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 springtime.
As the epic pandemic grinds on, the routine of everyday life has been dramatically disrupted. We yearn for something predictable and comforting. Mother Nature provides the relief we seek, for we know that even after the most brutally cold winter, spring will follow. Spring is the season of flowers blooming and life reawakening—and that’s precisely why crafting cartoons about spring is so challenging. What’s funny about spring?
One approach is to contrast spring with the season that preceded it. A particularly harsh winter can bring surprises once the temperature rises, as revealed in this brilliantly understated cartoon by Danny Shanahan.
Of course, one has to wait out winter before one can welcome spring. That’s the theme of this cartoon by Joe Dator, which captures the spirit of compromise necessary for most marriages to succeed.
Barbara Smaller presents a domestic scene where compromise has not ruled the day, in this cartoon that considers another rite of spring: housecleaning.
For visual virtuosity, few compete with veteran cartoonist George Booth. It’s worth savoring this landscape of carefully detailed detritus, piled the length and height of the cartoon. Note the half-eaten tire in the foreground, lying next to the funnel attached to bent pipes. On the other side of the walkway is a bathtub full of junk. A sign reading School Bus sits improbably nearby. The partially open front door leads to more rubbish piled up to the dormers. The caption, by contrast, is a model of economy.
We wait excitedly for the first signs of spring. We know it has arrived when we hear the chirping of the first robin of the season. In Chris Weyant’s cartoon, set in an urban side street, the chirping sound is all you’ll get unless you hand over a tenner. The humor arises from the contrast between our image of a robin heralding the coming of spring—probably flying off after pulling a worm from the moist soil—and a bird held captive in a box to be exploited. The peephole in the box is inspired, and allows the reader to imagine the trapped bird.
Sports fans look forward to spring as the beginning of the baseball season. That’s been put on hold this year, but the yearnings are still there. In another bear hibernation cartoon, Tom Toro imagines where the players have been during the off-season. The players, all bearded, rub sleep from their eyes as they stagger into the daylight, ready to play nine innings. The bear observes the spectacle with curiosity. This is a fine, wordless cartoon that presents a complete narrative.
Peter Steiner interprets “spring training” in terms unrelated to baseball. In his shorts and T-shirt, this guy’s just enjoying the sunshine. He’s joined by a singing bird, perhaps a robin, overhead. It’s another excellent cartoon without a caption, although of course the gag relies on the boxed title.
Medical humor has taken a hiatus, as it hits closer to home than one might like, but this Drew Dernavich cartoon takes us from the confines of the operating room and places us in the comforting embrace of nature, or at least Central Park, judging from the buildings in the background. The contrast is surprising and absurd, and of course therein lies the humor.
Depend on Bruce Eric Kaplan to take a dimmer view of outdoor work, and of springtime in general. We’re pretty sure this farmer is not referring to fertilizer.
In a cartoon from an earlier era, Lee Lorenz examines how spring manifests itself among heaven’s angels, and it’s not a pretty sight. The gag is a bit heavy-handed, but the casual yet assured flow of line and dramatic inking make this cartoon a visual delight.
Another rite of spring is the collegiate spring break, another casualty of the times. Carolita Johnson presents a modern-day Venus, complete with arms to pull up her bikini top and pull down her bottom, a flasher for the ages. Not surprisingly, this cartoon was a bit much for The New Yorker, but found a home in The Rejection Collection.
We conclude where we started, with the surprises that greet us with the warming weather. Poor Frosty, now more like Melty. Unlike the man enjoying the sunshine on a park bench in the Steiner cartoon, Frosty in this cartoon by Mick Stevens has become a puddle of his former self. Mick Stevens, not incidentally, is a Florida resident, and although he’s of retirement age, he continues to produce great cartoons.