Cartooning vs. Technology: How Steve Jobs Ruined Comics

Cartooning is, to me, an art form of simplification. The artist uses a minimal amount of lines to communicate characters and place to a reader. Mouths are often oddly-shaped black holes. Cartoon evolution often does away with lips, body hair, elbows. Eyebrows are reduced to lines. Eyes become dots. A background might be a line indicating where the floor and wall meet. Maybe a squiggle of distant trees, or a cloud. Maybe just a flat field of color.

Cartooning is also about communicating an idea in the briefest terms possible. It is literally a shorthand form of storytelling. If you’re making a comic strip, and that joke takes place in a restaurant and the setting is important to the joke or narrative, you damn well better explain that as quickly as possible in the first frame so you can get on with what you’ve got to say. In short, in gag cartooning things need to be made apparent.

In many ways, technology—especially consumer-driven technology—has been striving for the same thing as cartoonists for years now. Simpler, smaller, more streamlined. Minimalist. Removing as much of the object as possible, leaving only the key components (in technology’s case, the interface, the screen). Steve Jobs led the way for elegant and simple device design, and it’s a beautiful thing. But a cartoonist might reach a point where representing something in a super-simplified style when the object itself is already super-simplified becomes increasingly difficult. Let’s take a look at a few examples:

Or even worse…

And then there’s the changing technology of how people get their news…

<disdain> Ewww, gross! What is this? 2006?? </disdain>

But how do you quickly and succinctly communicate to the reader that a person is reading an iPad or an e-reader?

And let’s not forget that the rise of discreet earbuds – not introduced but certainly popularized by the iPod – makes drawing a person listening to music a less cut-and-dry endeavor. It causes the cartoonist to fall back on outdated tropes like floating music notes surrounding the listener’s head. (Which I personally never liked because they are unclear communicators. The character could be 1. Listening to music via headphones, 2. listening to music being broadcast to the room they’re in, or 3. humming. I also never liked them because they don’t hint at music genre, which in any other medium would be a huge part of the scene). At least back in The Good Old Days™ headphones were huge stupid-looking easily-identifiable headgear.

The miniaturization and simplification of interface has hit all corners of consumer electronics, and cartoonists have had to adapt as best they can. Some machines have disappeared altogether: I myself, as an under-40 old fogey, sincerely miss answering machine jokes. The voice-speaking-into-an-empty-room (or a voice speaking to a person screening their calls) is essentially an obsolete joke set-up. Voice mail, an auto-forward to a remote hard drive of compressed WAV files, has killed it. And don’t even get me started on the rich comedic vein of “don’t forget to rewind the VHS tape before you return it to the video store” jokes that have passed from this earthly realm! Or “I forgot to wind my watch” gag setups! Or writing “BOOBS” on a calculator!

Wait, I’m drifting off-topic…

Let’s not forget the still-central piece of American consumer hardware: The TV. For generations, cartoonists have drawn their own private versions of The Fat American Dimwit slouched in front of a huge, room-dominating television set.

Sturdy furniture! The grandeur! You could put a thirty pound VCR on top of it! It made mechanical noises when you changed the channel! But alas…

Why is the power light so important? Because otherwise it’s just a black rectangle. Or, even worse, they’re wall-mounted black rectangles that look like this:

Sleek but hard-to-define black rectangles. Thinner every year (the upside is that they’re super-easy to draw. Ho-ho). TVs, smartphones, computers… they’ve all been reduced to screens with thin little edges (the edges will probably go away soon, too). The only way to distinguish them visually is the size of them. A drawing of a smartphone sitting on a table might be confused with a widescreen tablet computer. There might be no way to tell which is which unless there’s a coffee cup sitting next to it to provide scale.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing sequential artists (and really, all illustrators, photographers, movie makers, and visual storytellers) who want to portray what life is like in this wonderful modern age we exist in is this:

And by doing, I mean they’re not doing anything particularly visual. They are sitting or standing, moving their eyes, maybe tapping the screen, maybe swiping. They might be doing something crucially important to the narrative of the story you’re trying to tell, or the joke you’re trying to set up, but in appearance they’re just… standin’ there. It forces the storyteller to drop a big dialogue hint to clue the reader in, like:

“Hi! I was just calling to leave you a message…”
“This Bluetooth headset is so comfortable I barely notice it!”
or maybe
“My, this is a wonderful video I am viewing on my portable media playback device!”

As interfaces with technology continue to become smaller, thinner, less obtrusive, less noticeable, and less identifiable visually, creative artists will have to continue to adapt and improve their visual communication skills. Some day soon even the small electronic devices will disappear, and this tyranny of the black rectangle will come to an end, leaving visual storytellers in an even more challenging environment: A world of people laughing, talking, and staring off into the middle distance as their neural implants amuse, entertain, and sell them things. That’ll look exciting.

