The Box Alone (NSFW, if you work somewhere lame)

Comics Theory

I don’t get the cartoons in the New Yorker. Maybe that type of humor is acquired, like the taste of gefilte fish or patience for being around really really old people, or maybe it’s just an insurmountable generational divide that happened to inflict upon baby boomers and their parents a really stupid metric for funniness. Who knows.[1] The content has a lot to do with my distaste for the cartoons,[2] of course, but there’s also something about the single-panel format that just feels inherently unsatisfying.

The first comic I remember really falling in love with was Gary Larson’s Far Side, which were almost exclusively single-paneled. I remember sitting around with one of my sister’s two Larson anthologies on my lap and loving his dark, biting humor. It was smart and violent, but always in a speculative way (the violence was rarely actually depicted–Larson tended not to rely on sight gags). The Far Side was always smart—a cousin of cartoons in the New Yorker, maybe, but pushing it further than the silly little drawings of couples in marriage counseling or a dog wearing a hat. But the format of the two is where their similarities end and where the two depart in quality.

The single-panel comic format is one that I consider to be relatively primitive, in the sense that they’re where I see comics as having had their start.[3] There’s some sort of restricting superficiality to the length—it’s difficult to consider these little blips of information as being of the same family as multi-panel comics.

Single-panel comics are not related to multi-panel ones the way that poems or short prose are related to short stories. These micro-comics (different than minicomics, which are physically small) rarely allow the fleshing out of characters or a storyline the way that good short fiction does. These comics are used as vehicles for punch lines, often lacking in substance in their attempt to achieve laughs (laffs). Isaac Fitzgerald (apparently a comics creator who decided to make 100 single panel comics in 100 days) unintentionally sums my attitude up well (although he clearly means what he says positively): “The single panel comic is the BEST exercise in distilling a funny thought to it’s [sic] most potent kernel of raw honest truth.” That word, “thought,” says a lot. These comics arethoughts, not truly stories or narrative adventures but rather an “exercise,” essentially an illustrated tweet or sentence that you scribble down in your notebook.

I’d suggest that single-panel comics are largely analogous to GIFs in the sense that there’s a short span of time used to tell a “story” or show something that is often devoid of immediate context. A cat falls off a roof, Honey Boo Boo shakes her head, someone twerks. The reaction that these small animations call for is very restricted, though, and is often concerned with making the audience laugh. Comedy is not a bad thing, of course[4]; it’s really the superficiality of the resulting reaction that I find is also the case in single-panel comics.

Sure, having multiple panels hardly guarantees a good product the way that a long format doesn’t dictate the quality of a written work. Conversely, one panel does not necessarily a bad comic make (again, see the Far Side). But drawing a single panel really wastes the storytelling opportunities afforded by the comics format and raises the question as to why the creator chose to self-impose such restrictions. Oftentimes the answer is just what Isaac Fitzgerald says above—that the comic is a “thought,” a concept with little-to-no fleshing out. It’s not impossible to make that work—Mitch Hedberg’s comedy was great even if it often relied on one-liners, while Dane Cook’s drawn-out garbage is still just that—trash. (And not even the fun, kitschy kind of trash. It’s the overcooked spaghetti and coffee grinds kind of trash.) And sure, working in long-form comedy is hard, but when it works the payoff is really worth it.

When it really comes down to it, why bother with single-panel comics? The move towards multiple panels is nothing if not an advancement of the medium, similar to how the impressionist movement departed from a strictly representational means of painting and drawing (and eventually sculpture). Sure, contemporary art is not necessarily good just because it intends to move past the expectations set by work before it, but is there any way for a superficial depiction of, say, a landscape to “succeed” as furthering the medium? Apologies to Bob Ross, but it’s hard to consider such things as anything more than decorations–meaningless swathes of color that are meant to mimic the way we see. The works just come off as devoid of thought on the artist’s part and a lack of effort in challenging the viewer. It takes as much effort to understand rolling green mountains as it does Family Circus, although frankly the former will not have nearly as much of a deleterious effect on your brain cells as the latter.

[1] I like Roz Chast, but really only when she writes about cats (I think I’d like Genghis Khan’s comics if he wrote about cats).

[2] Do I sound disparaging when I say “cartoons”? I know I really shouldn’t be negative towards something like that just based on content but, you know, now that I’ve written out that thought it sounds sort of ridiculous. I shouldn’t like something just because it’s a comic. I don’t like all books just because they’re books, or all pieces of visual art just because they’re visual art, and there’s certainly a variance in subjective quality within comics too. Should we use the term “cartoons” as a negative one, I guess, is more what I’m asking. But people almost always refer to the New Yorkercomics as “cartoons,” so that’s really what the semantic decision was based off.

