Cartoons may look like the sidekicks to the printed word, but the eyeful of realization they offer can be quicker to make a point than a mouthful of words.
There’s nothing like cutting wit combined with a sharp line to make a viewer laugh, wince, or just go, hmmm.
That’s especially true of political and editorial cartoons.
Now as we enter the height of the election season, it is time to celebrate cartooning by taking more than a passing glance at the fine art of making a point in pictures.
To do so we engaged three cartoonists and teased them into explaining themselves in words in order to help us tune our eyes to their line of work — make that lines.
Jennifer Hayden is a Hopewell-based graphic novelist who shares her visual thoughts on a blog found on her website, www.jenniferhayden.com.
Her 2015 “The Story of My Tits,” was nominated for an Eisner Award and named one of the best graphic novels of the year by the New York Times, Library Journal, GQ, Comic Book Resources, Paste, Mental Floss, Forbes, and NPR.
As she notes on her website, her first book, the 2011 autobiographical collection “Underwire” was “excerpted in The Best American Comics 2013, and her work has appeared in several other anthologies.”
She also created two webcomics, the 2013 self-published “Rushes: A Comix Diary” and “S’Crapbook,” named a Notable Comic in The Best American Comics 2012. In 2018 she self-published the short comic, “A Flight of Chickens.”
Hayden says her impulse to use the visual line was related to the “insufficiency of language” and notes the following:
“For many years I tried to be a writer before discovering graphic novels, and the only good line I wrote was: ‘Life passes easily over the heads of words.’
“I was always drawing little cartoons expressing my experience of life as hilarious and ridiculous, full of contradiction and misunderstanding. I could never express this chaos in my writing, but when I added images, the expression was complete. I had the most amazing sense of freedom.
“All of us who make art — novels, plays, symphonies, dances — are just trying to capture what it is to be alive. ‘This is what it feels like; this is what it means to be alive.’
“Just as musicians always choose the instrument that to them sounds most like a human voice, artists pick the medium that most closely accesses their feeling of being alive. I am also a musician, a fiddle player, but that comes second for me.
“Drawing is the thing that takes me the furthest into what life seems to be all about, and it has been since I was very small.
“I’m a storyteller, so it’s all about the story. But I don’t work with much of an outline. I let each panel arrive as it wants to, because I like to be surprised.
“I start with the words because they are harder for me, then create the image. The text and image talk to each other, which is another level of expression graphic novels add.
“Sometimes I see the words for a panel first and struggle over the art, and sometimes I see the image first and struggle with the words. But I believe graphic novelists and their readers have a unique desire and ability to absorb the verbal and visual at the same time.
“One more thing: I’d like to thank U.S. 1 for giving me my start. I moved to the Princeton area after college in the 1980s and sold three stories to U.S. 1. One was about learning to drive way too late in life, another was about taking some tests to determine my ideal career and being told to join the clergy, and the third was about my local wedding whose most impressive guest was almost Hurricane Hugo. While the great American novels I was writing in an attic in Rocky Hill were endless and tortured and dull (I’ll burn them soon), these stories for U.S. 1 were the beginning of my love affair with autobiography.”
Asked to provide an example of a work and how it works, Hayden provided the following explanation of a panel from her breast cancer memoir, “The Story of My Tits,” published by Top Shelf/IDW in 2015:
“It shows exactly what I love about the graphic novel medium, which is the sneaky relationship that can develop between text and image. Here my boyfriend is promising me — while we’re in the car — that he will someday marry me. I felt at that moment that he was my knight in shining armor.
“But in the book I didn’t want to say so. I wanted the reader to just take it in — his sincerity, his bewilderment, his youth, my naive delight with a simple promise. So I put him in a full suit of armor on a horse to make my point. The horse, by the way, has a full suit of matching armor, thanks to Google images and my ADD. A lot of what I draw is purely for my own entertainment.”
Bill Hogan, of Morrsiville, Pennsylvania, is the retired editorial cartoonist for the Bergen Record, where he created thousands of images for the major New Jersey daily on subjects ranging from political intrigue to fast food.
Mainly creating fine art painting — and currently participating in the Arts Council of Princeton’s exhibition “Art and Music: Touching Sound” — Hogan has been unable to suppress his reflex to translate current events into line and color and has contributed some of his cartoons to U.S. 1 as part of the Art of the Quarantine series.
Asked about his reason for continuing to draw cartoons and his approach, Hogan noted the following:
“Let me begin with Trump almost four years ago. He was lying so much and tweeting/texting by the hour and applauding his ego and firing appointees constantly, that I had to do some cartoons about him.
