We say gags, they say single-panel

July 2, 2013 in Comment, General

Pete Dredge offers a British perspective in reaction to an American cartoonist’s views on the cartooning game

“Single-panel” or “gag” cartoonist? The former is the default description from over the pond and is infinitely preferable to the UK’s more downmarket “gag” label for those of us who create the stand-alone joke.

Cartoon by Pete Dredge

Single-panel or gag? Cartoon © Pete Dredge

Apart from that, there appears to be little difference in attitudes to gag cartoonists on either side of the Atlantic, if the video talks by the New Yorker cartoonist Matthew Diffee – as recently featured on this blog – are anything to go by. (Well, apart from the fact that most US cartoonists seem to be equally as eloquent with a microphone as they are with a pen, something that the reserved UK cartoonist can find difficult to master.)

It was comforting to know that our US counterparts are bombarded with the same probing questioning from inquisitive admirers. “Where do you get your ideas?” appears to top both the UK and US list. Diffee perceptively regards this as “a good question, it is the only question because without an idea there is no cartoon”. He then offers up the disarmingly honest answer “We think of ’em!”


Why haven’t we ever thought of that? UK gagsmiths start to ramble on about lateral thinking, brainstorming and word association whilst our inquisitor’s eyes start to glaze over.

“I wish I could do that” and “I could never do that” are supplementary statements thrown up by the misguided onlooker. Diffee believes that these admissions underline the misconception that cartoonists draw “for fun”, something that can be churned out at the drop of a hat. “How long have you tried?” he asks. He points out that it takes several hours and a pot of coffee to come up with ideas.

Then there’s the ability to handle rejection. Diffee likens the inevitable low hit rate – at The New Yorker one in ten is “top of the game”, more often it’s something like one in 30 – to the a mother sea turtle laying thousands of eggs. After being subjected to the ravages of crabs, birds and fish, if one baby makes it through then it’s job done.

Another characteristic shared by both US and UK cartoonists is the requirement to develop stoicism when confronted by other media types. One video featured Diffee being interviewed after his talk by a hack from Forbes magazine.

Trying hard to describe the idea-creating process, he says: “It’s about concepts, like comedy writing, it’s about language, not drawing, at this stage.” The journalist seemed to struggle with this abstract notion.

But Diffee soon has the measure of his inquisitor and describes how he is trying to keep up with the latest hi-tech devices. “Have you seen them? They’re amazing. You click on the end and it comes out here,” he says, describing a propelling pencil to his bemused interrogator.

Many thanks, Pete. Do you have any views on cartooning US and UK style? Let us know in the comments below.

14 responses to We say gags, they say single-panel

  1. Rod said on July 3, 2013

    Nice piece, Peter.  Labelling is very important, it gives those who control the language power over what is produced, and I suspect it is no accident that cartoons are labelled in that “downmarket” way over here.  Peter Steiner’s New Yorker cartoon “On the internet nobody knows you’re a dog”, which appeared in the magazine in 1993, has earned over $50,000 in reprint fees, partly at least, to do with the high regard in which cartoons and cartoonists are often held in North America.You mention Matthew Diffee’s (who I like and whose cartoons I love) playful answer of how cartoons are made “we think of ’em”, and his more philosophical answer when talking to Forbes Magazine.  I’ve always found that US cartoonists do have two answers to how that mystical thought-process that can sometimes lead to an almost universally funny cartoon like Steiner’s dog cartoon mentioned above, are created: one to test your reaction, and the next if you pass the test by saying “no, seriously, how do you think ’em up?”, which is the one that leads to the most interesting answers.  New Yorker Cartoon Editor Prof’ Bob Mankoff addresses these matter expertly in his book ‘The Naked Cartoonist (“more think, less ink”, is his mantra). I’m going to cut UK cartoonists like you and I a break with our rambling about how we come up with ideas, Peter.  With our lowly status over here, and our snowball in Hell’s chance of making $50,000 from a single cartoon, we aren’t trying to convince the inquisitor that some real work and thought goes into creating a cartoon, we’re just reminding ourselves.   

  2. Thanks Rod. It was the stance of the Forbes guy that amused me. He found it difficult to grasp that it’s not a ‘funny’ drawing that makes the cartoon work but the idea. As Diffee says, “I don’t draw ‘funny’ “.

