Three exercises in cartoon understanding

Two from the 2/18&25/19 New Yorker — a Seth Fleishman (wordless) and a Lars Kenseth (a captioned meta-cartoon) — plus a vintage Gary Larson (considered both without caption and with).

Seth Fleishman (SDF). A creature sits on a stool, contemplating a machine on the counter in front of it; a small tree protrudes from the top of the machine, and liquid pours through a spout from the machine into a glass:


Easy stuff, which anyone should get: the creature is a panda, the tree is a bamboo (the food plant of pandas).

The crucial bit, which took me a while to get, is that this is a kitchen scene (not, say, a bar or cafe scene) — and that the machine is a juicer. Not just any juicer, but a specific one: just as SDF’s drawings, with their “clean, crisp lines” (this blog on 8/9/17), are simultaneously highly stylized and meticulous in detail, so the creatures and artefacts in his artwork are schematic but faithful mirrors of the real things. That appears to be an Oster JusSimple juicer:


(without, of course, anything — much less a bamboo tree — in the input receptacle).

Lars Kenseth. Artwork and image inextricably linked, but even together they just show a air disaster stranding two men on a beach, one of them promising the other a brighter future with a palm tree, beards, and jokey banter


That just sounds absurd — unless you recognize an allusion to the Desert Island cartoon meme (many illustrations on this blog): it’s a meta-cartoon, a cartoon about a cartoon meme. A couple New Yorker examples with the two men, their beards, the palm tree, and the humor:

(#4) Bob Mankoff

(#5) David Sipress

(Because of its multiple absurdities, the genre requires Olympic-sized suspension of belief. Even so, the Mankoff in #4 is a masterpiece in this department.)

The two-man Desert Island cartoon sees to be some sort of deranged desendant of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and his man Friday.

Gary Larson. Image and caption working together. With only the image, if you recognize a lot of stuff, you can appreciate that there’s a pun. With only the caption, the pun’s right out in front, but it’s just words, not anchored in a world.

Without the caption:


Ok, it’s a city street, with a Larsonian guy standing in front of an open-topped enclosure, with a counter, in which stand a man (who is speaking) and some animals (two of which appear to be making funny faces).

Now, such open-topped enclosures with counters appear in many different contexts: sales and publicity booths, booths with games of chance at carnivals — and booths where newspapers and magazines are sold on city streets, booths called newsstands. You need to recognize the thing and also know its usual name.

That’s half of the pun. To get to the second half (without the caption), you need to ask what kind of creatures thse are behind the newsseller. Large animals with parenthesis-like curved horns. Oh, wildebeests. Nothing there.

Oh, wildebeests are also known as gnus. As here:

(#7) From my 7/17/17 posting “Start spreading the gnus”

Got it? news(stand) / gnus(stand). Well, you could figure that out without a caption (or title), though you’d have to be pretty damn clever. And then the joke isn’t all that funny.

But then the caption — the words spoken by the newsseller — knits it all together, by providing an explanation for the wildebeest high jinks:

“Well, I’ve got good gnus and I’ve got bad gnus.”

Playing on the discourse-organizing formulaic expression I’ve got good news and (I’ve got) bad news (and other variants). I’ve looked some for the first uses of the formula, without a lot of success, though its appearance in the movie Tango and Cash (1989) seems to have facilitated its spread.

2 Responses to “Three exercises in cartoon understanding”

  1. Peter Mooney Says:

    My very favorite occurrence of the good-news/bad-news formula is in a 1977 episode of the Britcom Are You Being Served? (Season 5, Episode 6). Set in a department store, one member of the staff, Mr. Grainger, has been beastly toward his co-workers all day, and he has been instructed to wait in the department while the others go into the manager’s office to complain. Grainger sends Mr. Harmon, from Packing, to listen at the office door. Harmon returns:

    Harmon: Do you want the good news or the bad news?

    Grainger: What’s the good news?

    Harmon: The good news is that I could hear every word they said.

    Grainger: And what’s the bad news?

    Harmon: Every word they said.

    I stumbled across your blog earlier today in the course of a search for the identity of a model I now know to be a Mr. Sheehan of Los Angeles. I’ve perused several of your posts and I’m enthralled! I hope to be a frequent visitor.

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