Sunday, August 12, 2007

Territory IV: Professional Labels

Bob Flynn over at Drip! asks a question posed by many: What am I? Specifically he wonders whether to call himself an illustrator or a cartoonist. He kicks the subject around for several paragraphs, then concludes: "I've decided that maybe the word to best describe my trade is "cartooning," making me a Cartoonist. This is what...earlier pioneers described themselves as (Winsor McCay, T.S. Sullivant, Otto Mesmer, and Milt Gross...) ...[they] dabbled in the realms that I'm interested in (Illustration, Animation, and Comics)'s [an]exercise in knowing where I fit it in with my predecessors and contemporaries."

These words are loaded for those who use them. I commented thusly to M. Flynn, whom I know well:
Bob, I think your query is an intriguing one. I have been thinking about this for awhile now. I'm not so sure whether the title of "one who makes x" (cartoonist, illustrator) is as important as the thing made: an illustration, or a cartoon. Are they apples and oranges, or apples and spaceships? One tends to be more interpretive (of a text, or an implied one) and the other more independent, self-justifying. The issue of sequence does not capture the gag cartoon, so I'm not convinced that the multi-panel question is a decisive one. Really, illustration is a function, and cartoon is a language. Ultimately, I think that the key question is this: what is a cartoon? The answer will be more complex than one suspects. For the record, I think that yes, you are cartoonist, because you make use of cartoon languages to make what you make. A certain kind of visual conventionalization. You've always made cartoons. All of your "illustrations" are cartoons at heart. Finally, these are not equivalent terms, yet they stand in for intertwined and (somewhat) rival domains. Worthy of more thought...
The cultures of cartooning and illustration are distinct, and were substantially more so 100 years ago. Then the illustrators thought of themselves as painters with a purpose; they were academically trained and comparatively literary in orientation, even in advertising contexts.

By contrast, the cartoonists saw themselves as visual vaudevillians, and were often apprenticed or self-trained. There are of course many interesting points of overlap. For example, Austin Briggs, who became an illustrator's illustrator, started out in comics under Alex Raymand and banged out the Flash Gordon dailies 1940-1944. The adventure strips, in particular were produced in more illustrative styles.

This is a subject that deserves more consideration. Is it true, as I pose above in an offhand way, that cartooning is a language, and illustration a function? The variety of styles in contemporary illustration does suggest that the term can no longer be tethered to a particular approach, if ever it could, even in the beginning. Shall cartoons be defined by a related set of visual conventions, deployed in a variety of settings? Here's an interesting test case: is a late Philip Guston painting the work of a painter or a cartoonist? Although he uses as cartoon language to form his objects and characters, there can be no doubt that the objects deserve to be classified as paintings in more than a material sense.

Finally I think that these questions point out a larger problem, which is a lack of a unified field theory for the description and analysis of commercial images. These labels--more often than not, fashioned from singularly maladapted language forms--point out the difficulties posed by empirical comparisons in the absence of a larger rational framework. Have no fear: over here at Graphic Tales we're banging away in the garage on new theoretical frameworks designed to make such questions more useful and productive.

Meanwhile, I think that Bob Flynn's final thought, that these questions make the most sense in a conversation among contemporary practitioners, seems dead on. "...[An]exercise in knowing where I fit it in with my predecessors and contemporaries." In the meantime, I am sifting through the very same questions in my own studio, in an indentical spirit.

Images: Philip Guston, San Clemente, 1974; Bob Flynn, Bewilderment, posted at Drip! ( on November 15, 2006; J.C. Leyendecker, Arrow Shirt Ad, circa 1930; Austin Briggs, Flash Gordon daily strip, 1940; Guston, Painter's Table, 1970; D.B. Dowd Sam the Dog, episode 81, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 19, 1998.


Bob Flynn said...

This helps me clarify my thinking a great deal. And I'm glad to know I'm not alone in my thoughts. Cartoon as language and illustration as function is a useful distinction. Would it be correct to say that illustration is a function of cartooning, as function comes out of language? You turned me on to Guston a little while back, and I'm a admirer of his work, both superficially and intellectually. Most would argue he was an abstract expressionist riffing off the vocabulary of cartooning, and I know that a lot of critics knocked him for being representative at all. I like how you bring both artforms back to their inception (or close to it), because it does indeed appear that they were more distinct and easier to define.

Thanks for citing me and linking to my post! Though I must admit, I'm a lot sloppier in citing my sources. Got too lazy with Google image search.

Dan Z. said...

Beyond the still prevalent technology-based distinction ("cartoon = animation, illustration = print"), there is still a definite perceived aesthetic rift between the two worlds; basically the pre-supposition that cartoonists draw bug-eyes and sweat droplets and illustrators cross-hatch pirate scenes. (I'm guilty of all the above).

But then there was the famous Crumb quote (I'm paraphrasing from memory) that "if Charles Schulz called himself a 'cartoonist', that's good enough for the rest of us" and people who drew comics - especially of the non-spandex variety - all started calling themselves cartoonists, making the issue more complicated. And don't get me started on daily newspaper comic strips.

I don't really have any answers, I just don't want people - when I stand up straight and look them in the eye and tell them I'm a Cartoonist - to assume I draw Garfield. Now, if it were Beetle Bailey...

Stephen Worth said...

Cartoonists have a lot to teach illustrators and vice versa, but I think the dividing line is the root of the thing. Cartooning is at its root caricature- making fun of something observed from life. Illustration is distilling that observation into an image that communicates a specific idea. There is a continuum of grays between the two.

See ya

DB Dowd said...

Steve, great to have your comment. An intriguing POV. I tend to associate the roots of illustration with information and reportage, and the roots of cartooning with amusement. I have thought of illustration, especially in the beginning (e.g., 19th century wood engraving) as tied to observation, and cartooning as the province of caprice (grounded in observation of a kind, yes, but as a means to a comic end.) Anyway, observation as a key concept seems a fruitful direction for discussion.