Further adventures in cartoon understanding

Today’s WaynoVision cartoon and a New Yorker cartoon by Seth Fleishman from 7/3/16 (brought to my attention by Juan Gomez):



Then more about Fleishman, who’s relatively new to the New Yorker.

The cartoon understanding questions are: what’s going on is this cartoon? and why might it be funny?

Many cartoons require considerable cultural knowledge (which children and outsiders to the culture might not have), and some are more enjoyable if you recognize that they are instances of one or more cartoon memes — in effect, variations on a cultural theme.

The pirate ship. To get #1, you have to recognize that the setting is a pirate ship — the cartoon is an instance of a general Pirate cartoon theme — and that it’s important that the two characters on the left are not only pirates (a captain and a hand), but in fact peglegged pirates; this is an instance of the Pegleg Pirate cartoon meme (an even more specific meme is Captain Ahab and the White Whale).

The character on the right is a pirate deckhand (signaled by the gold earring and leather vest), swabbing the deck. But of course you must also recognize that this hand is a beaver (note, among other things, the brown fur, the teeth, and the big flat tail). That’s absurd, and therefore at least worth a chuckle.

But the cartoon is really funny only if you know a piece of basic beaver information, namely that the creatures are fools for chewing on pieces of wood, to build their dams. And if you understand peglegs are in fact standardly pieces of wood (though they could be made of any stiff durable material; wood is just the most easily available such material).

So the deckhand might well be made anxious by a beaver on board.

The coffeepot. In #2 the guy is filling a glass pot with water. Bizarrely, the guy has no mouth, and the top of his head has been opened to reveal, not brains, but a white fluted material holding a dark substance. This is just incomprehensibly weird (rather than amusing) unless you recognize the pot, the fluted material, and the dark material as three components of a drip coffeemaker: the pot that supplies water and also holds brewed coffee; a paper filter; and ground coffee beans. From Wikipedia:

Brewed coffee is made by pouring hot water onto ground coffee beans, then allowing to brew. There are several methods for doing this, including using a filter, a percolator, and a French press. Terms used for the resulting coffee often reflect the method used, such as drip brewed coffee, filtered coffee, pour-over coffee, or simply ground coffee. Water seeps through the ground coffee, absorbing its oils and essences, solely under gravity, then passes through the bottom of the filter. The used coffee grounds are retained in the filter with the liquid falling (dripping) into a collecting vessel such as a carafe or pot.

Paper coffee filters were invented in Germany by Melitta Bentz in 1908 and are commonly used for drip brew all over the world. In 1954 the Wigomat, invented by Gottlob Widmann, was patented in Germany being the first electrical drip brewer. Drip brew coffee makers replaced the coffee percolator in the 1970s due to the percolators’ tendency to over-extract coffee, thereby making it bitter. One benefit of paper filters is that the used grounds and the filter may be disposed of together, without a need to clean the filter.

Such devices are a common part of office culture. A moderately complex machine:


The aspects of #2 that are crucial to understanding it and to finding it funny — the guy is operating a drip coffeemaker and simultaneously is a drip coffeemaker — are exquisitely culture-specific. In fact, the artifact is only about a hundred years old.

(I can’t recall when I first made the acquaintance of this sort of drip coffeemaker. It certainly wasn’t part of my first experience with office life, at the Reading Eagle newspaper in the late 1950s. We didn’t brew coffee in the editorial room, or near it; instead, a copyboy was sent to a nearby coffeeshop to pick up orders for coffee and doughnuts and bring them back to the staff.)

Seth Fleishman. The artist, who signs himself sdf, is a recent addition to the New Yorker‘s cartoonist lineup. A recent (7/24/17) drawing, with Michael Maslin’s note on it:


A Seth Fleishman Newton’s Cradle cocktail drawing follows [Liana] Finck’s. Mr. Fleishman, like [Sara] Lautman, started at The New Yorker in the early months of last year [4/4/16: two cows in military dress looking at a military table] — his generous use of black against white made (and make) his work easy to pick out in the crowd.

