Cartoon critics Phil Witte and Rex Hesner look behind the gags to debate what makes a cartoon tick. This week our intrepid critics take a look at Houseplant Ownership.
When we turn inward, the green spaces—however small—beckon our attention. The satisfying rituals of watering and pruning soothe our souls. The eternal reliability of annual cycles provides an anchor in uncertain times.
It looks so easy: Purchase a houseplant (any variety will do), place in room of choice, and just add water. The result should be a green friend receptive to one-way conversations that encourage budding and new growth. Of course, your friends may exhibit skepticism toward your renewed enthusiasm for plant ownership. They’ve been down this road before and seen the result. Cartoonist Amy Hwang’s friend knows best.
The plant world draws their owners into a smaller, self-contained world. Bonsai exerts a special fascination for miniaturists. Christopher Weyant’s absorbed groomer has scaled special tools to his tiny tree. The two miniature bags of leaves in the foreground add to the absurdity of the scene.
“Talk to your plants, they’ll be happier”, goes the advice from the Royal Horticultural Society. Gahan Wilson, whose bizarre cartoons graced the pages of major magazines for half a century, takes it a step further; it appears his would-be plant whisperer has run out of scintillating conversation. Note how the plant leans forward, leaves to either side, in an aggressive posture, and the large pot above the woman’s head hangs threateningly like Damocles’ sword.
It’s a well-known adage that dogs and their owners come to resemble one other over time. Can plants and people do the same? Edward Frascino answers that question effectively–even the woman’s shoes contribute to the gag.
Unfortunately, accidents happen to plants as well as people. Mrs. Beverly Seidel, if the construction sign is correct, obviously warned the road crew over and over … and, well, they didn’t listen. David Borchart’s beautifully detailed drawing tells a complex story through strong perspective and the varied postures of its participants. Note how the artist wisely placed Mrs. Seidel on the dominating top step with folded arms and disapproving expression.
It’s a panicky moment when plant owners discover pests are invading their beloved potted plants. In George Booth’s frenetic scene, both the newspaper and the cat go flying as a distraught woman barrels through the house. Famous for his run-down interiors, the veteran cartoonist exhibits his caption mastery with a four-word gem.
Analogous to a visit to the veterinarian, sick plants are often shlepped back to the nursery for professional evaluation. As if plant care terms such as “partial sun” and “partial shade” aren’t vague enough, this staff member’s advice enters a new dimension that includes musical considerations and their impact on a plant’s sensitivities. “Gangster rap” is not a term one would expect to be uttered by this bespectacled, middle-aged, white worker at a garden center.
We turn again to George Booth, who imagines a violent end to a philodendron that went too far. Apparently, there’s only way to stop this hostile takeover. The newspaper-reading husband is unruffled; he’s seen this standoff before.
The downward health spiral of a houseplant is depressing to its owners. Friends with green thumbs offer advice and consolation, but the inevitable happens anyway. Bruce Kaplan’s witty adaption of Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief is almost poignant. The strong graphical layout and deep black negative spaces give power to this tragicomic narrative.
All good things must end, houseplants included. Pet cemeteries abound, so why not a final resting place for beloved green companions? Roz Chast succeeds in conjuring up just such a place, headstones included. Though technically a caption-less cartoon, word gags abound as we read across the tombstones. Which is your favorite?