What Makes a Cartoon Great?

The history of cartoons is longer than you might think, and cartoons are not something that only children can enjoy. Cartoons have been used as a way to make political statements for more than 200 years. Some people count Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso as cartoonists, proving that the art can be quite high-brow when it wants to be.

Some of the best cartoonists in the world produce scathing commentaries on world events.  They make people think, and they use humour to raise awareness of political issues. Grosz, Daumier, Nast, and Gulbransson are talented artists, and to call what they produce “cartoons”, with the childish connotations that term has today, is a shame.

What is it that makes cartoons great? There’s no one secret formula for producing cartoons.  Comical mockery, when done tastefully, is an amazing art form, but if that’s all that a cartoonist is doing then why don’t they become a comedian instead?

The secret to producing good cartoons is to combine that comical mockery with skilful drawing.  The character should be easy to identify, and the context should jump out immediately.  However, hidden in the scene there should be hints at a greater depth and a more subtle meaning. A good cartoon makes you smile or laugh, a great cartoon gets even funnier the longer you look at it. Steve Bell’s work is an interesting example of this – he takes strange viewpoints and embraces complex subjects, challenging the viewer and making them examine his works carefully to fully appreciate the subject at hand.

Some cartoonists achieve this goal with clever caricatures.  Others use colour or computer art, or combine photography and line drawings to create complex scenes.  The definition of cartoons is becoming increasingly broad and you don’t need to rely on line art if that’s not your strong point.  An unreal world, if it is compelling, can be even effective than a realistic one.