click to enlargeThe New Yorker and the Single-panel Gag Cartoon
Harold Ross, Peter Arno and Rea Irvin

We can ponder paintings on cave walls and the Bayeux Tapestry and Mexican codices all week long, but I'll still say that the essential characteristic of "comics"—the thing that distinguishes it from other kinds of pictorial narratives (like cave paintings and the Bayeux Tapestry)—is the incorporation of verbal content. I even go so far as to say that in the best examples of the art form, words and pictures blend to achieve a meaning that neither conveys alone without the other. To Scott McCloud, "sequence" is at the heart of the functioning of comics; to me, "blending" verbal and visual content is. And the history of cartooning—of "comics"—seems to me more supportive of my contention than of his. Moreover, the evolution of the modern so-called "gag cartoon" (the humorously intended single-panel drawing with verbal caption beneath) contains within itself the most vivid demonstration of the reason for that evolution—namely, the emergence of a superior humorous effect that is realized only with the economy of expression achieved by verbal-visual interdependence.

            I realize that the gag cartoons fall outside most definitions of comics. But not mine. In my view, comics consist of pictorial narratives or expositions in which words (often lettered into the picture area within speech balloons) usually contribute to the meaning of the pictures and vice versa. A pictorial narrative uses a sequence of juxtaposed pictures (i.e., a "strip" of pictures); pictorial exposition may do the same—or may not (as in single-panel cartoons—

political cartoons as well as gag cartoons). My definition is not a leak-proof formulation. But leak-proof or not, this proffer of a definition sets some boundaries within which we can find most of the artistic endeavors we call "comics." Even pantomime, or "wordless," cartoon strips—which, guided by this definition, we can see are pictorial narratives that dispense with the "usual" practice of using words as well as pictures. But that doesn't make the usual practice any the less usual. Pantomime cartoon strips are exceptional rather than usual. Usually, the interdependence of words and pictures is vital (if not essential) to comics, and the vitality of that yoking is readily apparent (and handily exhibited) in an examination of the history of the gag cartoon.

            In tracing the history of cartooning, we don't need to go very far back. Homo sapiens doubtless began scrawling goofy pictures on cave walls before the dawn of history as we know it, but we need go no further into the dim recesses of the past than the emergence of the modern use of the term "cartoon." Gag cartooning probably began in the 18th century with the publishing of broadsides, single-sheet publications displaying caricatures or vignettes of moral impor—the work of such irrepressible British wags as William Hogarth (1697-1764), James Gillray (1756-1815), and Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) and the Spaniard Francisco Goya (1746-1828), to mention a few. This custom was perpetuated and refined in weekly and monthly humor magazines in the 19th century. In France, gadfly caricaturist Charles Philipon (1806-1862) started a thoroughly political weekly, La Caricature, in 1830, adding the more literary Le Charivari to his productions two years later and employing the work of such satirical artists as Honore Daumier (1808-1879) and Jean Grandeville (1803-1847). In England, Punch (subtitled "The London Charivari") was launched in 1841, and "cartoon" was first employed in the modern sense in reference to this magazine.

            As we all know, "cartoon" comes from the Italian "cartone," meaning "card." Italian tapestry designers and fresco painters and the like drew their designs on sheets of cardboard at full scale before transferring those designs to the cloth or walls they were intended for. These designs were called by the name of the material upon which they were draw—"cartones," or "cartoons." Later, the word "cartoon" was applied to any preliminary study for a final work, and it is here that we meet the modern usage of the term.

            The modern usage of "cartoon" began in London in the 1840s. The Houses of Parliament had been all but destroyed in a fire in 1834. The building that took the place of the gutted relic was called the New Palace of Westminster and was built over the next decade. By the mid-1840s, it had been determined that the New Palace would contain various murals on patriotic themes, and a competitive exhibition was held to display the cartoons (in the ancient sense) submitted as candidates for these decorations. Punch, then only a couple years old, entered the competition on its own, publishing in its pages a series of five satirical drawings about government and calling them "Mr. Punch's cartoons." The first of these appeared in the weekly issue dated July 15, 1843, and was greeted (we may as well suppose) with howls of joyous appreciation.

            Identified in the magazine as "Cartoon No. 1," the drawing by John Leech depicts a motley collection of London's down-trodden and threadbare street folk who are viewing the exhibition of the cartoons submitted to the Parliamentary competition, an array of portraits of regal personages. click to enlargeEntitled "Substance and Shadow," the irony gains additional impact from a caption: "The Poor Ask for Bread, and the Philanthropy of the State Accords—an Exhibition." Even in this, the first modern example of "cartoon," the words give meaning to the picture and vice versa as in my modern visual-verbal equation.