Most of sdf’s cartoons are wordless, and most are black & white; they all have clean, crisp lines. They also all convey a strong sense of the absurd, often by combining images from different conceptual domains. As in #4, which combines cocktail olives (with the cocktail pick for eating them) and the Newton’s cradle device. From Wikipedia:

Newton’s cradle, named after English 17th century scientist Isaac Newton, is a device that demonstrates conservation of momentum and energy using a series of swinging spheres. When one sphere at the end is lifted and released, it strikes the stationary spheres; a force is transmitted through the stationary spheres and pushes the last sphere upward. The device is also known as Newton’s balls or Executive Ball Clicker.

… There is much confusion over the origins of the modern Newton’s cradle. Marius J. Morin has been credited as being the first to name and make this popular executive toy. However, in early 1967, an English actor, Simon Prebble, coined the name “Newton’s cradle” (now used generically) for the wooden version manufactured by his company, Scientific Demonstrations Ltd. After some initial resistance from retailers, they were first sold by Harrods of London, thus creating the start of an enduring market for executive toys. Later a very successful chrome design for the Carnaby Street store Gear was created by the sculptor and future film director Richard Loncraine.

(The Wikipedia page has a video clip of the device in action.)

So appreciating #4 requires two very different pieces of exquisitely culture-specific (and also relatively recent) artifacts: pimento olives in cocktails, fixed on special picks; and Newton’s cradle. The delight of the cartoon comes from combining the two organically.

sdf bonus: The duck seat. From the 4/18/16 issue:


Again, a combination of two very culture-specific artifacts: the car seat (which a young child is strapped into in the back seat of a car, facing backwards) and the duck decoy (a duck simulacrum, usually of wood, used to attract passing ducks into the gun range of hunters). Duck decoys are often objects of art, like this vintage black duck simulacrum made by New Jersey craftsman John English:


[Added 8/11/17: The bird in #5 is not a duck, but a loon, and that fact adds significantly to an appreciation of the cartoon. See the comment on this posting by Robert Coren, my reply, and (most important) Seth Fleishman’s follow-up.]

sdf bonus: The disco lighthouse. From the 9/19/16 issue:


Yet another hybrid of two dissimilar images: the lighthouse, with its powerful light; and the disco-dancing man in a boat, with the light functioning as the disco ball for his dance party. If you don’t recognize the disco ball, the disco clothes, and the disco-dance move, you won’t get this cartoon at all. The image you need is this one:


From a 11/7/11 posting “Disco”, with a Bizarro cartoon with a disco theme, including the dance move and the disco ball

6 Responses to “Further adventures in cartoon understanding”

  1. American Bystander’s Kickstarter; Zwicky Looks Closer at Some Fleischmans | Inkspill Says:

    […] Over on Arnold Zwicky’s Blog ” under the heading “Further adventures in cartoon understanding” he looks at a quartet of Seth Fleishman’s New Yorker cartoons (including the one shown here) — read it here. […]

  2. Robert Coren Says:

    I think the adult bird in #5 is almost certainly supposed to be a loon.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I went with the New Yorker‘s description of the cartoon: “A baby duck in a tiny car seat on the mother”. It does look like a loon rather than a duck, but maybe Fleishman (or the keepers of the cartoon archive) thinks that loons are ducks, or that duck is a synonym of waterfowl.

  3. Seth Fleishman Says:

    Hi – it is a loon. The cartoonists do not write the descriptions. Along the lines of Mr. Zwicky’s theme, the missing piece of cultural information in this one is similar to that of the beaver cartoon — actual animal behavior. Loons carry their babies on their backs.


    Interesting read. Enjoyed it. -sdf

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Sorry to have underestimated you. It looks like a loon, it *is* a loon, you meant it to be a loon. And the loon fact (which I once must have known — I even posted about loons not long ago, in connection with The Song of the Loon) is cool. Very clever.

      • Seth Fleishman Says:

        That’s quite alright. Just thought I’d add my two cents. I wish the description on the site said loon and not duck, but I think you are probably right they use “duck” as an all-purpose waterfowl name. It made sense to me to relate the one bit of extra-cautious childcare to the other. -s

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