The Art of the Funnies: An Aesthetic History

By Robert C. Harvey | Go to book overview

Meanwhile . . . An Ending to Begin With

We can't ask for a better place to stop than the trajectory of Watterson's fantasy. Hanging here in midair, momentarily poised at the apex of his visual flight, we have an excellent opportunity to view the surrounding landscape and to take stock as our lives flash before us. And the prospect is encouraging despite its hazards. The triumphant march of Calvin and Hobbes across the funnies pages of the nation has been emblematic: it has asserted the importance of the visual aspects of the medium at a time in its history when the verbal seemed ascendant. And Watterson has not been alone in endeavoring to redress the imbalance. In 1992, for instance, "Wiley" ( David Wiley Miller) introduced Non Sequitur, a single-panel comic strip that aggressively reaffirms the vital role of the visual in comics. Believing that too many of his colleagues had become overly verbal in their humor, Wiley deliberately made his punch lines dependent upon the pictures. He often used words to set up the gag, and he composed his strip-wide panel so that it must be "read" its entire length, from left to right, from verbal setup at the left to the visual punch line at the right (see figure 125, last chapter). Or vice versa. And he often insinuated sight gags into his drawings, little bits of comedy only vaguely related to the main joke--pictures of manic house cats or malevolent children or bored by- standers. Non Sequitur became a top seller virtually overnight, attesting to the potent appeal of Wiley's approach.

In the last analysis, though, we need not fear for the vitality of the medium. The form itself is a curiously robust and persuasive advocate for the interdependency of the visual and the verbal. Even in strips like Dilbert and Cathy, where the drawings veer toward technical incompetence, the visuals are a powerful component of the form: it is difficult to imagine either of these strips drawn in any other way, so thoroughly have we been lured into the toils of their unique visual-verbal blends. Clearly, as long as there are cartoonists, stories will be told in which the pictures and the words blend indivisibly to achieve their narrative purposes.

Meanwhile, we can take heart from the successes of Calvin and Hobbes, Non Sequitur, even Dilbert and Cathy. Each of these works is a highly eccentric achievement that affirms through its uniqueness the pivotal role of individual creativity in cartooning. This medium, more than almost any other in the entertainment industry, responds to the individual's impulse for self-expression. And its vitality is perforce a resounding celebration of the worth of the individual.

-239-

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