            At first, Punch continued to call its humorous drawings "pencilings." Eventually, it applied the term "cartoon" to any full-page politically satirical drawing (and most "cartoons"—but not all—in these earliest years were what we would term "political cartoons" rather than simply humorous) . But to the man in the street, any funny drawing in the magazine after the summer of 1843 was termed one of "Punch's cartoons," and by this route, the word came into use for any comical drawing, of which, as time went on, there were more and more of the a-political kind. By the time Americans launched their imitations of Punch in the 1800s, "cartoon" was well on its way to being established in the modern sense. And so was "cartoonist."

            Punch inspired many imitators on this side of the AtlanticWild Oats, Phunny Phellow, and others, most of which failed after a few issues or months. Among those that lasted were the weekly humor magazines Puck, Judge, and Life, all introduced in the 1880s (and all sometimes called "comic weeklies").

            By this time, magazine cartooning had branched into the two categories to which I've already allude—the political and the purely comic (the latter, eventually termed "gag cartoons" by cartoonists). Typically, the political cartoons were given the greater play: they appeared on the covers (front and back) and sprawled across the double-truck of the center spread. (To examine at any length here the development of the political cartoon would take us pretty far out on that limb, so let me lop off that bough now before it breaks and leaves us stranded hopelessly beyond the reach of this essay.) Other cartoons often honed a political axe or two, but they, and the strictly humorous cartoons, were spotted throughout the magazines amid paragraphs of light-hearted prose and verse. Some of the drawings were half-page in size; others, quite small. Virtually all of these efforts were captioned with several lines of text in type. Usually the text was itself comedic and self-contained: the reader didn't need the picture to understand the joke.

            Until the 1920s, magazine gag cartoons were mostly illustrations of this sort. Lee Lorenz, long-time cartoon editor at The New Yorker, writing in his ground-breaking tome The Art of the New Yorker, calls the earliest of these specimens "illustrated anecdotes" because the captions were sometimes two or three paragraphs in length; the drawings did no more than illustrate the situation to which the text applied. The text was gradually refined: first, it was transformed into a sort of conversation among the several persons depicted in the drawing; eventually, the dialogue was reduced to a verbal exchange between two persons. These are the "multiple-speaker captioned cartoons" (the fondly recalled "he-she" cartoons in which He says something; then She responds with something funny—or vice versa). Here's a sample:


            Wife: How many cigars a day are you smoking now?

            Husband: Oh, just enough to show the doctor his advice was wrong.


In cartoons like these (of which there were millions from about 1880 until 1920), the pictures contributed almost nothing to the joke. We don't need the picture in order to see the humor in the dialogue. Cartoonists of the day called these specimens "illustrated jokes," betraying their belief that the humor was contained in the prose not the pictures. In some cartoons, however, the pictures provide the setting that makes sense of the caption—for instance:         


            Uncle: Poor girls, so few get their wages.

            Flapper: So few get their sin, darn it.


They are walking along a street in front of a church on the door of which is a sign advertising the day's sermon: The Wages of Sin. click to enlargeWithout the scene-setting picture, the cartoon isn't very funny. (This cartoon, incidentally, was published in the first issue of The New Yorker.) But most cartoons of the earliest vintage are essentially verbal witticisms that are funny without their accompanying illustrations.

            When, at the close of the 19th century, the great metropolitan daily newspapers (particularly in New York) sought to increase circulation by publishing extravagant Sunday supplements that included imitations of the comic weeklies (often dubbed, now, "the comics"), cartooning expanded in two directions: in newspapers, cartoonists started creating short narratives by arraying their pictures in storytelling sequences ("comic strips"); in magazines, cartoonists continued pretty much as before, but in striving for ways of creating comedy, they also exploited the capacity of the medium for visual puns. click to enlargeVisual punning emphasized the importance of the pictures to the comedy in single-panel cartoons. Perhaps from this development—sporadic and occasional as it was amid the usual array of "illustrated anecdotes"—cartoonists began to realize that the comedic impact of their work would be much enhanced if the meaning or significance of the words under their pictures could be understood only by comprehending the role of the picture. And vice versa.

            Whatever the cause, by the 1920s, a new style of gag cartoon was evolving. Cartoonists had discovered that all cartoons—not just visual puns—were funnier if the humor arose from joining picture to words in such a way that the one "explained" the other. In this form, gag cartooning achieves its apotheosis when neither the picture nor the words have humorous meaning alone. The picture sidles into a reader's consciousness as a kind of visual puzzle, meaningless until reading the caption "explains" it. The picture likewise "explains" the caption. Either way, as comprehension dawns—in the flash of an instant—the humor is revealed, and the revelation, coming, as it does, suddenly, gives comic impact to the combined "meaning" of the visual-verbal blend. In effect, the joke's impact derives from the "surprise" that is sprung upon the reader when he or she understands the full import of the picture or the caption. The hilarity is further enhanced if only one of the characters in the picture is speaking: this maneuver effectively heightens the importance of blending picture to words to achieve an economy in expression that increases the "surprise" inherent in the blend—and, hence, the humor of the joke. And so emerged the "single-speaker captioned cartoon," the modern gag cartoon.

