Annals of cartoon understanding

Here’s a cartoon I once came across:

“If the recount doesn’t work, it’s up to us.”

How do we understand what the cartoon is about?

I haven’t told you anything about when and where I came across it, and the when is important.

Really cartoon-savvy readers will recognize the artist’s signature — Schwartz — and know that that’s Benjamin Schwartz, and remember that he’s a New Yorker cartoonist. High marks for that, but even if I reveal to you that it’s a New Yorker cartoon, that doesn’t help you much in understanding it.

Two things to go on: the content of the scene in the drawing, and the content of the caption.

The scene: a young guy and an older guy (with big white hair) in what looks like a lab coat, the latter with one hand on the door of a very distinctive car: the gull-wing door of a DeLorean DMC-12, made for the American market in 1981-83. Recognizing the car involves some arcane knowledge, but if all you see is two guys with a DeLorean, you’re not much further on.

To advance on things, you need a crucial chunk of pop-cultural knowedge: you have to recognize the three participants in the scene as characters from the 1985 American movie Back to the Future (and its two sequels). From left to right: Marty McFly, Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown, and a time machine built by Doc from a modified DeLorean. So they seem to be contemplating time travel.

The caption: the reference to a recount (‘an act of counting something again, especially votes in an election’ (NOAD2)) is clearly the most significant bit of the caption. If the caption had just said, “I guess it’s up to us”, it wouldn’t have been very informative, since that’s pretty much what Doc says to Marty over and over again in the movies; they keep having to go backward or forward in time to fix things.

This is where the time element becomes important: what recount, when? There have been lots of recounts in American elections. Just in recent years, these notable ones, from a Wikipedia site:

Florida election recount, U.S. presidential election, 2000; Washington gubernatorial election, 2004; Vermont Auditor of Accounts election, 2006; Florida’s congressional elections, 2006 (Florida’s 13th congressional district); United States Senate election in Minnesota, 2008; Virginia Attorney General election, 2013; United States presidential election, 2016

If the cartoon comes from 2000, we’ll understand it one way; from 2016, another. In fact, it’s today’s morning cartoon on the magazine’s site — very much up to date, alluding to the recount in Wisconsin now set in motion, with Michigan and Pennsylvania still possibly in play.

One Response to “Annals of cartoon understanding”

  1. Steve Anderson Says:

    Thanks, Arnold. This one really puzzled me (but then, as a non-movie-goer, the back to the future stuff was quite beyond me).

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