Saturday, June 24, 2017

Elements of Surprise, Part I

Stunback Saturday today presents an excerpt from Summerfield Baldwin's scholarly treatise on the topic of the Elements of Surprise in Cartoon, from the July, 1917 issue of Cartoons Magazine, the foremost academic journal of comicologists in its day.  Take it away, Mr. Baldwin:
Carlisle, I believe, is responsible for the statement that "it is in and through symbols that man, consciously or unconsciously, lives, works, and has his being; those ages, moreover, are accounted the noblest which can best recognize symbolical worth, and prize it the highest." No more appropriate motto could be inscribed over the gate to a cartoonists' hall of fame, for it is by means of symbols that the cartoonist has most of all contrived to charm and amuse the generation to which he has come.

. . .

By definition, the art of the cartoonist is to parody fact without imitating it. But parody obviously requires representation, and the solution of this complex and partly self-contradictory problem lies in the symbol. The symbol represents without copying. Hence, to construct an effective parody, one must first invent such symbols as are at once intrinsically humorous and instantly recognizable. The cartoonist has perforce adopted this solution into his æsthetic creed, and, presumably, before he undertakes to create a new comic character, he compiles from his own imagination, and (to a certain extent) from the imaginations of his fellow-artists, an exhaustive dictionary of the symbols necessary to portray his pen-child's reactions upon the highly artificial life it is destined to lead.
"Mutt and Jeff" by Bud Fisher
One of the first entries in this dictionary is unquestionably labeled Surprise. For a good part of the humorous effect of a strip of comics is due to a dénouement in which one of the protagonists is astonished by the word or deed of the other. ... [I]n at least half of the cartoonist's work, the appeal is made by the shock caused by the impertinent, unintelligent, or witty remark, or by some method of a more physical nature. There is, consequently, a tremendous need for a good collection of surprise symbols.

. . . 

The oldest and best known hyperbolical symbol of surprise is the exaggeration of quite an ordinary start into a complete back-somersault. Mr. Voight employs this method considerably in his Mr. Petey series.
"Mr. Petey" by C.A. Voigt
Thus in one of the strips before me, Petey Dink and Henrietta are in their bathing suits (they wintered at Palm Beach, you know); they are posing (so they suppose) for a society photographer. When this courteous young gentleman comes up and asks them to move a little, so that he can photograph the couple behind them, the blow to their self-esteem so shocks them that they immediately back-somersault themselves out of the picture.

The effect of the stout nether extremities of Henrietta is, as you can imagine, deliciously indiscreet. Mr. Voigt apparently funks trying to do the facial expression of surprise, for in most of the astonishment pictures of his that I have seen, he arranges the composition so that the back-somersault carries the faces out of the range of his pen.

The natural temptation of the easy-going but hard-worked comic page cartoonist is ultimately to eliminate the rather complex apparatus of a back-somersault by so cutting off his picture that only the feet and lower legs of the surprised character are visible. Consequently, within recent years, this device has become one of the most common of the symbols of astonishment. 
"Baron Bean" by George Herriman
Probably Tad was the first to employ it. The feet of the Judge, projecting above his official desk, when a sally of some petty criminal or pretty jury woman has upset his judicial dignity, have enough irreverence for law about them to satisfy our suppressed wish (as Doctor Freud would say) to commit contempt of court. Then, too, the desk furnished an excellent excuse for hiding the rest of the Judge's person.

It had a similar value in Mr. Hoban's Jerry on the Job, when the job consisted of being a jack-of-all-trades around a railroad station. Many a lunch-counter customer has by some unintended witticism thrown Jerry off his balance, and eliminated all but the disproportionately large feet of that youth from the picture.
"Jerry on the Job" by Walter Hoban
Jerry, as you know, has been guarding a railroad lately (military business, by the by, has been creeping into the comic section very rapidly) and one day, one Private Matters' idiotic excuse for neglect of orders caused Jerry utterly to lose his equilibrium and to fall flat on the station platform. This particular symbol of surprise was quite a pleasant surprise in itself, especially as with the hyperbole there was coupled a slightly altered arbitrary device for indicating Jerry's state of mind. The usual cloud was present, but instead of the customary star, or question mark, or exclamation point, there was a small, thick black cross, inexpressibly mournful in its connotation. But I am anticipating.
And here, having already exhausted the attention span of the average internet surfer, Stunback Saturday must take a break. We will continue the with the wisdom of Summerfield Baldwin in half a fortnight at this very same juncture.

Next week: Hold onto your hats, gentelemen!

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