            Because the modern gag cartoon is more economical in the deployment of verbal and visual resources, it is more focussed and therefore has greater impact. Employing the same economy, cartoonists achieve similar impact in comic strips, too, and the best funnybook artists also strive to yoke pictures and words in tandem for narrative sense. But the blend is more demonstrably evident in the relatively simple gag cartoon.

            A classic cartoon of this breed is one by Peter Arno for The New Yorker. click to enlargeThe picture shows several military personnel aghast at viewing, in the distance, the crash of an airplane, obviously one of theirs. A parachute hovering over the crashing plane reassures us that no lives have been lost in the tragedy. Emerging from the crowd and coming toward us is a mousy-looking man who is grinning and rubbing his hands and saying, "Well, back to the old drawing board." The picture makes absolutely no comedic sense without the caption; and the caption is not at all humorous without the picture. It may be debated whether there is any humor in the grim situation depicted, but the expression on the face of the mousy man shifts our orientation from a possible tragedy to the comedy that always lurks at the edge of ordinary human self-absorption.

            My choice, here, of a New Yorker cartoon is not altogether casual. In his New Yorker article celebrating the magazine's 70th anniversary, Charles McGrath says flatly that Harold Ross invented the modern single-speaker gag cartoon. Well, yes and no.

            Without a doubt, no history of gag cartooning could overlook Harold Ross, the world's most unlikely candidate for editor-founder of the nation's most sophisticated magazine of humor and urbanity. A frontier kid with only a tenth-grade education, he was born November 6, 1892, in Aspen, Colorado, then a mining camp. When he left town as a teenager, he became a slovenly tramp newspaperman who spend his years before World War I roving from one newspaper to another, a common type in those years. During the war, he worked on Stars and Stripes, the armed forces newspaper, and he fell in with a convivial crew, and after the War, they all landed in New York, where they encouraged Ross to launch, after a false start or two, The New Yorker. The magazine struggled in fiscal red ink for years, but Ross never wavered in pursuit of his vision. He couldn't articulate it, but he knew what he wanted. Slowly, he assembled writers (E.B. White, James Thurber, Janet Flanner, Katharine Angell White, Frank Sullivan) and cartoonists (Arno, Rea Irvin, Helen Hokinson, Charles Addams, George Price) who gave the publication its distinctive flavor.

            But Ross remained throughout his life the same, a contradictory sort—a rowdy, gangly, mussed-up hick-looking wight with electric hair (a sort of brush cut standing on its ends), a gap-toothed grin, a droll sense of humor, and a profane vocabulary. In both his uncouth eccentricity and sheer doggedness, Ross was without equal in American journalism. And his magazine became a beacon to cartoonists, beckoning to modern times. It became a showcase for gag cartoonists, but the single-speaker captioned cartoon wasn't invented there, whatever the oft-uttered claims of cartoon mythology.

            The single-speaker gag click to enlargecartoon was in fairly widespread use in the old humor magazines Life and Judge(not to mention that child of the 1920s, College Humor) long before Ross launched The New Yorker in 1925. Cartoonists still did mostly multiple-speaker cartoons, but single-speaker cartoons were not hard to find.

            Peter Arno was often credited with inventing the single-speaker cartoon at The New Yorker, but he specifically denied it (in his introduction to Peter Arno's Ladies and Gentlemen). "I like to think that I did," Arno wrote, "and I have been given credit for it; but nothing so basically simple could be 'invented.' It must be as old as Confucius, or older. It was just lying there all the time, waiting to be picked up. I gravitated toward it naturally, and was one of the first to use it consistently, so that it became more or less a trade-mark. . . . I suppose it appealed to me because my English grandfather, who was the light of my boyhood years, had taught me that brevity was the soul of wit . . . . As with a smoking-room story, the shortest caption, if it hits with a wallop, brings the loudest guffaw; the kind that warms my heart."

            Clearly, the notion of the single-speaker cartoon was not invented by one person. Not Peter Arno. Not Harold Ross.

            But Ross gets the credit because his magazine lasted; the others that used cartoons did not. If Life and Judge had lasted (both, for all practical purposes, expired in the 1930s), they would doubtless have used the single-speaker cartoon as consistently as The New Yorker did. And then not any one of them would be able to claim the invention of the genre. But Ross's magazine outlasted its rivals. And because the gag cartoon had evolved into a single-speaker captioned cartoon in which the words and the pictures (in the best of them) were "interdependent" (to use Arno's phrase) and because The New Yorker used lots of gag cartoons, Ross and his cartoonists are credited with having invented the form.

