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 It causes the cartoonist to fall back on outdated tropes like floating music notes surrounding the listener’s head.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. Evilducks… Man, I always wanted that job in infomercials… Being the doofus who caused bodily harm to myself because I didn’t know how to properly operate a MANUAL (non-electric) can opener!

    But now on to the article… The cartoons prove a very important point that is completely over-looked… Especially in terms of the iPhone. If you choose to draw or convey something poorly, it will be confusing to the viewer/ reader. All of my characters have and use smart phones but I never had anyone ask or confuse them with electric razors, mainly because I draw them as a cartoonist should. I exaggerate them. I elongate them.

    I used to hate to try and spend needless hours trying to figure out the correct and proper perspective of an old style hard drive + monitor, but that headache disappeared when the bubble iMac hit the scene. Finally, I could EASILY convey a computer in a more easily and simplified form.

    I would argue, because of this, Steve Jobs didn’t hurt cartoonists. He helped them.

    As far as not understanding what kind of technology a character is holding or using, I will leave you with this…. yesterday, the Star Wars Blue Rays were released. It’s too bad I never got in to those movies ‘cuz for the life of me, I didn’t understand what a light saber was or what it was supposed to do. was it a futuristic broomstick? thank God Harry Potter didn’t exist before than or else I might have thought Luke was supposed to ride the darn things. now, if only Geore Lucas would have just shown Luke using the darn thing, maybe then I would have understood what that technology was and what it was supposed to do… ( as he says with his tongue firmly in cheek).


  2. ….are you serious? give people a bit more credit, we’re not all idiots – the more popular these techs get the more we’ll be use to associate them with simple drawings – plus, no one said you have to draw a flat screen tv over a regular box, or an ipad over a newspaper – this article makes it seem like you cant adapt to change

  3. 1) If every artist thought like you we just be happy repeating things, the technique changes [snob mode] you knew that if you readed the writings of the frankfort school or actually studied art [snob mode off]
    Is like saying, “jeez what happened with renaissance?”
    2) As an artist you cant say “oh the modern world is so hard to representate!”, that just shows how a bad artist you are (being good at drawing is not the same as beign an “artist”)
    3) you can draw whatever you want, If the reader gets you then he/she will forgive you for the “great sin” of drawing a newspaper
    4) welcome to the future, now every comic you will draw would be Sci-fi (those wall mounted screens are just cool)

  4. Maybe it’s a failing as a story teller. Maybe you’re working the wrong type of story. But if the context of your story doesn’t convey what an object is and you can’t draw it so it’s recognizable, maybe the gag is just a dud.

  5. @Tom: It was an interesting article until you ran over your own explanation with a lawnmower and then ran over it again in reverse.

    It began as a clever piece depicting a interesting and teasing point of view, but around the billionth sentence ended somewhere between “man, you must be a hundred and a half years old without a grasp of technology” and “man, you must be the laziest cartoonist ever, learn to freaking draw new things”

    Sorry, it was a good article that ended really, really bad. Love the drawings, tough.

  6. I started following webcomics around ’97 or ’98 with stuff like Megatokyo, Mac Hall, and Penny-Arcade. The artist and the audience has seemed to always do fine with conveying an item. I think this article is just because you lack the creativity to adapt.

  7. As cartoonists, we should never stop adapting and improving our skills, whether this is learning how to draw in new, technologically enhanced ways or learning to draw the things that are today’s technology. I can very well imagine the cartoonists of the future who are using holographic technology to send to their readers on the implants laughing how they wished they could draw the simple black rectangle to represent the video transmission devices. But they will adapt. We always do, and if we don’t, we’re doing it wrong.

    Most of our audiences know the technology of today so they will catch on right away what we are trying to represent. They get it. Those that don’t probably don’t even know what webcomics are and skip over the comics that don’t represent their sense of humor in the newspapers. Are they missing out on discovering new artists and strips? Certainly. But our task is to make something that marries storytelling and art that may catch their eye and reel them in, otherwise, we fail.

    Cartooning is ever evolving, and our art and storytelling needs to evolve along with society and the gadgets they embrace, no matter what they end up looking like.