★ I posted “Cartooning Vs. Technology” on my blog after scribbling out some really mediocre drawings one morning in 2011. Wired interviewed me about it, which Gizmodo then syndicated. It then got mentions on Bleeding CoolComics Alliance, Daily CartoonistUK Professional Cartoonists’ OrganisationComic Book ResourcesWebcomic Overlook, The Guardian UK, and Macworld,
★ This essay is included in my best-of comic collection Everything You Didn’t Ask For
★ Read more short stories & other writing

102 thoughts on “Cartooning vs. Technology: How Steve Jobs Ruined Comics

  1. This is very true! The only thing that comes to mind when representing these shrunken down devices are to include the product name on the actual drawing which is free advertising (even if you’re making fun of the name). Futuramma did this in their Eye-phone spoof in season 5. No matter what your cartoon is trying to say, it’s still promoting a product. I don’t even want to go into South Park’s “Human Centipod” episode, cuz that’s just nasty…

  2. But now the trend towards miniaturization seems to have turned. Just look at the massive headsets audiophiles (and iPod listeners) now wear in public! Princess Leia would be envious!

    With the perfection of digital “paper”, I expect we’ll be seeing newspapers back to their normal size and appearance — lust a lot more expensive…

  3. Oh just relax. We’ll all figure out the best ways to draw the new personal electronics world. The bigger issue is how to get our cartoons on those devices and make a buck. Does iTunes become our new syndicate?

  4. I know, every time I draw a phone now, it’s a little black square without any character, like the old fashioned phones had. And flat screen tv’s are very blah compared to the old fashioned style with the box and he knobs and even the rabbit ears.

  5. Is this satire? Are you actually joking? Because you can’t really be serious.

    To say that the basis of a good comic is some sort of unimportant object is ridiculous. Any cartoonist worth his salt knows how to drive a joke home regardless of the time/technology around him.

    That’s also ignoring that fact that you can STILL draw a phone like a phone or a paper that’s paper and most people won’t bat an eye.

  6. this kind of thing has always been a challenge. I made a good living in the 80s and 90s as a magazine illustrator for, among others, a medical publisher. Lots of cartoons of nurses. Well, you know I always drew a nurse’s hat even though they hadn’t been worn in like 20 years and it never caused a problem or raised an eyebrow. You can still draw an old phone or TV and the reader will know what’s what.

  7. @ Gerry – I agree, absolutely. The question I was raising wasn’t can or can’t an artist get away with using no-longer-realistic representations of things, it’s whether a cartoonist should be forced to because the modern equivalents have ceased to be easily identifiable.

    @ Adam – I don’t understand your ‘unimportant object’ comment at all.


  8. Adam: consider this: comic strips have to have both visual and verbal impact and the more instantaneous your visual recognition of the situation is, the more impact the gag will have. Many times I have had to look over a poorly composed strip in order to figure out what was going on, and by the time I figured it out, it had no impact and wasn’t funny. In real life these things are instantly recognizable, but simplified there is often a delay just long enough to spoil the gag.

    You used to be able to draw characters watching TV as seen from the front, so you could see their faces and space them across the panel. The TV seen from behind was instantly recognizable but now that TVs hang on the wall you can’t do that. If you want to have your characters living in the modern world (or even a future world) you have to resort to odd angles and odd character positions. The alternative is to establish the TV in the first frame by itself, but that won’t fit all gag structures. If you don’t, then you have to contrive a way to have your characters say “I’m watching TV,” thus muddying your dialogue with what should be a visual exposition and using up valuable word space.

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  10. This is very true! I know that I; as a comic reader; am a blithering idiot with no ability to discern anything. This simplification has made it impossible for me to understand comics.

  11. As a lifelong (~40yrs) reader of comics in nigh all forms, I feel the author has regretfully given his audience very little credit as to thier intellectual state.

    Maybe if you took a comics reader from the 1950’s and time-ported him to 2011, a point could be made, as the aged reader in question would have no immediate reference to what the current state of technological appearance specific objects have morphed towards, let alone items that did not exists in the original timeframe.

    To make this more succinct…

    My great great grandfather might have no idea what an iPod or Bluetooth headset may be, but I definately do, and can instantly recognize what various sized minimalistic black rectangles represent, given correct setup.

    A small black rectangle held up to ear? Phone.
    A medium black rectangle held like book? Tablet.
    A large black rectangle midpoint on wall? LCD/Plasma TV.

    It is not that difficult.

  12. What a whiner. There’s nothing stopping you from keeping your characters stuck in the 80s if that’s what you prefer.

    Honestly though, I don’t think a single one of those attempts at drawing ambiguous or confusing devices was hard to identify, in spite of your obvious motive to make them otherwise given the content of the article. If instead of intentionally trying to make them ambiguous you tried to make them identifiable, I don’t think anyone other than a 103 year old hermit would fail to figure out what’s going on.

  13. Mike, if you want to show people watching TV from the angle of their faces, do you need a TV? When I see an image of a group of people staring out at me I assume it’s either TV or a 4th wall gag until proven otherwise, and unless people watching TV is inherently funny the rest of the joke should provide the context. If the point is to have people occupied while something comedic occurs in the background it doesn’t matter whether they’re watching House or the latest coat of Anesthetic Pink paint dry on the wall.