  3. If the idea is funny, then the drawing is funny, even if it isn’t drawn funny. The ideal for any gag cartoonist should surely be that non-cartoonists don’t differentiate between writing and drawing, but simply enjoy the product as a whole. And therefore perhaps it is not in our interest as cartoonists to place any greater importance on one aspect over another, lest we devalue either in the process? 

  4. Agree with your first point but puzzled on the second. The writing is the drawing, Steve,  as Matt Diffee so clearly demonstrated with his face painting gag. The design of the drawing was such that the gag isn’t immediate. The eye is diverted and then the gag hits you.

  5. I guess I’m thinking more of the times I’ve heard drawing effectively dismissed as being of a lesser importance to a cartoon than writing, which I’ve always been uncomfortable with, Pete. It’s very rare you hear the opposite implied by any cartoonist, and whilst I dislike any comparison (they are very separate skills, and both vital to a good gag cartoon  [sorry, I like ‘gag’ more than ‘single panel’]), your point about Diffee’s face painting gag does serve to highlight the importance of good, and clever, drawing to any gag. I’m not sure about “writing is the drawing”, but there’s certainly writing in the drawing, and a good gag can be made or lost by the drawing skill, or lack of it. 

  6. By ‘writing’ I don’t mean lettering, captions, signage etc.Steve, but the way the drawing is designed or honed to deliver the idea in the most optimum way . In ‘stand-up’ it’s the equivalent of timing I suppose. In this particular area of cartooning, gag/single panel, there is no chicken or egg situation. The idea comes first. To use Diffee’s face painting gag as an example, the key element in the drawing is the discreet inclusion of a paint roller. If it had been a large decorators paint brush I don’t think it would have been as funny. The drawing skill would have been the same but it would not have made any difference here. So that is why it is rare not to hear from gag cartoonists that the idea is 75% and the drawing 25% in the creative process and that a poor gag will never be improved by a good drawing. Of course good drawing is important and even the most naive of styles has to look right to deliver the gag. I think this applies to both UK and US practitioners.

  7. I knew exactly what you meant, Pete, and stand by what I wrote. It’s those percentages that trouble me. 

    I disagree that good drawing can’t improve a poor gag – it may not make the writing funnier, but it can certainly make the visual appeal of a bad joke significantly greater and funnier than it would be had it been drawn badly. 
    More to the point though, good drawing will improve a good gag, and possibly elevate it to a classic where poor drawing might not, and may even lose what was good about the written idea. 

    Both elements are vital, but only one of them actually makes a cartoon a cartoon. Let’s not reduce its importance with guesstimate percentages. 
  8. Only been doing it 35 years so what do I know?Always learning in this game.  I’m puzzled why those percentages trouble you, Steve. You are confusing effort with import. It’s your opinion, whether it’s shared by others or not seems not to matter, and what is or isn’t ‘good drawing’ is always subjective. With the thick skin I’ve developed over these years I’m happy to leave it to editors to make the call. Well, when I say happy…

  9. 36 for me, Pete, but who’s counting? It’s all subjective, especially those percentages. I just get a little concerned when cartoonists themselves downplay the importance of the one thing that actually makes a cartoon what it is. Nothing to do with effort – you can spend an awful long time staring out of a window. 

  10. I’m not sure I’d even put percentages on the writing/drawing division, to be honest. I find it depends on the cartoon. Certainly sometimes it’s 75 per cent idea, 25 per cent drawing, but I had one recently where the idea just came to me, minimum effort in terms of the creative process, but getting that idea across effectively was a lot of hard work and crumpled paper. I got there in the end, but it remains to be seen whether this egg will hatch or be eaten by crabs (to use the sea turtle analogy!)

    I’m also not keen on “gag” but I’m not sure “single-panel” really works, because they’re not really in panels like comic strips. It suits Matthew Diffee though because he always draws a border round his cartoons!
  11. I have an award somewhere, collecting dust, for being ‘Joke Cartoonist of the Year 1986’ . Of course, that could be interpreted many ways…

  12. …but in the cold light of day in the world of the professional on-spec gag/single panel cartooning markets, on both sides of the Atlantic, the commercial reality is that it’s the gag that sells the cartoon. 

  13. As expressed in the combination of drawing and writing, or writing and drawing. Depending upon which way each cartoonist looks at it.

  14. In a nutshell.

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