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Updated on January 10, 2017

The purpose of a cartoon may be education, advertisement, entertainment, or any combination of these aims. Television commercials, for example, are often animated cartoons whose entertainment value is used to sell the sponsor's product. Political cartoons are intended to educate, as well as amuse, the reader.

The word "cartoon" originally meant an artist's full-size preliminary sketch, which he used as a model for his final work. In 1843 a series of such cartoons was exhibited in London to show new designs for the walls of the houses of Parliament. Punch, a comic weekly magazine, published a series of its own cartoons making fun of the designs, and the word "cartoon" acquired its modern meaning. In the fine arts, however, a cartoon is still a preliminary drawing for stained glass, fresco or mural painting, tapestry, and mosaic.

Panel Cartoons

The single drawing contained in a panel is the basis of all cartooning. Most panel cartoons humorously caricature a social type, institution, or situation.

Newspapers. Almost all daily newspapers in the United States feature regular panel cartoons. Two men raised the art of newspaper panel cartooning to its highest level. The first was Clare Briggs, who began, in the early 1900's, to explore the inner feelings of youth, of people living in small towns, and of newly-weds. Such titles as When a Feller Needs a Friend and That Guiltiest Feeling indicate his subject matter. The second was Harold Tucker Webster, who also dealt with the feelings and habits of the average man. He poked gentle fun at bridge, fishing, husbands and wives, small boys, and adolescents. His most famous character is Casper Milquetoast, whose name has become a synonym for over-timidity.

Most newspaper panels portray the humorous situations that grow out of daily life in the United States. George Clark's Neighbors and William Galbraith Crawford's Side Glances stress middle-class family comedy. Out Our Way, drawn for 35 years by J. R. Williams, presented vignettes of small-town, lower-middle-class life. Life in the suburbs is satirized by Dudley Fisher's Right Around Home. Fisher usually pokes fun at the confusion and misunderstanding of such traditional occasions as picnics, family reunions, or Halloween.

Perhaps the only outstanding panel to deal with lower-class city life was Denys Wortman's Everyday Movies. His, cast of characters included sailors, shoppers, daydreaming secretaries, park-bench bums, workmen, clerks, and salesmen. Between the early 1900's and the late 1950's, Fontaine Fox's Toonerville Folks centered around a fantastic trolley with passengers like strangely animated mechanical toys. Fox's tricks with perspective, his oddly tilted horizons, poles, people, vehicles, and animals, conveyed the "loony" quality of modern life.

Magazines. In the United States, The New Yorker magazine has been a leading influence in the development of the satirical panel cartoon. It has published almost a thousand cartoons a year since it was founded in 1925. Its list of contributors has included such outstanding cartoonists as Peter Arno, Samuel Cobean, Charles Addams, James Thurber, and Saul Steinberg. By the 1950's there was hardly a periodical in the United States that did not have some form of panel cartooning.

Some of the best-known panel cartoons outside America are those in the English magazine Punch. It is the oldest continuing source of humorous cartoons in the world. Since the 1850 s. Punch cartoons have been devoted primarily to social satire. Punch cartoons mock the follies of all levels of society and of people who try to climb from one level to another.

Political Cartoons

American editorial, or political, cartooning grew out of the European tradition of caricature and political criticism. In 18th-century England and France satirical prints criticized unwise or corrupt governmental practices and the unjust concentration of power and privilege. During the colonial period. American cartoonists attacked England and its Parliament regularly. Benjamin Franklin was the best-known early American cartoonist. His most famous cartoon depicted a snake cut into segments which were labeled with the names of the states. The legend underneath was Join or Die.

The first major political cartoonist in the United States was Thomas Nast, who became prominent during the Reconstruction period. His favorite target was Tammany, the powerful and corrupt Democratic political machine in New York City led by William ("Boss") Tweed. In one year of fierce attacks, Nast destroyed the Tammany machine. Nast also created such well-known symbols as the Tammany tiger, the Republican elephant, and the Democratic donkey.

Late 19th Century. In the 1880's the corrupt practices of political bosses and big industrialists were attacked by Bernard Gillam and Joseph Keppler. Gillam became famous with a series of "Tattooed Man" cartoons featuring James Gillespie Elaine, the Republican candidate for President in 1884. Elaine appeared in a variety of settings with his and his party's political errors tattooed on his body. One of the most influential political cartoons in American history also appeared during the 1884 campaign. Drawn by Walt McDougall for the New York World, it was captioned The Royal Feast of Belshazzar and the Money Kings. This cartoon has been credited with helping to turn New York, and with it the election, from Elaine to his Democratic rival, Grover Cleveland.

During the 1890's, cartooning style began to shift away from the traditionally cluttered drawings of the 19th century toward quicker wit and more immediate impact. Backgrounds were almost eliminated, and crowds were reduced to two or three primary figures. Cartoonists began to work with symbols and caricatures that had only a small amount of explanation.

