Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Post hoc

Postage Stamp Funnies
by Shannon Wheeler
Dark Horse, 2008

I came across this slipcased three volume set at a bizarro gift store in Spokane that had a back corner of comicsy goodness, new and old. I was somewhat familiar with Wheeler's work from Too Much Coffee Man, but it wasn't the content of the books that attracted me: it was the form. Each book measures 2.25'' x 4", and the single image on each page is about 1" x 2.25". I wondered what in the world could a talent do to turn such formalist restriction into a creative opportunity. Unfortunately, the answer in this case is: not much.

These books reprint cartoons from a feature in The Onion newspaper that present pretty much the standard fare for single-panel gag cartoons of the modern era: some non-sequiturs (mother to child: I'm tired of buying you juice), some visual puns (woman to dog in a suit: I take it you're a dog person), some verbal puns (woman to friend: I knew he was a magician when I married him. I just didn't expect him to disappear), and a series of shit jokes. I guess they're funnies; I guess they're cartoons; I'm not sure they're comics. Robert Harvey's essay "Comedy at the Juncture of Word and Image" can be read as nothing more than an attempt to pull single-panel cartoons into the definition of comics; I was never sure why Harvey felt this inclusion was important, and neither his essay nor this collection persuade me that it is so.

But whether the gag cartoon is an example of comics really isn't the point here; the observation that struck me as important was that the miniature form of these cartoons was not integral, essential, or even necessary to their impact. These strips would be just as funny (or unfunny) at a more typical size or full-page; some would work as one-liners in a stand-up routine and some even as animations. Of course, nothing required Wheeler to make use of the form as part of his art; perhaps the reasons for working in this small scale had nothing to do with creativity or formal play. Nonetheless, I felt a little disappointed.

However, there was a saving grace, besides some of the cartoons' actually being amusing. Here are three instances where formal play did manifest itself, albeit in a way completely detached from the scale of the form.

In each of these, Wheeler takes a a non-diegetic graphical element - a word balloon, a thought balloon, and a traditional icon, makes the characters aware of them, and gives them a reality in the narrative. This still has nothing to do with the small size of the comics, but it is the kind of structural experimentation that I find both delightful and intriguing.

Normally, word balloons and similar devices have no substance in the story-world of a panel, strip, or comic book. A caption box may obscure part of the illustration for us, the readers, but the characters can see right through them. What happens when we twist this relationship and give these conventional elements as much reality as the characters and the environment that they move through?

I'm not sure. I do know one thing, however: the gags that take this approach could not be expressed any other way than through the language of comics. The three sample panels above cannot be summarized and communicated in the way I presented the three examples in the second paragraph of this essay; at least, they can't be presented that way without a lot more detail and a lot less impact. They might be described, but they can't be translated. Take this strip in contrast:

I can easily describe this cartoon to you, or the joke could be presented as a short live action film, as an animation, or even as a part of a told story. (Rodney Dangerfield: I tell ya, I get no respect. At our wedding reception, my wife told me she wanted to see other people.) There is nothing about the form that requires it to be a cartoon. Not so with the other three illustrations, and a few other gags in the collection - they need to be comics and can't be expressed any other way. And somehow, when an experimental artifact draws attention to the critical elements of the form, I can't help but think we could learn something about how the mainstream of the form works.

As a collection of gag cartoons, Postage Stamp Funnies is probably a pretty good sampler, if you like that kind of thing. And while it doesn't use its small size and form as anything more than a novelty, a few selected cartoons do raise some interesting formalist questions.

Note: the observant reader will notice that after I introduce the three illustrations central to this inquiry, I begin referring to the cartoons as "comics" despite my rejection of that term earlier. I noticed this, too. I wonder if Robert Carrier's privileging of the word balloon as one of the "essential qualities" of comics has some merit.


  1. I would have thought that last cartoon was an unsuccessful shot at a meta-joke similar to the other three: two people alone in a Matrix-like blank white space, one of them observing that there are no other people around to be seen. It doesn't actually work that way, but left to my own devices I'd have assumed that's what Wheeler was aiming for. I definitely wouldn't have seen "newlyweds" -- perhaps the guy is wearing a tux, but there isn't enough to say "wedding dress" on the girl, and she has no bridal veil.

  2. Interesting observation, RAB; here are a couple of thoughts to add to it.

    None of the cartoons in the books has any real background; seen in the context of many such panels, this white void didn't jump out as "Matrix-like."

    I think that the image on the computer screen is probably larger than the actual cartoon. I noticed when I composed the post that the woman didn't look too much like a bride, but I swear to Alan King, at its actual, smaller size, the image read as a bride and groom immediately. Why else would the guy wear a tux, anyway? Prom, maybe, but that's not nearly as funny.

    I do like your meta-joke version, but I wonder how to better get across the self-awareness of the characters that is needed to make it work.