April 16, 2009


If You Weren’t a Hedgehog…If I Weren’t a Hemophiliac… By Andrew Weldon. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

F Minus: This Can’t Be Legal. By Tony Carrillo. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

Brevity 4. By Guy Endore-Kaiser and Rodd Perry. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

Suture Self: A Book of Medical Cartoons. By Leo Cullum. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

     There is something particularly pithy – that’s p-i-T-H-y – about single-panel cartoons. Often thought of as the province of editorial cartoonists (although some of those nowadays work in multiple panels), the single-panel comic does indeed date back hundreds of years as an editorial device. But as entertainment, it also has a long history, all the way back to Richard Outcault’s “Yellow Kid,” a turn-of-the-last-century Alfred E. Newman prototype who made his observations via writing on his Zippy-like garment. Nowadays, single-panel cartooning is flourishing for both good and not-so-good reasons. On the positive side, single panels make their point quickly and, when well done, provoke an instant guffaw (or at least a chuckle). On the negative side, newspapers – whose ongoing shrinkage of space for cartoons has almost reached the point at which the papers will have to start giving out magnifying glasses to readers of the comics – can fit several different single-panel offerings in the space needed for just one multi-panel strip.

     Thank goodness there are so many good single-panel cartoonists out there, operating in blissful ignorance of the economic pressures facing their field – or at least not letting those pressures pinch their senses of humor. Good single-panel cartoons can be found worldwide: A. Weldon’s delightfully weird book, If You Weren’t a Hedgehog…If I Weren’t a Hemophiliac… comes from Australia. Weldon’s skewed worldview translates to this side of the Pacific quite well, despite an occasional “too right” or a reference to “biros” (pens, that is). A ditzy woman asks a man who is missing one arm and one leg whether he has recently lost weight; a pirate mistakenly wanders into a Pilates group; a doctor tells a drug-addicted patient that methadone is also known as “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Heroin”; two desert-island castaways think "Gilligan’s Island” is a reality show; a product called “There, There Absorbent Shoulder Pads” is recommended for guys who often have women crying on their shoulders; and so on. Weldon’s drawings fit his oddly skewed view of life exceptionally well, as he manages to capture everything from the expression of a woman from “Bourgeoisie sans Frontieres” (goal: clean, bottled mineral water for Africa) to those of two “starving economists reduced to eating pie graphs.” This is humor that is decidedly off the beaten path.

     F Minus and Brevity have their share of weirdness, too. These are distinctly American strips, but their peculiarities would also likely cross borders quite well. For example, in Brevity 4, Guy & Rodd (as they sign themselves) present a king objecting to the attentions of the paparazzi (painters); a “comic mom” tells her kids that the world isn’t always black and white – specifically, not on Sundays; ants hesitate to eat mayonnaise at a picnic because it has been out in the hot sun for a while; an insecure comedian does his act at a hyena enclosure; a fashion designer explains that for his latest line, he bought clothes at Target and changed the labels. You get the idea, or rather the ideas – mostly presented in only a few words (hence the Brevity title) and with drawings that are just peculiar enough to reflect the underlying strangeness of the thoughts. The F Minus drawings are more consistent in style, and this strip is a bit of an oddity in that its single panel takes up as much room as a multi-panel strip – so much for space saving at newspapers. Tony Carrillo’s strip is worth the space it needs, though, because his panel layouts are clean, without wasted space, and he thinks horizontally in terms of character and word placement. He thinks peculiarly, too: instead of sleepwalking, a boss indulges in “sleep firing”; the final exam at a karate studio is a woman with a bat; a mismatched couple tries to decide whether to name the baby Colin Timothy or Earthlove Rainflower; the devils in Hell make up their minds to uninstall the fire extinguishers; vegetarian zombies march through fields demanding grains; artificial turf comes with plastic bugs – this is the way the world really almost is.

     And then there’s the world of The New Yorker. Yes, The New Yorker, where single-panel cartooning meets esoterica. But not all New Yorker cartoons are abstruse or strongly oriented toward the denizens of a certain big city. Leo Cullum’s medical cartoons strike the funnybone almost every time. Cullum’s style is immediately recognizable – all those long-nosed, lumpy men, plus an occasional cow or lion. And he certainly has his finger (or some other part of his body) on the wonders of modern medicine. One man in a bar to another: “I’m taking my Viagra with Prozac. If it doesn’t work I don’t care.” Pediatrician dressed in “child-friendly” getup to patient: “Of course I’m a real doctor. Would I be sticking you with this big needle if I were a clown?” Doctor to patient: “You have a generic illness. Generic drugs should work fine.” Doctor to man with a lightbulb head: “You’ve got moths.” Mouse to lion with thorn in its paw: “I’d like to help, but you’re in a different HMO.” This is humor that’s a bit highbrow without being self-consciously snooty – and with a whole book of Cullum’s cartoons, you don’t have to say you buy The New Yorker for the articles.

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