The 20th Century. John T. McCutcheon was the outstanding political cartoonist from 1900 to 1920. As early as 1903 the Chicago Tribune published his drawings in color on the front page. By this time the political cartoon had become a daily feature of American newspapers. In the 1920's a new generation of cartoonists, led by Rollin Kirby and Daniel R. Fitzpatrick, attacked what they considered to be the injustices and inequalities of America's political and economic system. Such cartoonists as Art Young, Robert Minor, and William Glackens were disillusioned with American society during and after World War I. When the stock market crash came in 1929, many of the sardonic drawings of 1920 seemed justified, and political cartoonists became even more influential.

The single-figure cartoon with a sharp contrast of black and white was established by Rollin Kirby and carried on by Edmund Duffy. Almost all cartoonists since the 1930's have used the sharp-contrast technique. Political cartooning has been maintained at a high level by men like Herbert L. Block, known as Herblock.

Editorial cartooning has become an important aspect of journalism, and many awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, are given for excellence in the field. The work of syndicated cartoonists, such as John Fischetti, appears in several hundred newspapers at the same time. The New York Times is the only major U.S. newspaper that does not run a daily political cartoon.

Sports Cartoons

The United States is the only country where sports cartooning flourishes. In the 20th century, however, this form has had increasingly greater competition from photography. Sketches of exciting events come a day later than the photographer's pictures and so cannot compare with them for immediate coverage. However, sports cartooning has more individuality.

Another advantage of the cartoon is the opportunity it gives to comment on rather than merely report an event. Many readers have strong opinions about famous athletes, changes in policies or rules, decisions made by owners and managers, and other daily developments. These opinions may be reflected in sports cartoons, just as political opinions are reflected in editorial cartoons.

Famous Sports Cartoonists. One of the first and greatest of the sports cartoonists was Thomas Aloysius Dorgan. "Tad" exposed the sordid and brutal side of sports and opposed the hero worship and hypocrisy surrounding star athletes. In contrast, his contemporary Bob Edgren idealized sports personalities by making them look like classic Greek athletes. He was the first of a long line of hero-worshipers, and his approach is essentially the one that has prevailed. Willard Mullin, who draws for the New York World-Journal and other papers, is probably the best-known sports cartoonist of modern times. He invented the dilapidated figure of the Brooklyn Dodger "bum," which has been copied by many of his colleagues. Other outstanding modern sports cartoonists include Karl Hubenthal of the Los Angeles Examiner, Lou Darvas of the Cleveland Press, Bob Bowie of the Denver Post, and John Pierotti of the New York Post.

Animated Cartoons

The first animated cartoons were exhibited in 1831. They were crude drawings rapidly turned on a disk and viewed through slits. Animated cartoons, as they are now known, were first created by Jemile Cohl at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1906, J. Stuart Blackton made the first American cartoon, Humorous Phases of Funny Faces. During World War I many well-known comic-strip characters, including Krazy Kat, Popeye, Felix the Cat, and the Katzenjammer Kids, first appeared on the screen. In 1917, Max Fleischer introduced a famous series, called Out of the Inkwell, which combined live-action photography with animated drawings.

The best-known and most active producer of animated cartoons is Walt Disney. In 1928 he made the first animated cartoon with sound, Steamboat Willie, which introduced his famous character Mickey Mouse. In 1937 he produced the first feature-length cartoon, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. During this period, Disney added Donald Duck and other animals to his cast of characters.

The animal cartoon, as popularized by Disney, Paul Terry, and others, features slapstick chases and battles. Dog against cat and cat against mouse have always been among the favorite combinations. Violence is the rule, although cartoon characters have never been known to bleed. Severe bumps on the head swell and disappear with equal rapidity. Action, miraculous feats, bright color contrasts, and animals with human qualities are the common fairy-tale ingredients.

Until the 1940's, European animated cartoonists were more artistically daring than their American colleagues. They drew upon mythology and legend or upon philosophical ideas. In Germany, Oskar Fischinger made abstract cartoons set to classical music, and Lotte Reiniger used black-paper silhouettes to create interesting compositions. The French made satirical cartoons aimed at adult audiences, rather than at children. In England, Len Lye made cartoons which used color, light, and movement abstractly.

European experimentation influenced American cartoonists after World War II. Norman McLaren made an abstract cartoon called The Loon's Necklace, and Mary Ellen Bute made Color Rhapsodic and Polka Graph. In the 1950's United Productions of America (UPA) produced such refreshingly novel works as the Gerald McBoing-Boing series and the Mr. Magoo cartoons. UPA has also experimented with abstract colors and shapes.


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      Joseph S. Colello 

      8 years ago

      Great primer. Many thanks.


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