            Doubtless Ross's eccentric literalism contributed to the evolution of the modern gag cartoon. He examined cartoon submissions as if they were drawn by artists who wanted to put something over on him. And he was dedicated to preventing that from happening. Despite the profanity with which he liberally seasoned his utterances, Ross was relentlessly puritanical about whatever found its way into print. ("He's real uninhibited that way," a female contributor from the Southern states is said to have remarked, admiringly.) No swear words. And nothing even vaguely smutty. According to legend, he even barred such indecorous words as "armpit" and "pratfall." The only even sexualvulgarity that was ever sneaked into the magazinclick to enlargee was an Arno cartoon in which a young couple was depicted walking along a country road at night, carrying the back seat of an automobile between them and saying to the local constable whom they encountered on their trek, "We want to report a stolen car." Friends maintain that the cartoon slipped under Ross's searchlight gaze because he simply didn't understand it. Ross protested vehemently: "I knew what it was about, all right," he exclaimed. "Why else would I have run it?" But he added a revealing murmur: "My theory was, they'd just been sitting on it."

            One manifestation of the hallucinatory albeit friendly antagonism between editor and cartoonists was that the cartoons had to measure up to Ross's standard for verisimilitude. In his biography of Ross, Genius In Disguise, Thomas Kunkel writes: "In Ross's cartoon universe, houses were supposed to face the road; doors theoretically had to be able to swing unobstructed [by furniture or some architectural whimsy of the cartoonist]; lamps were expected to have cords (though some of Ross's favorite artists had dispensation to conceal them beneath a rug)."

            Ross insisted on such niggling details. He also insisted that he, as a reader, should be able to tell at a glance which of the persons in the drawing was speaking. Here, he was rebelling against the old multiple-speaker illustration: depicting several speakers, the old time cartoonists didn't have to worry about which of the persons had his or her mouth open. Either they all did; or none of them did. But when there is only a single speaker, the reader must know which of the persons in the picture is that speaker.

            Ross's insistence on this seemingly trivial matter doubtless helped to focus his cartoonists' efforts in the direction of the single-speaker cartoon because only in such cartoons did you need to discern which of the people depicted was speaking. And so by such indirections might Ross be said to have nudged the magazine cartoon into its modern manifestation. But Ross also realized that the kind of cartoon he wanted in The New Yorker was different from the "illustrated joke" of the previous generation of humor magazines. He had difficulty, however, in translating his notions into very precise guidance. In the summer of 1925, an advisory letter to contributors called for cartoons that were "illustrative of ideas" rather than of situations. In her book Defining New Yorker Humor, Judith Yaross Lee argues that this vague notion soon evolved into the "idea drawing," the "key discovery" of which was "the ironic relations between image and text"—in other words, a cartoon in which the words and pictures blend to achieve a meaning neither is capable of alone without the other.

            By 1932, Ross had a pretty firm grasp of what he was after in cartoons. Writing to cartoonist Alice Harvey (no relation) on July 27, he discussed his convictions: "Before The New Yorker came into existence . . . the editors [of humor magazines] bought jokes, or gags, or whatever you want to call them, for five dollars or ten dollars, [and] mailed these out to artists. . . . The result was completely wooden art. The artists' attitude toward a joke was exactly that of a short story illustrator's attitude toward a short story. . . . Now, this practice led to all humorous drawings being "illustrations." It also resulted in their being wooden, run-of-the-mill products. The artists never thought for themselves and never learned to think. They weren't humorous artists; they were dull-witted illustrators. A humorous artist is a creative person, an illustrator isn't. At least they're not creative so far as the idea is concerned, and in humor, the idea is the thing. . . . Unless an artist takes ahold of an idea and does more than "illustrate" it, he's (she's) not going to make a humorous drawing. . . .

            "I judge from your letter that you apparently don't realize that you are one of the three or four pathfinders in what is called the new school of American humor [in cartooning]. Your stuff in Life before The New Yorker started might well be considered the first notes of this new humor. I remember seeing it and being encouraged by it when I was thinking of starting The New Yorker.

            But Alice Harvey didn't invent the single-speaker caption cartoon any more than Ross did. The canny editor was doing what he often did to cajole performance from his contributors: he was flattering her into submission. As I've said, other cartoonists were doing the same thing earlier than Harvey's work appeared. And they were producing such cartoons long before The New Yorker debuted. But Ross's magazine established the form as the most effective for the single panel cartoon. Moreover, the establishing of the form was not done by any single individual. Ross was the editor and set various mechanisms in motion that eventually refined the gag cartoon, but one of those mechanisms was the group effort that created each issue of the magazine.

            In the same letter to Alice Harvey, Ross indicates a practice that the magazine had been following for some years—namely, shopping good cartoon ideas to those cartoonists whose styles best suited the ideas. In fact, many if not most of the cartoons in The New Yorker were manufactured by the cartoonists to fit captions supplied by others, most often staff writers—"especially at the beginning," Kunkel notes. When in 1934 Gluyas Williams objected to using the ideas of others, Ross wrote him in exasperation: "This magazine is run on ideas. . . . My God, a very large percentage of the contents of The New Yorker, drawings and text, are based on the ideas originating with the staff and suggested to writers. . . .  We don't ever try to cram an idea down an artist's throat. We always send it as a suggestion made on a take it or leave it basis. I'm flatly against our buying ideas as the old humorous magazines used to do and then sending them out to an artist to do at some much per picture. That is ruinous to humorous art, I think, or to anything creative. Our attitude, honestly observed, I think, in practice, is that we submit an idea to an artist and that if he sees fit to use it as a suggestion for a picture into which he is going to put something of his own, he will proceed to draw it; otherwise not. . . . The one thing that has made The New Yorker successful is that it is a collaborative effort, switching ideas back and forth to find the man best adapted to doing them."

