Comic machines

In a set of fairy tale postcards put out by Dover, this arresting illustration for Perrault’s “Beauty and the Beast”:

It turns out to be the work of Heath Robinson, the well-known cartoonist.

From Wikipedia:

William Heath Robinson (signed as W. Heath Robinson, 31 May 1872 – 13 September 1944) was an English cartoonist and illustrator, best known for drawings of eccentric machines.

In the UK, the term “Heath Robinson” has entered the language as a description of any unnecessarily complex and implausible contraption, similar to “Rube Goldberg” in the U.S. “Heath Robinson” is perhaps more often used in relation to temporary fixes using ingenuity and whatever is to hand, often string and tape, or unlikely cannibalisations. Its popularity is undoubtedly linked to Second World War Britain’s shortages and the need to “make do and mend”.

… His early career involved illustrating books – among others: Hans Christian Andersen’s Danish Fairy Tales and Legends (1897); The Arabian Nights, (1899); Tales From Shakespeare (1902), and Twelfth Night (1908), Andersen’s Fairy Tales (1913), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1914), Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies (1915), and Walter de la Mare’s Peacock Pie (1916).

The drawing above is from Charles Perrault’s Old-Time Stories (translated by A. E. Johnson, illustrated by Robinson), Dodd, Mead, 1921.

Robinson’s cartoons show complex machines for doing unlikely tasks, like this “American Suction Tank for drawing the enemy from his dug-out”:

and absurdly complex machines for doing simple tasks, as here:

The captions are important in understanding these (otherwise wordless) cartoons. I’ll come back to that point in a moment.

First, a few words on other machine cartoonists. First, Rube Goldberg:

Reuben Lucius Goldberg (July 4, 1883 – December 7, 1970) was an American cartoonist, sculptor, author, engineer and inventor.

He is best known for a series of popular cartoons depicting complex gadgets that perform simple tasks in indirect, convoluted ways. These devices, now known as Rube Goldberg machines, are similar to those drawn by W. Heath Robinson in the UK and Storm P in Denmark. (link)

Two Goldbergs:

Again, the captions are important.

Then, Storm P:

Robert Storm Petersen (19 September 1882 – 6 March 1949) was a Danish cartoonist, writer, animator, illustrator, painter and humorist. He is known almost exclusively by his pen name Storm P.

[among his comics] Peter og Ping (“Peter and Ping”), 1922-1949 was his greatest success, a comic strip about a small citizen and his friend (or adopted son) Ping, a speaking penguin. Their experiences in Copenhagen, spiced by Ping’s absurd expressions and jokes, were extremely popular and even led to the foundation of a Ping Club for children.

A “chain reaction” cartoon by Storm P:

and a thumbnail of Ping:

Now, on drawings, text, and captions, a quotation from “Lolcats and captions” (link):

Ordinary captions associate text with photos, in books, newspapers, magazines, and the like, but normally without language play. The classic locus for playful captioning is the cartoon (huge numbers of examples on this blog and Language Log; and see the New Yorker cartoon competition here), though wordless cartoons are common, and occasionally text on its own is framed as a cartoon.

There are also loci for text — humorous or serious — on its own: slogans on t-shirts, bumper stickers, buttons, posters, and so on, though t-shirts often combine text and image (as here). And there are various mixtures of text and image, with different functions and intents; see the links to “Some postings on this blog on conceptual art, language-based pop art, conceptual cartooning, and visual puns” here.

In this complex world, LOLcats are close to the text-oriented end of the scale, though the cats aren’t dispensable. But the art is mostly in the captioning. (Compare the Ryan Gosling “Hey girl” captions linked to here.)

And one from “Wordless cartoons, wordless-only cartoons” (link):

Cartoons usually have both a picture and a caption (or speech bubbles), but there are limiting cases in both directions: pure sight gags and slogans presented as cartoons, for example.

Close to the words-only end of the scale are, for instance, Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics, considered here, and Dante Shepherd’s Surviving the World, considered here: captioning as art.

Related postings: “Captioning: more is it art?” (here), on Blunt Cards and Lichtenstein; and “The commencement pun crop” (here), on (inter alia) Simon Drew’s pun art.

Here we are in hazy territory, where people are unclear about what’s art (high art, pop art, conceptual art), what’s literature, what’s cartoons, what’s comics, what’s illustration, what’s caricature, what’s graphics, and what’s sloganeering; the systems of categorization are unsettled — and couldn’t possibly be settled, since they reflect changing cultural alignments with audiences, plus innovation and genre hybridization.

As a result, artists often fall into several categories: Robinson is a cartoonist and illustrator (depending on where his work appears, the intent of the work, and the audience for it), Goldberg is a cartoonist and writer, Storm P is a cartoonist, writer, illustrator, and painter, Raymond Briggs is an illustrator (of children’s books) and graphic novelist, Maurice Sendak is an illustrator and writer (of children’s books), Saul Steinberg is classified as “cartoonist and illustrator”, and Reginald Marsh is both artist (by virtue of his paintings) and illustrator. Illustrators of children’s books are rarely labeled as artists, unless they exhibit works in standard media (like oils) in galleries, and writers of children’s books are rarely labeled as writers, period, unless they also write for an adult audience; the children’s book world is a kind of artistic ghetto, probably for marketing reasons. (Edward Gorey is classified as a “writer and artist”, rather than an illustrator or cartoonist, presumably on the basis of his adult audience and his publishing books rather than in magazines, while Charles Addams is usually labeled simply a “cartoonist”, presumably because of his association with the New Yorker.)

It’s a complex world.


2 Responses to “Comic machines”

  1. Eamonn McManus Says:

    I do believe that’s Professor Branestawm in the pancake-making machine illustration.

  2. Professor Branestawm « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] McManus comments on my “Comic machines” posting: I do believe that’s Professor Branestawm in the pancake-making machine illustration [by W. Heath […]

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