Cartoon critics Phil Witte and Rex Hesner look behind gags to debate what makes a cartoon tick. This week our intrepid critics take a look at man’s best friend.
Consider the dog—loyal, obedient, trusting—how different from the typical human! Perhaps that’s why dogs make such excellent companions. It’s that extraordinarily close relationship many of us have with our dogs that’s the basis for countless cartoons.
Not all cartoon dogs are alike, of course. The cartoonist must decide how dog-like the canine character should be. For example, is Fido fetching a stick or heading into a business meeting? Naked but for fur or sporting a business suit? Reliant upon humans or an independent actor? A realistic dog, for example, doesn’t speak, understands little of our speech, and barely thinks. Behold such a dog in Jack Ziegler’s brilliant, caption-less cartoon. The finger wagging mirroring the tail wagging is genius.
Danny Shanahan has drawn dozens of great dog cartoons. Sometimes the pups are doing dog-like things, like going for a walk; however, the settings are unexpected, as in this cartoon, also without a caption, in time for the waning days of the baseball season. This doggie is delighted that the catcher is calling for an intentional walk.
Lassie, that heroic dog of stage and screen, was able to react to calls for help with the speed and professionalism of a human rescue squad. Shanahan plays on those qualities by depicting Lassie as both a potential savior and a therapist’s patient in this two-panel cartoon. In both panels, Lassie is depicted as a collie without human physical attributes, but that doesn’t rule out human neuroses.
Next, Alex Gregory focuses more explicitly on the human-like thoughts and emotions of dogs. The dog here looks ordinary, but suffers in silence, the owner unaware of his pet’s very human feelings of frustration and disappointment for not being properly recognized.
Moving along the dog-human continuum, cartoon canines may express themselves verbally to another dog, just as human do. Charles Barsotti drew a slew of dog cartoons in which the ca-nine characters exist in a world of their own. In this example, the patient and therapist are the same species—indeed, perhaps the same breed:
A line is crossed when a dog speaks directly to its owner. That’s what happening in this cartoon by Leo Cullum, creator of many canine cartoons. The speaker looks like a dog and fetches a stick like a dog, but the cutting remark resets the balance between pet and owner.
Harry Bliss loves to include cute dogs in his cartoons. Here’s one where the pooch not just talks, but shivers with fear and anxiety over the loss of his most treasured possession. What kind of burglar would go to the trouble of tying up a dog? Probably a cat burglar.
Mick Stevens pushes his dog a bit further. His dog can speak, react like a human, and even use a cell phone. But his dog still looks like and behaves on a basic level like a dog.
A second line is crossed when cartoon dogs not only verbally interact with humans but appear human-like. They stand upright, wear clothes, and even offer professional advice. The next cartoon, by Shanahan, features such an anthropomorphized doggie. The hound holds a medical degree, yet can’t let go of certain ancient urges.
Here’s another Dr. Dog cartoon, this one by Leo Cullum. The premise relies on the old switched-roles concept, but the expressions on the faces of man and dog delight.
The eternal struggle of dog versus cat is played out many cartoons. In this cartoon by Drew Dernavich, both species are clothed in dark suits, seated across from each other, legs crossed, apparently negotiating a business deal. Interestingly, the cartoonist has drawn his characters shoeless, possibly to maintain their basic animal qualities. They are human from the neck down and the ankles up, tail notwithstanding.
For the apotheosis of dog as man, or perhaps man as dog, we turn again to Leo Cullum. The transformation is complete: These martini- and beer-sipping characters hatching their schemes of domination are simply businessmen with dog heads and paws—clear evidence that businessmen and dogs can both turn vicious.