Cartooning vs. Technology

Cartooning is, to me, an art form of simplification. The artist uses a minimal amount of lines to communicate characters and place to a reader. Mouths are often oddly-shaped black holes. Cartoon evolution often does away with lips, body hair, elbows. Eyebrows are reduced to lines. Eyes become dots. A background might be a line indicating where the floor and wall meet. Maybe a squiggle of distant trees, or a cloud. Maybe just a flat field of color.

Cartooning is also about communicating an idea in the briefest terms possible. It is literally a shorthand form of storytelling. If you’re making a comic strip, and that joke takes place in a restaurant and the setting is important to the joke or narrative, you damn well better explain that as quickly as possible in the first frame so you can get on with what you’ve got to say. In short, in gag cartooning things need to be made apparent.

In many ways, technology—especially consumer-driven technology—has been striving for the same thing as cartoonists for years now. Simpler, smaller, more streamlined. Minimalist. Removing as much of the object as possible, leaving only the key components (in technology’s case, the interface, the screen). Steve Jobs led the way for elegant and simple device design, and it’s a beautiful thing. But a cartoonist might reach a point where representing something in a super-simplified style when the object itself is already super-simplified becomes increasingly difficult. Let’s take a look at a few examples:

Or even worse…

And then there’s the changing technology of how people get their news…

<disdain> Ewww, gross! What is this? 2006?? </disdain>

But how do you quickly and succinctly communicate to the reader that a person is reading an iPad or an e-reader?

And let’s not forget that the rise of discreet earbuds – not introduced but certainly popularized by the iPod – makes drawing a person listening to music a less cut-and-dry endeavor. It causes the cartoonist to fall back on outdated tropes like floating music notes surrounding the listener’s head. (Which I personally never liked because they are unclear communicators. The character could be 1. Listening to music via headphones, 2. listening to music being broadcast to the room they’re in, or 3. humming. I also never liked them because they don’t hint at music genre, which in any other medium would be a huge part of the scene). At least back in The Good Old Days™ headphones were huge stupid-looking easily-identifiable headgear.

The miniaturization and simplification of interface has hit all corners of consumer electronics, and cartoonists have had to adapt as best they can. Some machines have disappeared altogether: I myself, as an under-40 old fogey, sincerely miss answering machine jokes. The voice-speaking-into-an-empty-room (or a voice speaking to a person screening their calls) is essentially an obsolete joke set-up. Voice mail, an auto-forward to a remote hard drive of compressed WAV files, has killed it. And don’t even get me started on the rich comedic vein of “don’t forget to rewind the VHS tape before you return it to the video store” jokes that have passed from this earthly realm! Or “I forgot to wind my watch” gag setups! Or writing “BOOBS” on a calculator!

Wait, I’m drifting off-topic…

Let’s not forget the still-central piece of American consumer hardware: The TV. For generations, cartoonists have drawn their own private versions of The Fat American Dimwit slouched in front of a huge, room-dominating television set.

Sturdy furniture! The grandeur! You could put a thirty pound VCR on top of it! It made mechanical noises when you changed the channel! But alas…

Why is the power light so important? Because otherwise it’s just a black rectangle. Or, even worse, they’re wall-mounted black rectangles that look like this:

Sleek but hard-to-define black rectangles. Thinner every year (the upside is that they’re super-easy to draw. Ho-ho). TVs, smartphones, computers… they’ve all been reduced to screens with thin little edges (the edges will probably go away soon, too). The only way to distinguish them visually is the size of them. A drawing of a smartphone sitting on a table might be confused with a widescreen tablet computer. There might be no way to tell which is which unless there’s a coffee cup sitting next to it to provide scale.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing sequential artists (and really, all illustrators, photographers, movie makers, and visual storytellers) who want to portray what life is like in this wonderful modern age we exist in is this:

And by doing, I mean they’re not doing anything particularly visual. They are sitting or standing, moving their eyes, maybe tapping the screen, maybe swiping. They might be doing something crucially important to the narrative of the story you’re trying to tell, or the joke you’re trying to set up, but in appearance they’re just… standin’ there. It forces the storyteller to drop a big dialogue hint to clue the reader in, like:

“Hi! I was just calling to leave you a message…”
“This Bluetooth headset is so comfortable I barely notice it!”
or maybe
“My, this is a wonderful video I am viewing on my portable media playback device!”

As interfaces with technology continue to become smaller, thinner, less obtrusive, less noticeable, and less identifiable visually, creative artists will have to continue to adapt and improve their visual communication skills. Some day soon even the small electronic devices will disappear, and this tyranny of the black rectangle will come to an end, leaving visual storytellers in an even more challenging environment: A world of people laughing, talking, and staring off into the middle distance as their neural implants amuse, entertain, and sell them things. That’ll look exciting.

See also:
* Addendum: Cartooning vs. Technology
* My gentle critique of the syndicated comic strip Close To Home
* This essay is included in my best-of comic collection Everything You Didn’t Ask For.