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 unusual pet cartoons.
As the walls have closed in during the pandemic, many households have added new members to the family: puppies! kitties! Some households, however, want to distinguish themselves when it comes to pets, the more unusual the better.
Our first cartoon, by venerable cartoonist Victoria Roberts, explores the extremes of these impulses. Somehow, she makes a potentially chaotic situation seem almost logical and orderly. Roberts communicates the wife’s point of view by bringing the low-seeming ceiling into frame; now, the comfortably furnished room feels claustrophobic.
Many of us shudder at the bizarre notion of a serpent as a companion. Former New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff sees it as a rather ordinary situation. Of course one needs to take a pet viper for a walk! Note the artist’s careful attention to the dog’s leash to pull off this gag.
What is it about lemmings? Do we know or care that this species is in the rodent family whose populations fluctuate wildly? No, of course not, the only thing we know is they are suicidal. The suicidal lemming is a cartooning cliché. Mick Stevens has come up with a wholly original take on this enduring theme. He wisely leaves it to us to imagine a lemming powerful enough to drag its master to his death. The heel marks in the ground and the man’s desperate look contrast with the rather banal boxed title.
Some of our unusual pet lovers get a bit carried away with their beloved species. The ornate style of Victoria Roberts, here for the second time, perfectly befits a cartoon with such magnificent pets. A tad crowded in the living room? Yes, but what a feast for the eye.
All animals, whether a cat, a dog, or even a turtle, need care. Some animals place more insistent demands on their owners than, say, a salamander. Michael Crawford envisions a typical nighttime demand—inconveniently around bedtime in this case. We can’t help but wonder what the leash and collar look like.
Dog parks are gentle refuges for our four-legged friends, especially in urban areas. Jason Patterson has set his dog park in the heart of the city–note the imposing buildings through the eerie mist. Somehow, though, the mid-ground trees impart a foreboding sense of primordial wilderness. When we see the new visitor to the dog park, we’re not surprised, though the three tiny dogs may be doing a double-take.
Known for his clean lines and orderly compositions, Alex Gregory soothes the reader with his elegant drawing style. We focus on the couple on the couch. Perhaps we read the caption; then it hits us: something big is in the room.
Veteran cartoonist Edward Koren, still going strong at 85 years old, has a different take on unusual pets. His urbane owners want to psychologically process the pet-owning experience with their friends. The backdrop of floor-to-ceiling books confirms that many high-falutin’ words will be bandied about. The creature, on the other hand, exhibits skepticism.
Pet ownership in Manhattan—we can see the Empire State Building through the window—has its constraints due to the limited size of most apartments. Miniature dogs are all the rage. Other owners, particularly unusual pet owners, buck the trend with vehemence. Gahan Wilson, king of the ghoulish cartoons, masterfully pairs his creature-from-the-deep with an eccentric owner. The affection between man and beast is palpable.
Cartoonist Mick Stevens must have thought “bigger is better” when it comes to unusual pets. His aquarium dwarfs the spacious and well-appointed living room of the pet owners. There’s a sense of serenity in this composition, of order in this corner of the universe. Oh, and the pet’s name? Take another look at the feeding bowl.
We close with a public service announcement about how to avoid owning an unusual pet: just say no! The dad in William Haefeli’s luminous drawing is unswayed by the entreaties of his young lad. It’s a “hard no,” as they say in the parenting game. Besides, the ballgame’s on, the popcorn’s warm, and the beer cold. In this cartoon, Haefeli employs the cartoonist’s technique of linking improbable concepts, here, hamsters and illegal drugs. And by drawing the father to fill nearly the entire frame, almost completely obscuring the son, Haefeli leaves no doubt who’s in charge.