  8. Tom,

    While I support your right to voice your opinion here, I have to disagree. Frankly, I’m surprised that someone who publishes a webcomic and maintains a blog has such a seeming problem with technological advancement.

    “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and
    write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn”. — Alvin Toffler

  9. I know that I can’t draw action comics anymore.
    Back in the 50s, brass knuckles were used all the time. You draw a fist with a spiked ring on it, and everyone knows you’re drawing a character making a fist.

    Nowdays, people throw punches “barehand” and it’s just impossible! I can’t tell if Batman is punching out the Joker, or if he’s got a fist full of delicious jellybeans, and is trying to pop them into the Joker’s mouth.

    And don’t talk to me about those tiny mobile phones people have! I’m so confused every time I see a character holding something up to their ear, with a speechbubble coming out. Usually the speechbubble has that “lightning bolt” tail, so I know it’s an electronic-sounding voice. Why is their hand talking to them in an electronic-sounding voice? Is that a phone? Or a shaving kit? I can’t tell! Why does he have a talking shaving kit?

    It’s so confusing! Bring back large pay phone booths and brass knuckles. It’s the only way our comics will make sense again!

  10. Sorry dude, but this is just QQ.

    There are so many ways to creatively deal with the problems you’re presenting. Choice of frame, more detail, better writing, additional iconographic information etc. could all help overcome the problems you mention and there are tons of other ways to deal with.

    Learn to cartoon better. If the panel doesn’t communicate clearly it’s not some object in the panel’s fault, it’s the artist’s.

  11. Sounds like you should write a comic about a bunch of people who, for whatever reason, use only technology from before the year 2000 so that you can draw things the way you want to.

  12. Just keep up with the times man.

    In real life it is equally hard to tell what somebody is reading from their reader or what they are doing with their phone. Surprisingly people need to hint what they are doing if they get mad at their phones/readers in real life.
    Sometimes bluetooth headsets cause awkward situations where you think that the person next to you is talking to you when he is actually on the phone. Sometimes you didn’t see the phone on someones hand and end up in similar situation.

    Some people use real headphones instead of earbuds even with mobile music players (probably the same class of people as pictured left in the music player scene).

    Your also wrong on the minituarization of phones as they have been getting larger after the shift to smartphones. My current smartphone is about twice as large as the smallest normal phone I’ve had.

  13. Sorry to disagree but this is ridiculous. Lets put progress and all technology on hold so it’s easier for a few comic artists… You are the problem with today’s society… it’s all about you! Other great comic artists (pvp, p-a, etc) don’t have this problem. Adapt or get run over.. either way GET OVER IT!

  14. Of course there is always the option of doing a period comic. If you absolutely love the technology of the 80’s and 90’s then place your comic in that era. There’s no rule that says your comic has to be set in the current time frame to be relevant. Good writing will win over good art everytime, although when both are extraordinary then you have a chance at creating a classic.

  15. The funny thing is that in all those sketches I could clearly tell (even though some of them were very evidently made obtuse in purpose) what that people were doing and no, not because the informative bubble next to them. The only one that was slightly confusing was the flat TV on the wall next to the picture, and only because you chose not to make the slightest effort to differentiate them. A simple use of shading in the TV image or even just making the subject (the “coyote”) appear as caught in motion would help drive the point home to all but the mentally laziest. Or I dunno, you could show the outlines of the people sitting in the foreground watching TV have their heads tilted towards it. There are myriads of ways of convey sense in creative ways rather than recurring time after time to old iconography.

    You are simply refusing to adapt to the times, placing the blame on someone else.

  16. You’re totally right, Tom. Also, I miss the days when it was easier to represent a Black or Asian person because I didn’t know any in real life, and I could just base my cartoons on the way other cartoonists had always done it.


  17. Seems simple enough. Just draw some lines radiating out from the little rectangle, or even a radio style word balloon. If your art skills are up to it. the glow of the video screen still gets the point across. The symbolic language of cartoons has always had to evolve. and cartoonists have always managed to figure it out somehow.