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Guest Post Friday: A Skeptical View of Animated Cartoons

Filed under: The Catbird Seat: Friends & Guests   Tagged: , , ,

Our friend Jeff Simmermon, fearless globe-trotting reporter, weighs in on those animated versions of New Yorker cartoons that you know and love (and some that you’ve never seen before). Read on.

The New Yorker’s website has merged its paper cartoons with web animation into a series of ten-second creations that deliver neither the punch of a static cartoon nor the fun of a quick web video.

Ten seconds is eight or nine seconds too long. Single-panel comics are haiku jammed halfway through a looking glass; the process of getting them is nearly immediate, but requires your perception of the situation to flip over halfway. It’s safe to say that New Yorker subscribers are some of the world’s most practiced readers, and safe to assume that it takes those readers two seconds, tops, to read a New Yorker cartoon.

This is a good amount of time to invest in a cartoon. If it’s not funny, it’s quickly forgotten. And if it’s hilarious, the rapid intake makes the cartoon hit harder. The New Yorker’s cartoons are rarely hilarious; they’re not meant to be knee-slapping guffaw-makers—it’s just not their style. Rather, they’re dry and sly, a subtle inversion of ordinary life that makes the lips curl upward a bit. I often think “Wow, that’s funny,” but rarely do I show it. Drumming up expectations for the cartoon and stretching it out five times as long in video form deflates the fun.

Here’s a breakdown of a recent release, an animation of a 1999 Harry Bliss cartoon:

The intro music—usually a few jazzy notes on the bass while a cute cat pulls a sign bearing the “RingTails Presents/A New Yorker Cartoon” logo across the screen—says “Get ready, folks, you’re gonna laugh at something cute and wacky!” We’ll just see about that.

The “camera” pulls back to reveal a doctor holding a needle. As soon as the nervous little boy is in the frame, we’ve got the whole story. Because doctors are supposed to say something reassuring—and we know we’re watching a cartoon—the first law of comedy is to do the exact opposite of what the audience expects from a normal situation. So of course the doctor says “This is going to hurt like hell.” The little boy’s weeping underscores the point too heavily. It’s the cartoon itself saying “See what I did there?” The whole enterprise would have been a little more interesting if the doctor had said “Relax. You’ll just feel a little pinch and then our benevolent alien overlords will welcome you into the comforts of their heavenly bosom.”

Comics are notoriously difficult to translate into moving pictures, and getting a familiar cartoonist’s style right in motion can be tough. Gahan Wilson’s loopy, maniacal style, for instance, translates visually but suffers in translation. Nevertheless, apparently there are folks who like these little hybrids. Editrix Emily Gordon herself told me over coffee, “You know, those video cartoons are really popular.” I’m sure they are, and so are Big Macs and American Idol—quick, cheesy, and overdone.

Jeff Simmermon

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I’m not a fan of the animated New Yorker cartoons either. What I’d like to know is why doesn’t the magazine take some of the filthy lucre it makes off its compilation of cat and lawyer cartoon books, and it pump into this project? Give a pile of cash to Roz Chast or Gahan Wilson to fund a 2 or 3 minute original cartoon series. I’d sit and watch ‘em.

Very interesting take… with which i totally (but respectfully) disagree! i am a professional illustrator and web cartoonist, and the happy owner of the New Yorker archive DVDs. i do not find that a 10-second animation takes anything away from the same “gag” printed. True, it does sometimes, but more often it does not, and the animation makes it even better, way better for me—i am thinking of classics such as “Eddie, you’re a hell of a mouse!” or the memorable “I should have bought more crap.”, and many many others. For my taste, some are a little too “appuyés” (sorry, i am not sure how to put it in English), but imho, it was and is a brilliant idea to port the NYorker cartoons to animation, and i hope this will be continued.

For what it’s worth, my feeling is that when a magazine cartoon is done, it’s done! Complete. Final. Animation is great when it’s designed from the ground up as an animation, but trying to stretch out a magazine cartoon, which is designed specifically as a stationary image to be seen and comprehended in a millisecond or two into a multi-second visual and audial event creates a weak, unfunny hybrid which doesn’t serve either form.

For me, it depends on whether the original joke is extended and/or overplayed as an animation. I watched a bunch of the cartoons the other day, and some seemed to me the perfect length, so worked as animations. Other gags seem belabored, as Jeff points out, and add elements that aren’t in the one-panel cartoon (like the little boy’s gratuitous wailing in his example above). I’ll find a couple of examples and post ‘em here.

I’m thrilled to see a dialogue on here … thanks to all of you guys for caring about this!

Kevin Fitzpatrick: I think the reason the New Yorker doesn’t follow your suggestion (which I think is a great idea) is a simple triumph of commerce over art — they don’t have to. If these cartoons are enormously popular, they’re getting enough pageviews as it is. Why make something more expensive (and better quality) when something cheaper and low-maintenance brings in the same money? This is not a criticism of the New Yorker, but more why great art dies in the free market overall.

Jean-Paul: Sometimes the mutation from one medium to another works. Like Spiderman I and II, for example. Other times, it’s like Jeff Goldblum going through the transporter in The Fly — good idea, but one tiny bad thing gets in there and the next thing you know you’ve got a hybrid monster puking on a lab table. I’m not trying to negate your opinion here, but can you expand upon why these things work for you?

I feel like Bill Plympton’s shorts would be perfect for the site. They’re artistically flawless, funny as hell, and made for movement.

Jeff: asking me to expand on my thoughts and tell you why many of the NYorker cartoons ported to animation work for me forces me to ask myself the same question! Ouch!

i keep all the cartoon animations neatly arranged in a iTunes dedicated playlist, and once in a while i re-watch (is this correct?) one i particularly like—perhaps gags that one really enjoys are like little friends tucked away somewhere that one visits for the brief pleasure of their company?

But i do not think that it is familiarity that is involved here. i suppose the nature of the gag determines if it is as successful—or more or less successful— animated than in print. i mean, in a printed cartoon, the passing of time is implied, or irrelevant to the gag (true for sounds too). i think these NYorker cartoons work for me, because often, the concrete passing of time, or the adding of sound, strengthens the joke.

For instance, there is a cartoon where a depressed lab rat has hanged himself in his cage: for me, the swinging at the end of the rope—and the squeaking noise it makes!—are terrific added observations. Was the print version in need of these add-ons to be funny? No of course, but for me here, the animated version is a more unforgettable way of telling the “story”. As i type this, i realize that animating a gag may turn it into something else, or at least, may necessitate a different way of telling the joke: for instance, because the swinging rat in its lab cage is in itself a great (and sad) gag, do we really need the doctor’s comment on “the discouraging data on the anti-depressant”? Perhaps no, but is it a different joke, or the same joke rewritten for animation?

i understand this is totally subjective. Some people do not even find most of the NYorker cartoons funny: would they like the animated versions better? i am not sure.

There are many examples where i find the animation of the gag to be its natural extension: “The Grim Shopper” comes to mind (i could not see the print cartoon tomorrow without its animated version playing in my head).

It does not work every time, i agree. But for me, it works often enough to wait for the next animated cartoon to show up in my RSS feed! (Sorry if my “explanation” is a little confused! i hope it still makes sense.) Thanks for reading.

Jean-Paul: Just to allay your fears, I find your command of English quite exemplary. Keep up the great observations and thanks for commenting!

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