“I took 8×11 paper and drew a rough idea in the morning from Trump news and then used my trusty black Pilot and quickly finished it off. Brought the drawing into PhotoShop and added color. Then posted it on Facebook. (It) usually took about an hour. I wasn’t interested in a finished polished cartoon. I had other things to fill my day.
“I completed about 100 and stopped because there was so much news about Trump that I couldn’t keep up with his BS.
“I’ve been drawing since I was a kid, my mom and dad saw it. I eventually attended art school in New York City and majored in editorial illustration, not cartooning (no degree at that time — just a certificate upon graduating).
“In Santa Fe, New Mexico, I freelanced weekly for the Santa Fe Reporter while painting hotel interiors. My cartoon ideas were good, but the drawings were kind of raw. At the time I thought they were ‘great.’
“I do think in images. With cartooning I see, hear, or read something that stimulates my imagination to create an idea on a surface and bring my idea to fruition through frustration and joy.
“I see it this way: If I read something, I put it in my sieve — brain — and digest it until images come to life. Then I compose the images that hopefully make some sense. Same goes for my paintings, except no narrative, just images connected in some way.”
Hogan offered the following as an example of keeping his editorial wit in shape:
“I drew the ‘King’ in March, 2017, a month after he took office. I felt and still feel, as soon as he took office, what he wanted was to be a king-like president in all his silk and glossy satin garb and glory, powerfully parading around in the White House halls at night.
“I realized right from the beginning this guy was a charlatan entertainer who wanted all the focus and attention on him and only him. What’s better than to draw him as a king with all those colorful clothes and medals and crown? I just had to find a way of graphically expressing it. A king came to mind. The rest was gravy.”
Ken Wilkie may be familiar to many in the region as both a longtime and now retired teacher at Riverside Elementary School in Princeton and an occasional U.S. 1 illustrator.
With a degree in art and history from Rutgers University and additional study with nationally syndicated cartoonist Mort Gerberg at the New School in New York, the Hamilton-based Wilkie also has a long career of creating cartoons for numerous publications, ranging from Saturday Evening Post to Good Housekeeping.
Wilkie said the following about his approach and start:
“I can see (the cartoon) in my mind. An image just comes from something I read or heard. If a picture is worth a thousand words then it may be easier to draw the picture instead of writing 1,000 words.
“A lot of New Yorker cartoons are just illustrations to turn humorous word play into something that can be published and paid for.
“My artistic career has its roots in my grandmother’s wallpaper. We lived with her for the first five years of my life. By the time we moved, when I started kindergarten, I had added crayon or pencil marks on all the wallpaper within the reach of my five-year-old frame. My grandmother worked as a clerk in the shipping office of the local steel plant. She had tons of paper forms.
“These drawings of patterns on the paper my grandmother had around the house were portable and could be shown to neighbors, relatives, and co-workers at the plant. I began to get much more complimentary feedback. ‘He’s quite an artist! He should take lessons!’
‘This kind of acceptance and praise for my ‘God-given talents’ was a passport to socialization. This was a boost to my ego that was very valuable in those elementary school days.
“Unfortunately, my school didn’t offer art until seventh grade. Ironically, I ended up teaching elementary art for 40 years.
“I think I’m more likely to verbally summarize and create from there. Cartoons have to be very economical when it comes to captions, dialogue, and whatever other category of verbiage there might be. Cartoons are meant to just make amusing breaks in text in some magazines. Our eyes scan over it rapidly from left to right as we read in that direction.”
As an example of his work, Wilkie submitted the following image and note:
“The art cartoon was triggered by a very pleasant visit to the Guggenheim sometime in the late 1980s. They had a retrospective on the Impressionists. So I went to the top of their spiraling staircase as that was where the chronologically organized exhibit began and descended to the end of the exhibit on the ground floor. It was well done and very informative. Along the way there just a few clusters of visitors examining the art.
“In the hour or so I was there I noticed that I heard almost no English spoken. These probably were all tourists from Asia or Europe traveling in the summer. I thought that it would have been interesting to hear what they thought about what they were looking at. It brought to mind the old expression ‘I don’t know art but I know what I like.’ It occurred to me that we find what is familiar and understandable when we look at art.
“Somehow that triggered this insightful cartoon, where the viewers who are in solid black are looking at a solid black rectangle are saying ‘OOH’ and ‘AH!’ suggesting there is something they see of themselves or what is familiar to them. Similarly the figures full of dots at the center panel full of dots are having that reaction also. In the last panel full of horizontal lines is perplexing two figures full of vertical lines except for the final figure. He’s tilting his head to the side and sees his vertical lines are horizontal when he changes his view.”