Comic Art: Gags and Cartoons

Comic art, or cartoon illustrations intended to make you laugh or smile, blossomed during the Golden Age of Illustration (1880-1920).

They were nothing new: Single-panel sight gags and puns predate the printing press, possibly as far back as ancient Egypt.

In more modern times, beginning in the 1840s, jokes were printed in periodicals to add augment or lighten serious text. Early cartoons, usually ink line drawings, were reproduced by making wood engravings from the original drawings.

In the 1880s, photo-mechanical processes were developed that made possible direct reproduction from ink or pencil drawings. Artists were free to express their humor in any style that suited them.

Cartoons began to appear regularly in newspapers, and humor magazines were born designed to showcase cartoons.

Multi-panel gags, ones that required more than one drawing to make their point, evolved into modern comic strips in newspapers and magazines.

Most Golden Age illustrators at one time or another made humorous drawings. Some, like Charles Dana Gibson and A. B. Frost became so adept at creating subtle humorous situations in their art, they are known as cartoonists as well as serious illustrators.

Others specialized in comic art, and became widely known for their recognizable styles.

Drawings that relied on captions to create humor often were not funny in themselves. The caption provided humor, either as a one-liner or a brief dialogue between two characters.

Sight gags, with or without captions, usually were rendered with exaggerated or satirical people and animals. The drawing itself supplied the humor.

Below are a few examples of the wide range of comic art from the Golden Age of Illustration (More to come!).

Typical single-panel gag, without caption:
"The Man with Auburn Hair."
by P.A.T., 1908.

Typical single-panel gag, with caption:
1st drunk: "That was a beautiful wedding!"
2nd drunk:"It wasn't a wedding. It was a funeral!"
Tom Browne, 1904.

"A Sudden Encounter," by Tom Browne, 1903.

A visual gag by Bellew, 1890, poking fun at women's fashionable long skirts, sometimes called "street sweepers."

"The Influence of French Art on an American Student in Paris, 1900." Multi-panel gags like this marked the beginning of comic strips.

A two-panel comic strip, "The Holdup," 1904.

Visual puns and plays-on-words were popular in early American magazines.

Robert A. Graef was a regular contributor to Scribner's Magazine with is "Original Vaudeville, Little Old New York," sketches of life in the Big Apple. This one from 1907 is called "The Skirt Dance."
Mother to son: "Why don't you get up and give one of those ladies your seat?"
Son: "I would, mother, but I can't decide which one I want to give it to."
H. B. Mortin, 1905.

Artist to Farmer:"I hope you aren't going to plow up this lovely field. You'll just ruin my color scheme!" 1906.

Be sure to see more examples on these pages:

Caricatures: famous people and stereotypes.

Story Illustration: cartoon characters and settings.

Editorial Cartoons: political and social commentary.

And check the Image Galleries for more examples of Comic Art.

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