            Arno says he thought up his own gags in the early years. "I had to," he wrote. "I was developing a style and a new kind of format, and there was no way anyone else could do it for me. But as time went on and a distinct pattern for my work was set, it became easier for others to make contributions."

            The same was doubtless true with other cartoonists whose style of humor was distinctive. Even, apparently, as individual a talent as George Price, who, I was startled to learn, produced only one of his hundreds of highly idiosyncratic New Yorker cartoons from his own idea according to Lee Lorenz. In his account of life at The New Yorker, Thurber says some cartoonists thought up their own ideas; others used the ideas supplied by staff writers. "In the early years," Thurber wrote, "Andy [E.B.] White and I sent [in] scores of captions and ideas, some of them for full-page drawings, others for double-page panels for Gluyas Williams and Rea Irvin. If a caption didn't suit Ross—and he was as finicky about some of them as a woman trying on Easter bonnets—it was given to White to 'tinker.' [Wolcott] Gibbs and I did tinkering, too, but White was the chief tinkerer."

            Kunkel tells the story of an idea generating session between Arno and one-time art editor Albert Hubbell. Hubbell went to Arno's Park Avenue apartment one afternoon where he found Arno, "a creature of the night," still in a silk dressing gown. Arno fixed himself a hamburger and sat down to hear Hubbell's ideas.

            "One that Hubbell liked and pitched hard involved a billiard table," Kunkel writes. "But in no time, Arno was frowning. It turned out that Ross paid him a substantial bonus for full-page cartoons, which presupposed vertical concepts, so a billiard table was altogether too lateral to even consider. 'Wait a minute, Hubb, wait a minute,' Arno said, '—let's go for those pages.'"

            In his history of cartooning at the magazine, Lorenz edges up to the question of the invention of the single-speaker gag cartoon, but, understandably, he cannot identify any single person as the inventor. He reports that William Steig and George Price among others told him that they realized that the single-speaker captioned cartoon as it emerged was a different kind of cartoon. "Just how it came about seems impossible to establish sixty-five years after the fact," Lorenz continues. "I suspect it was the result of the increasing sophistication of the gag writers rather than the cartoonists themselves." But he also says that "the single-line caption required a new subtlety on the part of the artist: the less told in the caption, the more one had to tell in the drawing." And he goes on to suggest that White may be the most influential of the magazine's writers in shaping and refining gag cartooning. "Polishing captions" was one of White's first assignments upon joining the magazine's staff. Brendan Gill in Here at The New Yorker also discusses White's contribution to the magazine's cartoons: "It was crucial that these captions be as succinct and colloquial as possible, and White had a fine ear for the natural rhythms of American speech. His seemingly effortless tinkerings brought thousands of drawings back from the brink of rejection."

            Elsewhere, in a discussion of Peter Arno's development as a cartoonist, Lorenz credits Philip Wylie with creating Arno's gags. (Wylie worked as Ross's assistant for the first two years of the magazine's life.) And if Arno was generally perceived to be the cartoonist who perfected the single-speaker captioned cartoon, then maybe it is Wylie who should get the credit. (Unless Arno was being entirely truthful when he said he thought up his own gags in the beginning.)

            But I think none of these suspects is solely responsible for the evolution of the modern gag cartoon. I think, rather, that the cartoonists themselves saw the enhanced comedic impact of a picture and its caption when the drawing and the words were inextricably linked in the most economical way possible—with the caption being the utterance of a single speaker. Cartoonists (almost by definition in my book) create in visual-verbal terms. Through the first three decades of this century, they became more and more accustomed to contriving comedy that arose from the blend of words and pictures. It would be natural in the normal progression of things for cartoonists to realize the superiority of the comedy inherent in the economy of single-speaker cartoons. And I think those who wrote or polished captions saw the same thing. They all worked to create better cartoons in this new mode. And Ross with his eccentricities and cloudy comprehension of what he was looking for elbowed them along in the same direction.

            And there is another player whose presence may have been influential. That is Rea Irvin, the artist who drew the cover for the first issue of The New Yorker and designed the magazine's appearance.

