Saturday, July 1, 2017

Elements of Surprise, Part II

Smackback Saturday continues last week's essay on Surprise in Cartoons by some guy named Summerfield Butler, writing 100 years ago in Cartoons Magazine. Referring to cartoon conventions conveying shock, surprise and befuddlement as "symbols," Professor Butler had cited several examples of protagonists executing back-somersaults out of the frame, a cliché that has since been consigned to the dustbin of history. Today, Dr. Butler moves on to a cliché that managed to last a bit longer.
I confess myself somewhat at a loss to account for the origin of the surprise symbol which consists of the violent unsettling of the hat from its normal position on the top of the head. Is it the cartoonist's idea that the hair rises as forcibly as all that, or is it that the start of astonishment is so cataclysmic as to cause all loosely attached portions of one's habiliment inevitably to separate from one's person?
I still don't know who this Canadian cartoonist was.
A little of both, I dare say. Certainly when Mutt's hat flies off, there is always perpendicular hair visible beneath it. Certainly, however, this is not the case with Baron Bean. And the Baron is evidently so shocked that he not only loses his hat, but his cigar holder. Once I remember the saturnine Mr. Herriman caused only the top of the Baron's hat to fly off, and near by this extraordinary phenomenon were inscribed words to the effect that the new device was to satisfy the Anti-Hat-Flying-Off Chapter of Chronic Kickers. ...

"Baron Bean" by George Herriman
Petey Dink is also a habitual hat loser. So is Pa Perkins. So indeed are nearly all the comic characters. In that remarkably unconventional dénouement of Jerry on the Job which I mentioned above [see last week's installment], it should be noted that Jerry's hat has not flown off into the empyrean, but rests peacefully on his face. Just how it got there is not explained, nor is any explanation necessary.

Cartoonists who have a little more patience have devised somewhat subtler symbols than these. The face is, after all, the instrument upon which surprise is most commonly registered. But for some reason or other, the face of the ordinary comic character is not readily subject to exaggeration in this respect. That is why, perhaps, the cartoonists contrive so often to eliminate the face of an astonished character altogether.

[I already posted the article's illustration of a surprised Jeff last week. My bad. Here's a surprised Mutt.]
But Bud Fisher, when he set about to compiling his symbols for the character of Jeff struck off a masterpiece under the head of surprise. Those arched eyebrows, that fingered mustache, that utterly vacuous expression (heaven knows how he gets it) are classic in the literal sense of that word. Restrained, simple, every unnecessary detail removed, there is something about the countenance of a startled Jeff that sums up in itself the whole experience of the race, of the race that being blessed with half an angel's brain foresees dimly, yet is forever incapable of foreseeing clearly, and so is always subject to surprise and bewilderment.

Mr. Sterrett's Pa Perkins is almost as good as Jeff. The single hair rising on end, the helplessly rubbed baldness around it, the wide open eyes, the wrinkled old forehead have infinite symbolic value, but lack the simplicity that Mr. Fisher has achieved. . . .
"Polly and Her Pals" by Cliff Sterrett
[At this point, Professor Baldwin wanders off into a lengthy discussion of the phenomenon of comic characters getting hit in the back of the head by hurled bricks, cast iron skillets, flower pots, and like missiles. While one might well be surprised by such an assault, and the assault might indeed suffice to doff one's hat -- viz.:
-- your humble blogger considers this a needless tangent, insofar as the assault does not in and of itself serve as an indication of the victim's surprise (indeed, the victim ought to be instantly rendered unconscious prior to experiencing any surprise at all). It does, however, allow me to include a snippet of a more famous comic from Baron Bean's creator.]
"Krazy Kat" by George Herriman
Among the more amusing arbitrary symbols for surprise I have come across recently is a strip from the Petey Dink cartoons. Petey is at Palm Beach, but exceedingly anxious to go home. He is smoking a cigar and listening cynically to the conversation of his women folk in the next room. They are talking about their lack of new clothes, and in the next to the last picture, Petey says something about how he knew when their clothes ran out, they'd come along without a fuss.
"Petey Dink" by C.A. Voight
In the final picture, the scene has shifted, and Mabel is remarking to Henrietta how nice it is that they can get plenty of new clothes right there at Palm Beach, "although they are frightfully expensive." Through the curtain of the next room comes a cloud in which is inscribed in large letters the ominous symbol CRASH.

Poor Petey! He is ever doomed to the shocks of disillusionment. Of course, he had been leaning back in his chair . . . [sic] but still! Mr. Voight deserves congratulations for this bit of work.

No comments:

Post a Comment