  14. Wow. Just read today’s (Sept 21st) PVP. Not since my blind cousin took up archery has someone so spectacularly managed to miss the point. It wasn’t “Things look different!”, but that things are continuing a trend of all looking the same. This makes a lot of what we consider the logical visual actually based on something obsolete. (By the way, has anyone else found that once you notice this, you start noticing it everywhere?) It’s nothing new; just think of how long that little floppy disk image has stuck around as the “save” icon, or whenever milk is depicted in a glass bottle or better yet being accompanied by a milk-man, complete with little hat and bowtie.
    This is made even more apparent if you’re working on a continuous story where accuracy and detail would matter more than a simple one-note gag; if the entire surrounding is important, more than just the concept of “on the phone”. You end up seeing a lot of superfluous detail and excessive use of the apple logo to determine that that square is, in fact, a phone, that one is a tablet, and that one is a burnt cracker.
    And working in Graphic Design you don’t even have the option of context or dialogue to help you get across ideas. If you had to be accurate, then the concepts of ‘communication’, ‘recreation’, ‘writing’, ‘reading the news’, ‘playing games’, ‘shopping’, ‘working’…well, everything really, could just be one image of a computer. And I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of drawing laptops. I work for a software company, and started out with the mentality that I wasn’t just gonna take the easy shorthand way out, I would be accurate, dammit! Yeah…my fifth or seventh or hundredth drawing of an laptop (or an iphone, for the mobile option!) weaned me of that pretty quickly.
    Michael P: that’s the problem, more and more of our lives are done with these same gadgets, not just dicking around.
    Anyway, brilliant article, and I found the cartoons hilarious.

  15. ‎”it’s whether a cartoonist should be forced to because the modern equivalents have ceased to be easily identifiable.” Really? Really? Just because an older generation can’t easily differentiate devices we see daily, doesn’t mean you need to think it’s the end of comics.

  16. I think Scott Kurtz has the right idea:

    Learn to adapt to your new environment, or go extinct.

    While it may be true that technology is making our devices smaller, it is not reducing the need for the scene and characters to convey the meaning. It’s more than just the devices here too. Complaining that you can’t use the devices as a crutch to tell your story is kind of a lame excuse. The devices are just props. we don’t really care about the props beyond their use in telling the story. It’s the characters that matter, not the props.

  17. It could be that you simply need a modicum of artistic talent to represent small things. Callahan was a quadriplegic, what’s your excuse?

  18. Oh please. Can somebody explain to me the difference of drawing icons on an iPhone to differentiate it from a radio and drawing dials and rabbit ears on a tv to distinguish it from a cardboard box? This is the comic equivalent of the idiots on infomercials that can’t use a mop properly without spilling water everywhere.

    Who the hell listens to portable radios today? How do I know that tv you drew isnt just wallpaper? How do I know those headphones aren’t some medical device for migraines?

  19. @Liz: Maybe Scott missed that point because Tom didn’t make it so clearly. The drawings (very funny, by the way) don’t depict a bunch of devices that look more similar to each other than they used to; they just look simpler. Just because a pair of earbuds are simpler than gargantuan over-the-ear headphones, and a wall-mounted LCD screen is simpler than a box with rabbit ears, doesn’t make the earbuds look like a wall-mounted LCD screen. I think you have to give us comics readers that aren’t comic artists a bit more credit than that.

    The case that Tom seemed to me to make–that devices, being simpler in appearance, have fewer distinctive physical features–is interesting, but we still interact with these objects in distinct ways, and it’s that interaction that’s the key, not the appearance. It’s possible to use a smartphone as an e-book reader and some tablets as a phone (after a fashion), and in either case, it’s the function, not the form factor, that’s the thing to depict.

    That’s why I think the final image–with the multi-function smartphone–is sort of ironic. Because what’s the pre-technology analogue of that? It might be two people sitting at a table. Are they talking about last night’s game? Is it a job interview? Romantic interlude? A game of twenty questions? There has always been much more to convey about a situation than the channel in which it takes place.

    Case in point from a somewhat different arena: When phone headsets became popular, it was initially a bit disconcerting to come across someone in a supermarket, apparently muttering to themselves: “Eggs, yes, I’ll get eggs, that’s fine…oh, no I bought milk on Tuesday, we don’t need that…do we have any maple syrup at home?” Especially if they didn’t look like a vagrant. However, it really doesn’t take long to figure out what’s up, and before long, neither I nor much of anyone else I know give these characters a second glance.

    Bottom line: Cartoonists and their readers are evolving into the future together. Future shock isn’t yet happening fast enough to give either group much difficulty in keeping up, as far as I can tell.

  20. What a long climb up a flimsy soapbox! I actually like your cartoons, and thank Mr. Kurtz for making you more popular (I’m here and am reading your comics thanks to him). But in the comic about listening to music, why is that guy listening to a blood centrifuge? Or is that supposed to be a record player? Doesn’t look like any record player I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen a lot).