            Ross believed that the best thing about the first issue had been Irvin's cover drawing of the bemused boulevardier inspecting a passing butterfly through his monocle. So he ran the same cover eclick to enlargevery year on the magazine's anniversary. And until quite recently, Ross's successors did the same in honor of the founder (and of Irvin). So Irvin's supercilious dandy, anachronistically attired in top hat and high collar, graced the cover once a year for nearly 70 years. (And to celebrate Ross's birthday in the fall of 1926, the staff assembled a faux issue of the magazine for which Irvin supplied a silhouetted caricature of Ross in the famous pose of Eustace Tilley. The spider at which Ross is sticking out his tongue is Alexander Woollcott, the drama critic of the New York Times, a former Stars and Stripes staffer with Ross, a lodger in Ross's house in the West forties, and a persistent pain in the toukus,)

            Rea Irvin was born August 26, 1881, in San Francisco, California, to which his parents had journeyed by covered wagon in the 1850s. Although Rea attended Hopkins Art Institute in San Francisco, he also entertained the idea of a career in acting, which he pursued briefly beginning in 1903. He then served in the art departments of several newspapers, including the Honolulu Advertiser, but eventually, he moved to New York, and by the 1920s he had achieved a good measure of success as a newspaper and magazine cartoonist, becoming art editor of the humor magazine Life. His thespian inclinations remained, however, finding expression in his theatrical manner of attire and in his demeanor, which radiated the stage presence of an accomplished actor. He was a familiar figure at both the Players Club and the Dutch Treat Club.

            As Ross refined his plans for The New Yorker in the latter months of 1924, he enlisted Irvin to help with the art chores. Irvin, who had just been replaced as art editor at Life, had a flourishing freelance art business, but he agreed to serve as "art consultant" (Ross eschewed formal titles), stipulating that he could afford to give only one day a week to the task. Over the months of preparation, Irvin prepared the layout for the first issue, drew most of the department headings, and designed the distinctive typeface for the magazine, modifying a typeface developed by Carl Purington Rollins.

            The day that Irvin gave to the magazine every week was the day he helped Ross select the cartoons for the next issue. Irvin's taste in art was expansive: he liked classic and modern art, he was sympathetic to anything new, and he knew good craftsmanship when he saw it. Moreover, he was articulate about art: he could tell artists specifically what to do to improve their work and to make it acceptable to the magazine. When a drawing amused him during the art conference, he chuckled; and he often gave little lectures on art appreciation. Irvin's presence and his manner undoubtedly educated Ross in the subtleties of cartooning, refining the editor's taste and raising his standards.

            Thurber, assessing Irvin's contribution to the magazine, says unequivocally that Irvin "did more to develop the style and excellence of New Yorker drawings and covers than anyone else, and was the main and shining reason that the magazine's comic art in the first two years was far superior to its humorous prose." Lee agrees that Irvin was essential: noting his "taste for ironically related images and text," she goes on to say that "what is often called the 'New Yorker cartoon' deserves to be called 'the Irvin cartoon.'" Since The New Yorker style of cartoon set the pace for American magazine cartooning since the early 1930s, Irvin looms large in the history of the medium as a major influence. In fact, he—not Ross, not Arno, not White, and not Wylie—might even be said to be the "father" of modern magazine gag cartooning.

            The distinctive "style" of the New Yorker cartoon arises, however, from a quality not necessarily inherent in the visual-verbal blending of the single-speaker captioned cartoon. Lorenz maintains that the typical New Yorker cartoon is "based more on character than situation." And that's probably true—if we assume that the "character" in question is a stereotype, the stereotype of the sophisticate.

            The New Yorker cartoon has always struck me as a rather inert enterprise. Typically, it depicts two or more people passively seated and talking laconically. If the people appear to be sophisticated upper-middle or upper class persons, then they say something faddish or childish or completely silly. If they appear to be lower class or otherwise weird (think of Price's people), then what they are saying is often trite or commonplace or incongruously elitist.

            The comedy in either situation arises from the contrast between the appearance and the utterance. The effect, however, is to ridicule the pseudo sophisticate—the Old Society snob and the nuevo riche poseur. Ross consciously aimed at readers who were young and upscale and who might reasonably be expected to want the better things in life—but who could, as Lee notes, "laugh at themselves." "Pictures," she continues, "established The New Yorker's aura of eliteness through the elegant figures populating them. Captions typically undercut the characters' superiority, and New Yorker humor critiqued all ages and both genders of the upper class, yet the critique stayed within a frame of class complacency." Peter Arno is the New Yorker cartoonist par excellence, and in his life and work, the posture of the magazine can be discerned, and the nature of the relationship between Arno's words and images is revealed as absolutely crucial in determining that posture.

            Born Curtis Arnoux Peters, Jr., January 8, 1904, in New York City, Curt (as he was called then) was the son of a New York Supreme Court justice, and as scion of a prominent family, he went to Hotchkiss School and then to Yale College, where he indulged his interest in music and art instead of pursuing the career as a banker or lawyer that his father planned for him. He drew cartoons for The Yale Record and formed a nine-piece band called the Yale Collegians, playing piano, banjo, and accordion himself as needed. With young Rudy Vallee as lead singer, the group was engaged by Gilda Gray's Rendezvous, one of Manhattan's first post-war nightclubs. Quickly succumbing to the taste of the era for night life, Peters was virtually a prototype of the Jazz Age's young man about town: rich and debonair, he was tall, urbane, impeccably dressed and multi-talented, and he had the jutting-jaw good looks of a model in the popular Arrow shirt ads of the day.

