We live in a visual world. For those of us who are not blind, it is my opinion that our most important primary sense is what we get through our eyes. Most of us read through our eyes to experience the thoughts and impressions left to us by a writer. When we can’t use our eyes we have to go to a more complex method of braille or audio books. And even with audiobooks, it is a different experience because we become less reflective on what we take in.

Then there’s art. The true artist is looking to draw out an emotion – whether this is done through the literal image of what we understand as reality or in something that is done in the abstract, we can be affected by the content of what we see.

The pure gestalt and impact of a concept is done best with a picture. It will smack you in the head.

Now I know what you’re thinking. That’s really nice artsy-fartsy stuff you’re spewing but the title of this piece has something to do with cartoons. What do cartoons have to do with art and communication?


They are our first bit of media. They are our communication when we don’t have a voice. They are efficient. They are effective. They are what separate us from the animals we used to hunt.

Sometimes all you need is one panel.
Sometimes all you need is one panel. | Source

The Oldest Form of Communication

Cartoons are our oldest form of visual storytelling.

While it is true that many a native would dance naked by the fireside reenacting his hunt or his successful panicking escape from a bear, that story was good for the five or six people who were there when he did his dance. When he wanted his story to go for the long haul, he’d paint his story on the wall of a cave using whatever primitive goo he could get to smear on a wall.

When we didn’t do that, we made our form of written communication in pictures. When you think about it, that’s what hieroglyphics were. You’d have a picture of a man and then an eye or an ear mixed with the image of a god or goddess telling the story of religion or a really good myth.

Of course, over the millennia, the effectiveness of these pictures faded with the cultures that spawned them. So, it’s easy to understand why modern man can’t really intuit what the ancient Egyptians had to say based on their pictures.

We have a lot to thank the Phoenicians for – principally for the concept of a consonantal form of an alphabet. But before that happened, we had pictures.

Thomas Nast's Boss Tweed Cartoon
Thomas Nast's Boss Tweed Cartoon | Source

Do you prefer literature with no pictures or with some kind of illustration.

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What are Cartoons and why are they Effective

Let me fast forward to after the printing press and what we term as the first glimmerings of modern media. When we started producing newspapers, we put a story with a picture. Eventually, newspapers began producing cartoons within their papers.

We have to remember that back before we had public schooling, we had high illiteracy rates within this country and people needed to know what was going on. Enter the cartoonist.

Cartoon drawings were not originally for children. Although what we can say is that cartoon drawings for children in the media can be traced back to the early 1800’s. Even more so, satire drawing can be traced back to the 18th and 19th centuries and were usually done for political or propagandistic reasons.

The word “cartoon” is from the Italian word “cartone” and the Dutch word “karton” meaning “strong, heavy paper, or pasteboard”. They were full sized drawings on sturdy paper. Cartoons in their modern context are humorous drawings with the intent of making humor.

Cartoonists like E.H. Shepherd and Thomas Nast made their points in editorial cartoons that the common man – who didn’t necessarily need to read – could understand. Nast’s cartoons were particularly poignant against New York Crime Boss William M. Tweed. You didn’t need to read when you saw Tweed’s head on the body of a vulture or if Tweed’s head was made from a bag of money.

Cartoons for Humor

Rodolphe Töpffer, Austrian teacher and caricature artist, was considered the father of modern comic strips. He began writing illustrations for adventure stories in a panel format. In 1865, illustrator Wilhelm Busch created a strip called “Max and Moritz” a story about two trouble making boys. This inspired Rudolph Dirks to come up with the “Katzenjammer Kids” – a strip which was pivotal in its use of modern day symbols such as swirling stars for a person dizzy or in pain, as well as thought and speech balloons.

Comics for humor have varied over the years from daily comics that were anywhere from one large panel to a three to four panel strip. In that strip you’d get a familiar character creating the setup, the make-up, and the punch line. The use of words within the comic strip depended upon the preference of the cartoonist writer.

Famous for creating a one panel setup with punch line sometimes with or without actual dialogue was Gary Larson’s “Far Side”. It takes some thought to get an entire concept and a joke with one picture or one picture and a description box. But Larson was able to do it for years.

Yes, we owe some of our emotional well-being to art humorists like Larson. They give the healing through laughter.

A cartoon of a typical car ride with my wife.
A cartoon of a typical car ride with my wife. | Source

Final Words

I had an interesting experience through Facebook today.

Conservative friends of mine (as if conservatives can really have friends) tagged me in some commentary about an Obama political cartoon. I saw it and because I have more than two brain cells scraping together, I didn’t think it was funny. It has a very targeted audience – right wing conspiracy theorists that think Obama is ignoring the Benghazi incident, using the IRS against the Tea Party as a weapon and showing our President as a complete incompetent. I’ve discovered you have to let Republicans have these little outlets because if you don’t, they just buy up all the coloring books in a store and insist on coloring in the lines and stuff.

In any event, I was tagged for my comment to this. They asked me what I, the rabid liberal, thought. I said, “It’s a cartoon.” I followed it up with, “That’s when someone draws a picture and attempts to make humor.”

I tried to use small words.

Then I thought about it. While it was a cartoon, it really was nothing more than an illustration made in the tradition of what Thomas Nast did. Although, in order for it to be funny, it would have needed to be clever or give an immediate message. It was more or less effective because it showed the President ignorant of things that are important to Republicans but was countered by his claim to know all about his own health policies – thus showing anti-Obama fans that we shouldn’t have confidence in our leader.

Someone laughed… I think.

That same person would laugh at a fake dog turd or a water boutonniere. The author used an illustration to make that target audience laugh. He’ll draw another day’s paycheck from that published work. Job well done – he knows his demographic.

It could have been better though – or it, at least, could have been more effective. I know that I could improve upon it by using some of Nast’s techniques. He could have had an advisor show some placards to the President. On a tripod, he could have had a label “Focus On” Obamacare with all of the other suggestions in a trashcan. Although, I’m sure the original author wanted to say Benghazi, IRS, and AP because conservatives like saying those things out of habit. My suggestion would have been better because I really didn’t need to use any words – I let the image do the talking.

As I said, we are a visual people. We watch TV. We read comic books, graphic novels, cartoons, and manga. We watch cartoons and computer generated images. There is something about the visual experience that makes part of our minds stand up and notice.

And that’s the part we, as communicators, need to go for. More than the words, we need the concepts. More than the concepts, we need the message. More than the message, we need the emotion that it stirs.

When the communicator fails at that, he hasn’t done his job.


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    • cperuzzi profile imageAUTHOR

      Christopher Peruzzi 

      6 years ago from Freehold, NJ

      If you're referring to the Thomas Nast cartoons, there was definite caricatures in his cartoons. He made his drawings of Boss Tweed recognizable enough for him to be recognized, yet at the same time he transmogrified him into animals or other kinds of monstrosities. Did Nast invent caricatures? No.

    • Dominique L profile image

      Dominique L 

      6 years ago from Oregon

      Well done, as usual. But you have me curious about caricture now. In your research, did it kind of come from the same origin as the ones you mentioned above?

    • cperuzzi profile imageAUTHOR

      Christopher Peruzzi 

      6 years ago from Freehold, NJ

      So long as I have access to this cartoon program, I'll be adding this regularly to my posts.


    • spartucusjones profile image

      CJ Baker 

      6 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Enjoyable read! I agree that the visual appeal had a certain element that is sometimes missing from just the written word. I also got a kick out of your cartoons.


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