Monday, January 22, 2007

Ha Ha...Huh?

My friend Jeff sent me this cartoon he drew the other day:





With this message:
not sure if this funny or not. i thought so at first but not sure why.


I had to agree.
While my first instinct was to laugh at the gag, I quickly doubled back and thought, "Wait... What's the joke here? This doesn't really seem like it should be funny. So why did I laugh?" It's curious and a bit troubling to be so unconsciously manipulated. But a careful study has, I believe, led me to the root of this quandary.

As an aside, the humor/puzzlement reaction also seems to me almost an ideal response to a successfully executed gag. To elicit a laugh, but then leave the audience wondering "why?" - perhaps even a bit embarrassed for laughing in the first place. What higher goal could there be than to induce the kind of internal tension that can only lead to the inevitable path of reflective self discovery? (Perhaps the only better response is to have made them laugh when they know they shouldn't).

So why is this cartoon funny? Beneath the faux-primitive trappings there is an intricate interplay of form and subtext here. Visual and verbal elements combine in complex fashion, each aspect carefully weighted for maximum effect. Much more than the sum of it's parts, the cartoon depicts a world both alien and somehow familiar, all to the ends of promoting a fine veil of comedic tension. Lets look at some of the components.

The whole of the design resembles a kind of digital mock-up of a torn paper assemblage. The two dimensional world it depicts is one of many layers. Space is merely suggested, and only by the scale and placement of the figures. Design plays a big part in how the joke unfolds.
The eye is immediately drawn to the high contrast field of jet-black to the far left of the composition. Solid and imposing, running the entire height of the cartoon, the bar symbolically represents a kind of barrier to this strange world. This immediately sets a tone of titillation, suggesting a forbidden nature to the proceedings. At the same time it paradoxically serves as a beacon and guide into the world of the cartoon. The slight tilt of the bar draws the eye up and to the left, directly into the narrative, as it were, and to the first line of dialogue.

"Hey! What's the banana for?" A question. An opening volley. The figure to which this line is attributed - a squat, buxom, hastily drawn caricature - juts an accusing finger towards the second - a lanky and open-stanced effigy. The contrast is plain. Where the first figure is compact and closed in on itself, the second is open and even welcoming to the aggressive advance of it's partner. Figure one resembles a kind of grotesque caricature of a fertility icon. Figure two resembles a guy holding up a banana. Following the curve of that figure leads to the last line of dialogue, another question. "Why? What did you have in mind?" This missive closes the composition leaving the reader to supply their own answer and complete to the gag themselves.

But there is a subtle guidance to how the gag should be completed, and it's pointed to in the dynamics of the design itself. Figure one seems, on the outset, to hold a position of dominance. Standing above and to the right of the other, it's arm juts out in aggressive attack. But upon further reflection, this aggression belies an overwhelming feeling of insecurity. The attacker is not at ease with it's place in the world, as indicated by it's form. Furthermore the figure is set off from the world by a halo of white, it's jagged black outline in sharp contrast to figure two's softer earth tones. Figure two, in fact, seems very much a part of it's surroundings, the lines echoing the colors of the world around it. Clearly figure one is not as secure in it's place in this world. This notion is enhanced by the visual treatment of the text. Where figure two's dialogue is a calm and confidant cursive script, figure one is represented by jagged block letters. A clumsy articulation of a supposed attack. This reversal of traditional dominant/submissive design rules creates a kind of nervous tension that in itself is, at least, giggle worthy.

This social dissonance goes deeper, however, as evident in the depictions of the characters themselves. Figure one is a twisted parody of femininity, suggesting perhaps an unexperienced transvestite or even an unassimilated transsexual. Figure two is a generic stand in for the everyman. Indeed, asexual in appearance, it could very well be anyone. Even you. If, like me, you are from a small town in Ohio, you can see just how uncomfortable an encounter of this nature could be. However, your avatar - by way of an easygoing demeanor and a quick thinking (and dare I say sexually suggestive?) retort, turns the table on the drag queens accusatory censure.

Funny.

The coup-de-grace, and visual punchline to the entire gag, deservedly take center stage in the composition. In addition to the psycho-sexual dynamic of the phallus - echoing the already finely wrought social-textural fabric - the artist makes good use of the long and storied history of the fruit-based gag. Bananas are instinctually funny. By far the funniest fruit, outpacing the tomato (whose humor is steeped too heavily in base humiliation) and kumquat (whose humor is purely verbal), the banana's comedic power is iconic and near ubiquitous. "What's the banana for?" the trannie asks. And we reply "What isn't it for?"

As far as I know, this is Jeff's first foray into the powerful form of cartoon narrative. That he could evoke this kind of response (even unto his self, it seems) is a testament to his innate ability to harness the forces of his cartoon graphics in such a subtly complex manner.

2 comments:

beardy said...

Jesus Christ, why aren't you rich. People should be paying you to read that shit.

Tymmi said...

Okay.
Gimme twenty bucks.

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