NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

April 8, 2013

'I say it's spinach ...'

As Good As Your Word
Jonathan Wells

---- — The satirical or humorous sketches which we now call “cartoons” probably date from 1732 or thereabouts when William Hogarth created “A Harlot’s Progress” and “A Rake’s Progress.” The word “cartoon,” although it is much older, has been used for sketches of this kind only since 1843, when Punch, the English humor magazine, applied the term to such drawings in its pages. Cartoons have of course proliferated widely and depict all kinds of things. Usually they are humorous, but many also carry a serious or even tragic social message. They can become historical documents that show the clothes, manners and customs of a place or an era.

I find that very often when I am doing or discussing something, a relevant cartoon comes to mind that illuminates or makes it humorous. I would love on these occasions to produce the picture itself, but since I carry copies of them around in my brain but not in print, my challenge is to find good words with which to show the picture graphically to a listener.

Since there are millions of cartoons abroad in the land, I can touch on only a few of my favorites for illustration, from two sources — the New Yorker magazine and a wonderful anthology of the English humor magazine Punch. Although I think my words will suffice to convey the substance of the cartoon and its humor, see if your imagination creates a picture.

For starters, when I am trying to figure out how to find a missed call or something on my Model A cellphone, I quickly identify with the woman in a 1929 New Yorker magazine cartoon who, with an annoyed expression on her face, is saying into the receiver of a rather primitive telephone, “Well, if I dialed the wrong number, why did you answer the telephone?” Or perhaps I am even more like the pudgy man in a business suit in another New Yorker cartoon of much more recent vintage. He is sitting across a table from a person who is unmistakably a gypsy fortune-teller. As she gazes into the crystal ball in front of her she makes a prediction: “You will never catch up with the new technology.” Anyone but me ever feel that way?

Cartoons are often used to spoof our customs and mores. A 1954 Punch cartoon shows a family grouped eagerly in front of “the telly” — all but one boy who instead is engrossed a book. His mother is saying about him to a visitor, “We’re rather worried about William.” A prescient 1878 cartoon from the same source shows a British family communicating with relatives in Ceylon by “Edison’s Telephonoscope” — a giant TV screen!

Last in the cartoons-about-electronics category is the one dated 1881 entitled “The Wonders of Science.” It depicts a man in work clothes listening apprehensively to the then-very unfamiliar instrument, a telephone. “Now, Pat, what have you got there to drink?” says the boss on the other end of the telephone, who knows Pat’s failing. “Och, look at that now,” says Pat. “It’s me breath that done it.”

Gaffes in social situations are good material. One shows an obviously nervous young man standing before the desk of a middle-aged man of prosperous appearance. He is making the obligatory visit to seek Father’s permission to marry his daughter. “Well,” says Father (no doubt trying to evade responsibility), “have you seen her mother?” “Yes,” stammers the young man, “and I still want to marry your daughter.”

A little girl is standing next to a flower bed obviously well tended by a gardener. She has her hands clasped behind her and is looking contemplatively at the flowers. “What are you doing, Dear,” asks her mother. “Gardening,” says the little girl. “But that’s not gardening,” says Mother. “That’s the way Daddy does it,” replies the child.

Another classic — one of the kind that always makes one laugh — is the famous Peter Arno cartoon (probably from the ‘40s) showing a young lady with a prominent bosom and a somewhat fatuous smile seated on a stool in front of a bar, while her escort enjoins the bartender crisply to “Fill ‘er up!”

The television series called “The Addams Family” was based on the famous New Yorker cartoons of Charles Addams, whose schtick was the slightly macabre twist of his pictures. A very famous caption-less (none needed!) showed the family (Morticia, Lurch, Cousin Fester, et al) about to pour a cauldron of steaming liquid on the cheery group of Christmas carolers in front of the door below.

Finally, one of the still-quoted classics was drawn in 1928, not long after broccoli had been introduced from Italy to the United States. A little girl is seated in a high chair looking with distaste at an object on her plate. “It’s broccoli, Dear,” says her mother. “I say it’s spinach,” rejoins the girl, “and I say the hell with it.”

Creating good cartoons is a real art. Unfortunately, there are far too many “cartoons” in the newspapers in which clumsy crudeness and vulgarity are substituted for wit, imagination and skill. But we can save the good ones — they’re always fun to come back to.

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Jonathan Wells of Newbury can be contacted at Jon3sticks@gmail.com.