Cartoons as Art? Of Course!

15 April 2002

   Cartoons are a colourful thread woven through the fabric of our lives. They are such an integral part of each day that we perhaps don't appreciate their artistic value. We hurriedly seek cartoons out in the morning papers to start the day with a chuckle, or to confirm our thoughts on politics.

    Fans look for comics in books and magazines. Little squares of funnies get taped to doors, stuck by magnets to fridges and posted on message boards. We get attached to their familiar style, their characters and plot lines and to each cartoonist's particular sense of humour.

    We also need to see them as they truly are: works of art.

    Each panel, comic strip or caricature is carefully planned. It is painstakingly drawn, inked and coloured. Cartoons range from simple yet enticing line drawings, such as "Cathy" by Cathy Guisewite or intricately detailed, like the work of Rube Goldberg, creator of "The Inventions."

    A common thread for cartoonists is their desire to draw, to be artists, from a very young age. Many begin doodling and cartooning when they are just old enough to get a crayon to cooperate with their little fingers. The yearning to draw distracts them from schoolwork. And it leaves a legacy of textbooks with imaginative cartoons scribbled on the pages and covers.

    There are as many themes of cartooning as there are cartoonists. Family sagas have a popular following. "For Better or For Worse" by Lynn Johnston follows the Patterson family. Readers have watched, cheered and cried as John and Ellie raised a young family, suffered deaths and disasters, started business and now have moved on to be grandparents in the near future. The popular cartoon is not just a quick laugh. Lynn Johnston draws readers in and turns them into fans with her good storylines and expressive, consistent drawings.

    Peanuts, by beloved late Charles Schulz, celebrated 50 years of success in 2000.
Millions of people grew up watching Charlie Brown trying his best to succeed no matter what the obstacle. We watched Snoopy battle the Red Baron as the Flying Ace, and Linus do some nifty moves with his security blanket. Schulz showed us that grumpy Lucy had feelings too, and that the Christmas Story is universally loved. That was a big mission for a cartoon.

    Animals, creatures, inanimate objects and aliens make fun at themselves and human behaviour through the pens of cartoonists. There is no limit to the cartoon artist's creativity.

    Art galleries are celebrating the art of cartoonists. Al Hirschfeld produces stylized, flowing caricatures of stars and celebrities. His work appears in galleries around the USA: The Smithsonian, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Portrait Gallery. (Lithographs and etchings of his work start at $650 US.)

    The Norman Rockwell Museum, in Stockbridge, MA, is displaying the work of Charles Schulz in "Speak Softly and Carry a Beagle." The University of Iowa recently held a National Cartooning Symposium through their School of Journalism and Mass Communications. There are several museums exclusively for cartooning. The Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco is exhibiting (among others) the art of Bill Watterson, with "Calvin and Hobbes: Sunday Pages, 1985 to 1995." In April, the "Art of Spiderman" will be on display.

    The International Museum of Cartoon Art in Boca Raton, Fla is showing "One Hundred Years of The American Newspaper Comic Strip." The San Francisco Cartoon Art Museum currently features Disney Villains and Wildbrain: The Art of Animation. There are many virtual cartoon museums bursting with information and cartoons, too.

    Editorial and political cartoonists are quick portrait artists. They draw their subjects with great accuracy, then take the reader to the heart of the daily issues. Their strong messages may be hilariously funny or woefully sad. Their art leaves the reader with a poignant view of current events.

    Cartoons give us perspectives in kindness, religion and philosophy. They teach us life lessons in single panel jabs and four-panel bites. They urge us to think about the world around us, to laugh, and sometimes, to cry.

   Isn't that what art is all about?

   Websites: Hirschfeld) (Norman Rockwell Museum) (The home site of Charles Schulz) (Lynn Johnston's For Better or For Worse site)

© Susanna McLeod 2002  
(Originally published in The Cartoonists on