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 Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving-themed images provide plenty of material for cartoonists to work with: turkeys, Pilgrims, family dinners, the Macy’s parade, football on T.V. And, like any good storyteller writing fiction, cartoonists often develop a gag around conflict: Pilgrim vs. native American, turkey vs. turkey eater, family member vs. family member.
We begin, logically enough, with the first Thanksgiving, when the peoples of two radically different cultures sat down to enjoy a hearty feast to celebrate their harmonious coexistence. In the centuries since then, we have gained a more critical perspective on that event, giving rise to some pointed cartoons, such as this one by P.C. Vey:
The Pilgrim is nothing but honest—brutally so. The caption is set up with a pleasant compliment, followed by a punchline that lands like a right uppercut. More dark than funny, this cartoon may elicit a knowing nod rather than a chuckle.
Cultural conflict is considered from the native Americans’ perspective in this next cartoon, by J.B. Handelsman. The cartoon relies on two gag techniques: anachronism (the 17th century native addresses the modern-day political issue of immigration); and switched roles (the Pilgrims are the intruding immigrants). The cartoon was published more than 20 years ago, but is equally relevant today, and probably will remain so for decades to come.
Turkeys—dead and roasted on our plates, or alive and gobbling—are the first thing that most people associate with Thanksgiving. Plenty of cartoons play on the big bird’s holiday role. Danny Shanahan sets his T-Day cartoon in a familiar locale—a bar—where a wrecked turkey drinks alone, and the bartender explain what could have been. To his credit, the cartoonist does not make an easy Wild Turkey bourbon whiskey joke.
Shanahan does not shy away from considering the turkey’s ultimate Thanksgiving Day appearance, from the bird’s perspective. Here, gobblers size up a steaming cohort laid out in a coffin like the main course on a buffet table.
Zach Kanin takes a step toward the bizarre in a cartoon that blends the prisoner’s-last-words-before-being-executed cartoon trope with an adultery theme, adding a strange bestiality twist:
Jason Adam Katzenstein combines turkey and football in this whimsical cartoon. The graphic is simple and bold, and gets the point across immediately. An extra point is awarded for creating a wordless cartoon.
Julia Suits imagines a turkey-less Thanksgiving feast. A giant root vegetable graces the family dinner table, perhaps as a nod to the growing interest in vegetarianism. While there’s a caption, the humor arises primarily from the oddly alarming image.
An object linked to Thanksgiving is the cornucopia, or horn of plenty, an ancient symbol of abundance. People tend to overindulge on Thanksgiving, leading to pledges of dieting after the holidays. James Stevenson combines these concepts in a clever cartoon that again turns on an unexpected image: the nearly empty cornucopia, offering only a few sad-looking vegetables and nuts.
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has been a holiday fixture for decades, and new floats appear, reflecting changes in popular culture. Why not keep up with the times, David Borchart seems to ask in this cartoon celebrating humiliation.
The traditional Thanksgiving Day meal itself is seldom a subject of controversy—but the guests are another matter. Roz Chast analyzes four such invitees at a bring-your-own agenda potluck.
Ellis Rosen offers an elegantly drawn cartoon that serves as a metaphor for the dinner table conflict to come. It’s the main event. The cartoonist has wisely chosen to leave it to us to imagine family members stepping into the ring.
We conclude with another Roz Chast cartoon, aptly titled “The Last Thanksgiving.” The guests depicted are not engaged with one another; rather, they are isolated in their own dietarily restricted silos. Perhaps that’s why there’s no dinner at the dinner table. Happy Thanksgiving!