To be a cartoonist is to master one of the last true forms of magic here on earth. The ability of a cartoon to tug at a heartstring or tickle a rib is truly amazing. From wartime propaganda to modern-day Japanese manga, cartoon art has proven to have extraordinary communication properties. It can convey an idea that would otherwise take paragraphs to explain. It can make us feel. That's magic.
Cartoon art separates itself from other art forms in two main ways. First, cartoon art exploits the human eye's ability to discern familiar objects from abstract shapes. Second, time is depicted by the sequential progression of images.
Cartoons take advantage of the eye's eagerness to find logic in shapes. Objects can be simplified into their most general shapes. A face can be represented with a circle, two dots, and a line for the mouth. Not all cartoons feature this kind of oversimplification, but all take advantage of the intrinsic need for humans to organize shapes into familiar mental images.
This can be a powerful tool, when used wisely. For example, a rectangle with a triangle on top (and a little embellishing) reads as a house. Any house, in any city. It can read as your house. Since there aren't any identifying characteristics to classify it otherwise, your eyes will fill in the necessary details — or the details it is cued to fill in.
Show the cartoon to a farmer in Bad Axe, Michigan, and he'll correctly identify it as a house — as he envisions an aluminum-sided ranch-style house. Show the same drawing to a Philadelphia urbanite and she will make the same identification — as she pictures a brick-built row house. One image, many interpretations. Pretty powerful stuff for communicating complex ideas to large groups of people.
If you think about it, this also makes cartoon art one of the first truly interactive art forms! Every person who views a cartoon translates the images based on his or her background. It's this interactive play between reader and image that gives cartoon art such punch. The reader identifies strongly with the image because — knowingly or not — she has invested something of herself into the image.
The other defining concept in cartooning plays off the willingness of the mind to read sequential images as a continuous narrative. In other words, as images are gathered into a unit, the brain puts them into an order — much like it did when presented with the primitive “house.” Faced with sequential images, the brain assumes a “first this happened, then that happened” correlation between the images. Instead of being seen as a grouping of separate ideas, sequential images are seen to have a chronological relationship with one another. Without that relationship, there are only static, unrelated images. The presence of that relationship makes storytelling possible. Time passes; plots unfold; and characters act, react, and change. Furthermore, time can be shown to pass in small increments or in large leaps. Time can go forward or backward. Several actions can be depicted as happening at the same time. Or time can be made to stand still.
So, whereas the interactive play between viewer and image gives a cartoon power, it is this depiction of time through sequential images that gives a cartoon its magic. And as this happens, those images become more than concepts; they become real. Interactive imagery makes us recognize a cartoon. Sequential storytelling makes us care. Pure magic.