A double desert cartoon

It arrived this week, just published: Send Help! A Collection of Marooned Cartoons, edited by Jon Adams and Ellis Rosen: a compendium of Desert Island (DI) cartoons that has given me much pleasure. More on the book and its contents to come below, but here I note cartoons that combine the DI cartoon meme with another cartoon meme: in the book, DI + Psychiatrist and DI + Grim Reaper. And then, stunningly, Desert Island + Desert Crawl.

A Desert Crawl cartoon has a man (or, more generally, people) crawling, parched and hallucinatory, across a seemingly endless desert — without escape, something the DC meme shares with DI. (The most recent DC cartoon on this blog is by David Sipress in my 11/10/21 posting “Four cartoons on familiar themes”.) The wonderful DC + DI combo in Send Help! is by Mort Gerberg. A terrible scan of it, but the best I could do:

(#1) The original is a bit bigger than this, and even wispier, almost ethereal, like an indistinct vision; as a result, it takes a bit of time for you to realize the deep absurdity of the scene

The DI setting is absurd in its own right, as I’ve discussed in previous postings. Then note the tininess of this particular island, just a bit wider than the castaway’s legs are long; if the crawler makes it to the island, will the two men even be able to sit on it together?

But the crawler. He’s crawling on water. Truly a feat. Done these days by magicians as a trick. Done by Jesus, admittedly in a storm when it was hard to see, but there it is in the holy text. From Wikipedia:

Jesus walking on the water, or on the sea, is depicted as one of the miracles of Jesus recounted in the New Testament. There are accounts of this event in three Gospels — Matthew, Mark, and John — but it is not included in the Gospel of Luke. This story, following the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, tells how Jesus sent the disciples by ship back to the “other side” of the Sea of Galilee (the western side) while he remained behind, alone, to pray. Night fell and the sea arose as the ship became caught in a wind storm. After rowing against the wind for most of the night, the disciples saw Jesus walking on the water. They were frightened, thinking that they were seeing a spirit, but when Jesus told them not to be afraid, they were reassured. After Jesus entered the ship, the wind ceased, and they arrived at land.

Crawling on the water is similarly miraculous, though it’s not too far away from doing the dead-man’s float. From NOAD:

noun dead-man’s float: a floating position, often used by beginning swimmers, in which a person lies face down in the water with arms outstretched or extended forward and legs extended backward. [AZ: by raising your head a bit to catch your breath when you need to, you can use the float as a technique to survive being stranded in open water]

The crawler in #1, however, has his entire body above the water, and that’s definitely miraculous.

The Adams & Ellis book. It has a number of features beyond the cartoons on pp.  7-164. There’s a foreword by Emma Allen, the New Yorker‘s Cartoon Editor, and a lightning “History of the Desert Island Cartoon” by Bob Mankoff of Cartoonstock.com. Mankoff notes the appearance of cartoons of any kind, then the magazine cartoon, then the single-panel gag cartoon with a single-line caption (pioneered byThe New Yorker), and finally the DI cartoon in the magazine in 1931. At which point the meme served as a vehicle for an enormous profusion of still more specific types of cartoon; the editors collect them under the very broad headers:

meta, isolation, priorities, relationships, time, survival, business as usual, death

As I’ve noted in earlier postings, the DI format allows all kinds of gags to be imported onto a DI, where they pick up an extra component of absurdity; there’s a Jewish Mother joke in the collection (by Madeline Horwath on p. 40), for instance. But many DI cartoons turn on the specifics of the DI situation: messages in a bottle, sharks (lots of sharks), the ship or plane wreck that brought castaways to the island in the first place, escape (using rocks or the palm tree), sand sculptures.

One possible theme not notably exploited in this collection is that of floating islands; there are multiple DIs in some of the cartoons, which might be mobile, but the gags make no use of that potential.

On floating islands, from Wikipedia:

(#2) Three floating islands (photos from Wikipedia)

A floating island is a mass of floating aquatic plants, mud, and peat ranging in thickness from several centimeters to a few meters. Floating islands are a common natural phenomenon that are found in many parts of the world. They exist less commonly as an artificial phenomenon. Floating islands are generally found on marshlands, lakes, and similar wetland locations, and can be many hectares in size.

The image of floating islands provided an inspiration for a classic French dessert. My 2/24/17 posting “Morning: La Salade Imaginaire” describes the dessert Île Flottante ‘Floating Island’, with an illustration:


In the real world, floating islands are not a phenomenon of sandy mounds in open tropical waters, but the constraints of reality are frequently disregarded in DI cartoons.

On the other hand, Send Mail! does have a DI cartoon with two women as castaways (by Jean Wei on p. 85), a possibility I’ve flagged as rare, because DI cartoons are heavily male (mostly one man, two men, or a man and a woman, very occasionally one woman).

One Response to “A double desert cartoon”

  1. J B Levin Says:

    Interesting take on #1, but it would never have occurred to me to look for all that meaning; for me it’s the joke and the surrealism.
    I just saw sand on the left, and an ocean island on the right, with ambiguity in the middle. I find it very much analogous to one of my favorite objects, the impossible trident or three-pronged blivet.
    (I can’t add the image here, but you’ve seen it, e.g. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/fd/Blivet.svg/465px-Blivet.svg.png )

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