[3] Even before (codified) political cartoons arose in the early 20th (and late 19th century—I say “codified” because of course they existed before, just not in such a largely disseminated manner),[3a] the format of comics was largely restricted to the single panel. I’ve referenced fumetti before (popular Italian comics made starting in the mid-1800s), but it’s important to acknowledge the influence of I Modi (“The Ways” or “The Positions”), an erotic collection of woodcuts coupled with sonnets and short captions, on later text-and-image combinations. Though definitely not the first instance of such a grouping, the collection (originally created by Marcantonio Raimondi and published in 1524) heralded a significant amount of attention from the Catholic Church (as in they destroyed the original copies—not really a surprise, folks) and created an aura of intrigue around what I’m going to refer to as these “early comics.”

It’s obviously extremely complicated to determine the origins of comics’ sensibilities and I’m sure that there are others who would disagree with my choice, but what I find interesting about I Modi in particular is that the captions/accompanying texts are isolated from any larger body of written context (as in, they were not simply illustrations in the midst of a story; rather, they were self-contained to the extent that parts of a collection can be). This in and of itself is a problematic assertion—after all, sonnets are still individual works of art and thus the woodcuts can be seen as illustrations. But what separates illustrations from these “early comics” is that the text constructs a means of understanding the image (and vice versa) instead of simply depicting plainly what is said on the page. Images from I Modi exist without sonnets and accompanying long text, such as this image of Aeneas and Dido (pictured below).EneeDidon It’s arguable that viewers would have taken certain cues from the image that reveal what the story is[3b][3c], but if that’s the case then why were the captions put there in the first place? Who was the audience here, and did they need this additional context to understand the image? If so, then I think it’s valid to argue that the collection and later comics do have something significant in common.

[3a] Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure that this was the time when newspaper/comics syndicates really took off.

[3b] Dido’s crown and scepter, Eros pulling out Aeneas’ scepter to signify impending death growing from the hand of eroticism, etc. The section of the Aeneid by Virgil reads:

The queen and prince, as love or fortune guides,

One common cavern in her bosom hides.

Then first the trembling earth the signal gave,

And flashing fires enlighten all the cave;

Hell from below, and Juno from above,

And howling nymphs, were conscious of their love.

From this ill-omen’d hour in time arose,

Debate and death, and all succeeding woes.

[…]Dido […] who, lost to honor and the sense of shame,

Admits into her throne and nuptial bed

A wand’ring guest, who from his country fled:

Whole days with him she passes in delights,

And wastes in luxury long winter nights,

Forgetful of her fame and royal trust,

Dissolv’d in ease, abandon’d to her lust.[3b1]

(via the Internet Classics Archive)

[3b1] It’s interesting that Raimondi chose to illustrate a relationship and passage that connects sexuality with shame and implies that the impending violence is a direct result of Dido’s “[abandonment] to her lust.” It seems to me that this punishment of what’s portrayed as hedonism is directly opposed to the function of the oftentimes playful (and definitely not sex-negative) I Modi.

[3c] Nerdier nerd time: This aria (sung here by Lorraine Hunt, I think) from Henry Purcell’s operaDido and Aeneas is kind of the most beautiful thing ever.

[4] A simple, but successful, humor comic that comes to mind is Cyanide & Happiness, a frequently violent and always ridiculous multi-panel webcomic. Take the one that I linked to above—the whole point of the comic is that a lady is nervous because her kid’s white skin implies that she cheated on her black partner. This is not a new—or for that matter, substantive—idea. But still, it’s more than just a “line.” It’s a joke, not an excuse for putting out some clever little fragment of an idea. Sure, the story could be told in one panel, but it would downplay the “suspense” (I’m being generous with terminology here) of why the mother is upset. There’s also an added element—she has given birth next to her identical twin and the babies “look alike” (which is funny because it implies that she was cheating with her sister’s partner and that not all newborn babies look like identical little blobs of red grossness, which they do). The sister doesn’t pay attention to what’s going on in any of the panels, but the doctor quickly becomes aware of the situation, suggesting that there is going to be a serious altercation when the husband shows up. There’s an idea of the past and the future in this comic, which succeeds in taking a tired concept and injecting it with something that makes the whole thing amusing rather than trite.


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