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The History of the Cartoon

Sep 9, 2008
A cartoon is described in the dictionary as being a 'simple drawing showing the features of its subjects in a humorously exaggerated way'. Cartoons have evolved from their origins as preparatory drawings to satirical sketches in newspapers and periodicals in the 1800s, and more recently to an exaggerated representation of human life as shown by modern examples such as The Simpsons.

Although the satirical types of cartoons sketches do still exist, with controversy often surrounding the artist and subject matter, the term cartoon has evolved massively in the last 150 years. A cartoon means something completely different today as TV shows, films, advertisements and comics rely heavily on cartoon characters and the art of illustration in place of realistic drawings or life-like art.

Cartoons, as humorous drawings, originated in 1843 when satirist magazine, Punch, used the term to describe the sketches by artist John Leech. Leech's Cartoon no. 1: Substance and Shadow, shows the first use of the term cartoon in relation to a humorous drawing or satirical sketch.

The political or humorous cartoon had been used for years previously, but Leech was the first to coin the phrase. As early as 1754, Benjamin Franklin created the drawing of a snake in various pieces with the caption 'Join, or Die' to encourage unity amongst the colonies prior to the French and Indian War. The use of editorial cartoons to promote a specific message originated in the early 1700s.
Cartoons were often used to promote political or social awareness, as they would appeal to people of all levels of education with a simple message. An easy-to-understand message would prove invaluable as a persuasive tool and so posters and editorial cartoons would use cartoons with a strap-line create a brief, concise meaning.

The Franklin cartoon was the clever use of an iconic image with a single line to portray a strong message. This type of cartoon became regularly used in the 1900s when gag cartoons would be published in popular magazines including Punch and the New Yorker. One of the key artists, Peter Arno, is widely credited for inventing the gag cartoon when working for New Yorker magazine.

As well as the single-caption gag cartoon, comic strips became popular around this time. Comic Strips originated in the late 19th century in American newspapers. The difference between comic strips and the gag cartoons of the same era, is primarily that of length. The comic strip will tell a story in a series of images with text attached in speech-bubbles or captions.

Some of the most famous comic strips that use this traditional method are still in use today. From its beginning in 1950, the Peanuts comic strip by Charles M. Schulz published a total of 17.897 strips before the death of Schulz signaled the end of the cartoon. The success of the Peanuts comic strip led to the four-panel gag strip becoming the industry standard for comic strips in the United States.

Peanuts would be one of the pioneers of the cartoon transition from comic strip to television and film. Others that would make the move with varied success include Dennis the Menace, Dick Tracy, Andy Capp and Garfield. The motion picture would be the biggest step in the evolution of the cartoon, most famously made by the films of cartoon legend Walt Disney.

Disney's first venture into animated film is shown in the Alice Comedies, a series of short films that combine a real girl with an animated cat, all set in front of an animated landscape. This technique was revolutionary and signaled the direction of future live-action/animations including Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Space Jam in the 1990s.

Disney would go on to create some of the most influential cartoons in history, including the most recognisable cartoon character of all - Mickey Mouse. Mickey was created in 1928, first appearing in the Plane Crazy cartoon with his long-term beau Minnie. Mickey went on to star in hundreds of cartoons and remains the most popular cartoon character that Disney ever created, ahead of the likes of Donald Duck, Dumbo and Pinocchio.

The change in media to animated film paved the way for some of the most influential cartoons of the 20th century. As well as the massive number of Disney films that would change the landscape of film forever, many other cartoons would light up the silver screen as the years passed. Warner Bros. cartoons began soon after Disney's inception and would introduce the world to a number of amazing characters that remain popular to this day.

Bugs Bunny appeared for the first time on screen in the 1940 animation A Wild Hare. In 2002, Bugs Bunny was named by a popular television magazine as the greatest cartoon character of all time. Other popular Warner Bros. characters include Speedy Gonzales, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig.

Another popular company to produce animated cartoons was the American company, Hanna-Barbera. Responsible for some of the most respected cartoon series in the latter part of the 20th century, Hanna-Barbera produces classics including Tom and Jerry, Scooby-Doo and The Flintstones. These animations would influence some of the biggest hits of the century, as cartoons began to mimic real-life and have more realistic characters instead of the animals or fantasy stories of Disney and Warner Bros.

As the animated film became the most common place to find cartoon characters, the style, themes and techniques changed dramatically. As situation comedies dominated TV schedules on both sides of the Atlantic, animators would look to recreate this style with cartoons as the main characters. Out of this concept, the most popular animated series of all time was born as the world was introduced to The Simpsons.

The Simpsons were as far removed from the likes of Walt Disney as could be possible. The fantasy, fairy-tale style that was so prevalent in Disney's cartoons was replaced by crude, raw animations of a 'normal' American family. Launched in the late 1980s, the cartoon has remained immensely popular with over 400 episodes and a feature-length movie grossing almost 600 million dollars worldwide.

The Simpsons would be criticised by conservative sections of the US as they claimed it provided bad role-models in the forms of the lazy, incompetent Homer and the naughty, disruptive Bart. The Simpsons would show a normal, working-class family in some realistic and some unrealistic scenarios, yet the characters themselves were always believable and empathetic. The disruptive, anarchic style and often controversial episodes would pave the way for even more controversy and animators pushed the boundaries of acceptability in cartoons.

The most controversial cartoon series of the 20th century would follow The Simpsons with regressive cut-out animation, cartoon violence and satirical story-lines. South Park would parody popular culture and satirise current events, but would arrive amidst a storm of controversy for its toilet humour and offensive language.

174 episodes later, South Park has been running for twelve series and has achieved Academy Award nominations for its feature-length South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. Despite its seemingly puerile beginnings, South Park would develop into a cutting social commentary, satirising subjects as diverse as euthanasia, the church of scientology, sexuality and global terrorism.

The Simpsons and South Park represent the current crop of exciting, contemporary cartoons that will influence the cartoons of the future. There are already countless other cartoons that borrow style, themes and humour from these two pace-setters, with the likes of Family Guy, American Dad and Futurama continuing the trend.

However, Disney has been opting for computer animations with its most recent films including Ratatouille, Finding Nemo and WALL-E. So is the art of the cartoon dying out in the modern cartoon's home - Florida? With new film-makers, animators and artists always looking for the next-big-thing, cartoons will always be popular for creators and the viewers, so the cartoon will continue to go from strength to strength.
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