            In 1923, he left Yale to join the artists' milieu in Greenwich Village and changed his name to Peter Arno in order to separate his identity from his father's. He wrote music, played in his band, painted murals in cafes and restaurants, and submitted drawings, without selling many, to the venerable humor magazines, Judge and Life. He was about to abandon his ambition to be an artist for a musical career with a band in Chicago when he received a check for a drawing that he had submitted to The New Yorker. With the publication of this spot illustration in the June 20, 1925, issue, Arno began his forty-three year association with Ross's journal.

            Arno's first success in the magazine was with a series of cartoons about two tipsy middle-aged harridans who were probably charwomen on their night off, which they spent cavorting about town in feathered hats, long formal gowns and muffs, punctuating their incongruously earthy observations of life around them with spirited cries of "Whoops!" Christened the Whoops Sisters, this bibulous pair of dowdy rowdies appeared three times a month for three years and stimulated newsstand sales of the magazine. But it was with his next creations that Arno contributed a vital essence to the character of The New Yorker.

            The first of these was an aristocratically mustached old gent in white tie and tails, whose eyes, as Somerset Maugham observed, "gleamed with concupiscence when they fell upon the grapefruit breasts of the blonde and blue-eyed cuties" whom he avidly pursued. These same voluptuous damsels kept company with another regular member of Arno's ensembl—a thin, bald albeit youngish man with a wispy walrus mustache, a razor sharp nose, and an ethereally placid expression who was often seen simply lying in bed beside an empty-headed ingenue with an overflowing nightgown. The other regular was a massive dowager, stern of visage and impressive of chest, whose imposing presence proclaimed her right to rule. This trio was joined by an assortment of rich predatory satyrs in top hats, crones, precocious moppets (one of whom was forever chancing upon his zaftig aunt when she was naked), tycoons, curmudgeonly clubmen, fuddy-duddies and barflies of all description—in short, the probable population of all of New York's cafe society.

            This Manhattan menagerie Arno subjected to merciless scrutiny from his favored position well within the pale, and he found something ridiculous and therefore valuable in everyone from playboy to cab driver. Arno's cartoons juxtaposed image and word, artifice against reality—the seeming urbanity of his cast against their underlying earthiness, thereby stripping all pretension away. He proved again and again that humankind is just a little larcenous and lecherous and trivial in its passions and pursuits, social decorum to the contrary notwithstanding.

            By the late 1930s, Arno had lost the ambivalence he doubtless felt as an insider satirizing cafe society: no longer a devotee of its rituals, he became disgusted with "fatuous ridiculous people," and his anger, he said, "gave my stuff punch and made it live." He soon gave up his duplex apartment on West 54th Street in Manhattan and moved to a farm near Harrison, New York, where he spent his last years luxuriating in idyllic seclusion, enjoying music, guns, sport cars, and drawing, and making contact with the outside world only once a week when he telephoned the art director of the magazine. Ill with emphysema, he continued to contribute regularly, and his last cartoon was published the week he died (on February 22, 1968—ironically, at the time of the forty-third annual anniversary issue of the magazine). The New York Times printed his obituary on the front page, signifying perhaps that in his person and in his work, he had so typified a New Yorker as to be archetypal of the breed.

            But, as we've seen, he actually scorned the breed—and not just in his later work. In so doing, he was indeed typical of the New Yorker cartoonist, whose cartoons ridiculed the so-called New York sophisticates. Even if Arno did not invent the single-speaker gag cartoon, his distinctive deployment of word and image embodied the satirical spirit of Ross's magazine and thereby helped define The New Yorker itself.

            In recent years, alas, many of the New Yorker cartoons, it seems to me, are somewhat less scornful than Arno's. Moreover, many are particularly limp examples of the art of cartooning. Very often, in fact, the pictures contribute almost nothing to the humor. From the September 18, 1995, issue we have this caption: "Look, I'm doing a little me-time right now. Why don't you go ahead and do a little you-time, and then I'll be over at eight for a little us-time."

            The with-it aspirations of the speaker are sufficiently ridiculed in this utterance without our knowing that the speaker is male and is talking into a telephone.

            But for every one like this, we have something from George Booth that cannot survive without the picture.

