Children’s Literature Caricatures, Cartoons, Comics

David Beagley, La Trobe University, available on iTunes U

Smith’s Weekly was a humorous look at Australian current affairs, the sort of thing that has been replaced by TV these days. There were cartoons, the throw-away line (Garfield style). This tabloid helped popularise this caricatured way of drawing.

Today we look at the bridge from younger readers into adult via cartoons, but maintains the features typically associated with children.

Scott McLeod: Understanding Comics is an influential book about these concepts, and it’s written in comic format itself.

What is a comic?

In about 1912 Rene Magritte (mentioned in Voices In The Park lecture) did a famous painting about art:

There were a lot of arguments at the time about what is art and what isn’t. Magritte of course was saying, ‘This is not a pipe; it’s a picture of a pipe.’ The artist makes you think about the object, not about the representation.

So a comic is something being represented (not real) and it is simplified right down. In terms of simplification, McLeod puts it like this: If you have an exact photographic representation only one person can be represented, but the more it is simplified, the more people it may represent — the more people are involved and engaged in the storyline, especially the universality of it. This leads into the idea of caricature: exaggerating some parts.

We know cartoons mostly as political cartoons, as adults. In our childhood there were simple storylines.

The tradition of caricatures goes right back to John Tenniel.

When does a caricature become a comic? The key point here is sequencing. The placing of several of these caricatured pictures in a row in order to express a relationship between them makes a comic.

One of the earliest examples goes back to the 11th century with the Bayeux tapestry.

File:Bayeux hawking.jpg

Done like this, the time lapse isn’t that obvious. It looks like a single picture rather than the same story told over several years.

So in order to get the sequencing across, comic creators started doing something:  There is an assumption when we’re very young that if we can’t see something it doesn’t exist (e.g. that’s why peek-a-boo works). The key point is that if you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist; if you can see it, it does. So now pictures follow one after each other in a temporal sequence.

Various tricks are used to indicate movement: blurring.

Line can also be used to indicate smell etc. in a mimetic way.

If the reader looks at dots and interprets those dots as flies, the reader is interpreting symbols in the same way as they are reading words.

There is a lot more, of course, but those are a couple of examples of how lines is used in the comic.

In the early 1740s when books for children started getting published, pictures were included right from the start. These were done on the cheap on woodblock prints, potato printing principle. (No colour — that came 100 years later. Any colour was usually hand done.) Very young children were employed to colour them in, sitting in sweatshops. Someone would do the blue and pass it on to the next person who would do the yellow.

After a long while printing allowed different colours on the same page.

In the 1860s two characters changed the face of children’s literature in a huge way: Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, who with his stories illustrated by John Tenniel, really enabled this humorous aspect to take off. Prior to this the drawings had all been serious. The pictures themselves now were able to have humour inherent in them and them only, things like the facial expressions of Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee. At this stage Britain was the major economy and cultural centre of the world, so in Britain this format continued for the next century or so. This wasn’t only the case for children — magazines were big, Charles Dickens released as serials in weekly and monthly magazines. There were very specific ones for very specific groups — Girl’s Own Paper, Boy’s Own Paper, which had a huge influence. They were originally the Bible society, but in the end they were doing adventure stories and recipes. The girls’ ones are heavily about how to maintain a good house, while the boys are out in lifeboats rescuing drowned sailors or fighting pirates.

By the time mags such as Eagle (Dan Dare, sci-fi) came along the pictures had taken over.

The most syndicated and read comic would probably be Peanuts, from the 1950s to the present day.

Little Nemo In Slumberland is very modern — different size and shaped frames — this mechanism was before its time.

File:Little Nemo 1905-11-26 middle five panels.jpg

This comic also introduced the speech bubble — a major change in comics. There was one person per frame with one speech bubble, max.

With the narrative serial came the invention of the superhero. This hit our newspapers in the 1930s. There’s possibly a social reason: the depression (along with Shirley Temple) and the ones who are not everyday, which was pretty darned depressing, so people wanted to be removed from the reality of life.

The superhero and the supervillain were very popular in America. This can be seen even now in the difference between the crime shows. In England The Bill — ordinary people, but so many of the American ones feature a hero with a super skill (The Mentalist). The detectives and the police are super. There’s a different approach to storytelling. This is the point where children’s storytelling is now becoming adult literature.

Britain and Europe aren’t the only places this is happening. In Europe the comic developed slightly differently. It’s still very much a child’s plaything and still in serial format, but published as complete books: Asterix and TinTin are the main ones. There is also a difference in the characters. Tin Tin is quite different from Batman. The creator of Tin Tin had a special approach to Tin Tin: a lot of superhero comics are very cinematic, with close ups and panning and long shots and high views down. Sergey of Tin Tin never does that. He tends to draw everything as if everything matters, a precise, quiet style of art without the zap/pow. The reader is encouraged to really look hard at the pictures.

The Asterix books are very verbal, based on puns, particuarly around people’s names. This has led to a very interesting concept as they’ve been translated. Stephen Fry who did Planet Word asked the question: Do speakers of different language think about things differently? Asterix is written in French, so all the puns are also in French. Puns don’t work in English. You have to then find English ones which are just as funny, so translation is very difficult.

Comics now: Mainly an adult form. What used to be the Donald Duck cartoons has largely been replaced by the CGI movie format, Toy Story etc. Certainly there are kids’ programming — a lot of it is animated cartoon, but there’s not the same amount of single frame comic format designed for kids.

There are also glossy magazines such as Dolly, which is consumer driven. K-Zone etc. are largely spin offs of movies, buy this particular computer game, they are largely a marketing tool.

The movies are not kids’ movies but they are marketed to kids, in Happy Meals, in toys, so parents are caught. Even back in 1743 there were giveaways (ball for boys, pincushions for girls sort of thing). But there is now a huge amount of crossover – movies, comics, games and so on feed off each other.

There is also a huge Japanese influence from manga and anime. Take The Joker as an example, comparing the earlier movie with the new Heath Ledger one. Modern movies have more powerful emotions, more serious topics, and the printed comic is now an adult format. However, the style is still incredibly influential.

What comics do well: sequence, simplicity, suggestion by exaggeration. Terry Denton uses those formats.

by Terry Denton

Shaun Tan, too, in his picture book The Arrival draws major works of art with complexity, but they are arranged as a sequence so the comic techniques are there and they’re still being used.


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How the visual language of comics could have its roots in the ice age: Psychologist and comics obsessive Neil Cohn believes cartoons have a sophisticated language all their own and a heritage that goes back to cave art. From The Guardian