The cartoon’s evolution

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“It’s a Ziggy!”

One of the best parts of the sitcom Seinfeld is how ably it’s jokes have held up over time. Think of episode 169, “The Cartoon.” Regardless of how many people actually understand all of The New Yorker‘s cartoons, everyone still questions a strip or two in his or her lifetime.

Regardless of one’s ability to understand social critique as humor, the Internet has given us a range of opportunities to express and understand humor. A new story from The Economist looks into the history and development of cartoons, from print media until today. A particularly revealing point in the article directs readers’ attention to the cartoon’s boom during the era of sensationalist journalism:

But it was the combination of the rotary printing press, mass literacy and capitalism which really created the space for comic art to flourish. In Britain Punch coined the term “cartoon” in 1843 to describe its satirical sketches, which soon spread to other newspapers. In the United States, the modern comic strip emerged as a by-product of the New York newspaper wars between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst in the late 19th century. In 1895 Pulitzer’s Sunday World published a cartoon of a bald child with jug ears and buck teeth dressed in a simple yellow shirt: the Yellow Kid. The cartoon gave the name to the new mass media that followed: “yellow journalism”.

Newspapers filled with sensationalist reporting sold millions. They even started wars. But in an era before television and film, it was the cartoons—filled with images of the city and stories of working-class living—which sold the newspapers. With most papers reporting much the same news, cartoons were an easy way for proprietors to differentiate their product. After the success of the Yellow Kid, both Pulitzer and Hearst introduced extensive comic supplements in their Sunday papers. Like the papers that printed them, comics rose and died quickly: the Yellow Kid lasted barely three years. But as the newspaper industry overall grew, so too did the funnies pages. By the mid-1920s one cartoonist, Bud Fisher, was paid $250,000 a year for “Mutt and Jeff”. By 1933, of 2,300 daily American papers, only two, the New York Times and the Boston Transcript, published no cartoons.

The article also describes the fun insertion of the “nerd” into popular cartoon-ery, which is fairly comical in and of itself. Read the full article here.

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