            Like most New Yorker cartoonists, Booth developed not only a distinctive rendering style (with a rickety albeit somehow fluid line and visual clutter galore) but a cartoon milieu uniquely his own. Booth's cartoons are populated by cranky antique suburbanites and infested with equally antic pets, spastic dogs and catatonic cats, who either loll about, oblivious of whatever else is going on, or have fits in the middle of the livingroom. Booth's sense of humor is best expressed through this ensemble of manic misfits. Wizened old Mrs. Ritterhouse, the energetic violinist with the neighborhood "orchestra," is one of Booth's cast; she's patterned after his mother. Other regulars include phlegmatic garage mechanics, "the man in the tub," yard sale entrepreneurs, "the lady in the cap" and her paramour Leon, and the unnamed bachelor with the dog. He has no name, Booth explains, because he doesn't have any friends and therefore has no need of a name.

            "His repertory company," Lorenz notes in his The Essential George Booth, "includes a tag-sale assortment of cat ladies, plant nuts, eccentrics, misfits, and losers. He records their adventures with affection and a passionate love of detail."

            And the comedy of Booth's cartoons is almost wholly reliant upon the juxtaposition of his pictures of this bizarre repertory and what members of it say to one another. In this blending of the visual and the verbal, Booth is firmly in the tradition of the New Yorker masters. Except that he conjures up all his own gag ideas.

            And what of Irvin? Irvin continued to preside at those weekly art meetings until Ross died in 1951; shortly after that, the artist feuded with the new management and stopped doing work regularly although he retained his putative position until he retired due to ill health in 1955. He had lived in Newton, Connecticut, commuting to New York for most of his career. In 1968, he moved permanently to a home he had purchased in 1948 in Estate Le Grange near Fredericksted, the Virgin Islands, where he died after suffering several strokes.

            Meanwhile, the gag cartoon proliferated and evolved a little more, continuing to establish verbal-visual blending as the vital aspect of the form. Following The New Yorker's lead, such magazines as The Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, and Look began using more and more cartoons, and the cartoons were soon exclusively of the "single speaker" type. In less than a half-dozen years after The New Yorker's launch, the venerable "he-she" cartoon disappeared from the landscape of magazine cartooning. In the fall of 1933, Esquire was launched, inaugurating the next phase in the evolution of the magazine cartoon: the full-color full-page cartoon. Judge and Life had occasionally published a cartoon in color, but Esquire made it a regular practice. (Collier's also eventually published cartoons in color but not as full pages.) At The New Yorker, Ross continued printing cartoons in black-and-white, and when he was urged to consider doing color cartoons, he responded with a typical Ross-ism: "What's funny about red?"

            During the heyday of magazine cartooning, which lasted, by my calculation, from the mid-1930s until the 1960s, the major weekly magazines used over 200 cartoons a month. Adding in such monthly magazines as True and Argosy, the monthly market probably devoured more than 400 cartoons. And when Playboy appeared on the newsstands, the market expanded by another dozen or so a month.

            The last step in the evolution of the gag cartoon was taken by Virgil Franklin Partch II. Born in 1916, Partch signed his cartoons VIP (a distortion of his initials which he began affixing to his work while in high school) and may have single-handedly jolted the genre of the gag cartoon out of its verbal complacency in the 1930s and into its most imaginative era, roughly the 1940s and 1950s.

            Partch began working at Disney Studios in the early thirties, but by the dawn of the next decade, some of his cohorts there had convinced him to try freelancing cartoons to magazines. He sold his first to Collier's (which published it February 14, 1942) and gave up animation. His work was distinguished by its highly visual content: the joke usually depended upon a bizarre picture which made thclick to enlargee caption comic. At a restaurant, a woman is shown with a fork-full of spaghetti on her head as she asks her male companion across the table, "How do you like me as a blonde?" In a hotel lobby, a score of identical men are milling around and one accosts another, saying, "Your face is familiar, but I don't recall your name." His reliance upon his pictures to do more than simply set the scene demonstrated vividly the narrative value of the visual element of a cartoon.

            As celebrated as his wacky sense of humor was his zany rendering style that displayed a certain nonchalance about ordinary anatomy. A frequent objection was made to his unabashed disregard for the number of fingers that are customarily issued with each human hand. To this carping criticism, Partch responded patiently: "I draw a stock hand when it is doing something, such as pointing, but when the hand is hanging by some guy's side, those old fingers go in by the dozens. And why not? At Disney, I spent four years drawing three fingers and a thumb. I'm just making up for that anatomical crime" ("Partch"). When the magazine market began drying up in the late 1950s, Partch turned to newspaper syndication with Big George, a panel cartoon (1960-1989).

            With the virtual collapse of the great general interest weekly magazines in the sixties, an enormous market for magazine gag cartoons evaporated. Or, rather, dissipated into scores of special interest magazines. There, the gag cartoon continues to flourish, a verbal-visual blend combining brevity and clarity in order to precipitate an abrupt arrival of complete comprehension—and a laugh. A vivid demonstration of the mutual importance of words and pictures in the art form, the modern gag cartoon is the haiku of cartooning, and no definition of the medium can be complete without embracing it.


Almost all the foregoing appeared in a collection of essays, The Language of Comics (University Press of Mississippi, 2001), edited by Robin Varnum and Christina T. Gibbons.

Return to Harv's Hindsights