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 It causes the cartoonist to fall back on outdated tropes like floating music notes surrounding the listener’s head.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.

See also:
* Addendum: Cartooning vs. Technology
* My gentle critique of the syndicated comic strip Close To Home

* This — well, let’s call it an ‘essay’ — is included in my best-of comic collection Everything You Didn’t Ask For.

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

  1. If you’re drawing cartoons for the newspaper, just keep using 1950s era icons, since the only people still reading dead tree newspapers are those who were adults in the 1950s, and, like you, find people talking on their silvery glass demon boxes to be strange and frightening. If you’re drawing cartoons for the Internet, you’ll find that the Internet has evolved many forms of iconic and expressive images which you can use, that, like all good icons, convey meaning far out of proportion to their complexity as images, due to the loaded cultural content. (PS:I’m 46, so rest assured, it’s not just those darn kids who have abandoned print. I got on the ‘net back in ’88, when we thought calling it ‘cyberspace’ was really cool and hip and cutting edge. Oh, gods, I’m old.)

  2. Panel 1: Guy looking at square
    Panel 2: Reverse angle, showing what’s on the square he’s looking at
    If it’s video, add:
    Panel 3: Same reverse angle, now showing a different frame of the video.

  3. PS: You might want to look at the work of Sergio Aragones, who has proven himself an extraordinary master at conveying complex information visually. For example, if you want to show what someone’s doing on their little black box, why not have a thought balloon that shows them dressed in army gear, shooting at Nazis? This conveys “He is playing a war game of some kind” — the fact it’s the character, not someone else, doing the shooting tells you “It’s a game, he’s imagining himself playing”, as opposed to “He’s watching a WW2 movie”, which would, as you note, also be possible. You can do anything with those little black boxes. I love my little black box. I love it so much. It’s my friend. It only wants to be near me and love me.

  4. Like Paul said, the good artists don’t have this problem. They find ways to communicate new technology effectively, without resorting to expository dialog.

    Learn to draw things recognizably. Observe people and find the humorous pitfalls of modern technology, just as you did with the technology of the last era. Or wait for better writers to find them for you so you can imitate them. Readers thrive on mediocrity, after all, if newspaper comics are any indication.

    You’ve been learning for your entire career; why stop now?

  5. Your examples here remind me of people on infomercials who try to make things like chopping vegetables with a knife look way more difficult than they really are. There are plenty of things that are unclear if you don’t draw them right. These are problems that all cartoonists have to overcome from time to time, and they don’t only relate to technology. Can you can draw a girl with short hair and boyish clothing while still letting your audience know she’s a girl? If you can’t, you’re not a very good cartoonist. Your job is to convey a message and/or tell a story, and sometimes you have to give the reader clues. But it’s not as hard as you make it out to be. When people read your “I hate you because of your opinions” strip, they didn’t look at your strip and say, “What is he reading? A comic? An editorial? The obituaries?” Readers know he is reading a comic because he said he was reading a comic. If you replace the newspaper with an electronic device in that strip, nothing is lost. In fact, it would have been simpler to draw. So, with all due respect, stop whining; if simplified technology is a problem you can’t figure out how to overcome, maybe you shouldn’t be a cartoonist.

  6. Some of you goofballs take things waaaaaaaaaaaaaay too seriously.

    Holy hot air windbags. It’s a cartoon for pete’s sake, making a larger comment about change and technology, not the artist’s frustrations with drawing.

    Moreover, perhaps some of you ought to re-acquaint yourselves with the definition of the concept of a “joke”.

    Lighten up Francis!

  7. When cartoonists have to label everything anyway (especially editorial cartoonists, who can’t seem to understand that their audience knows context and need to label every politician and item with glaringly obvious text) I don’t see how drawing one flat box as opposed to a slightly larger and thicker box to represent a TV set is a big deal.

  8. Zits seems to have done very well managing most of these proposed hurdles. I’ve never been confused about what kind of tech/activity is going on there.

  9. As a three dimensional artist I have to say that while I understand understand representing an old wood panel TV from the 70’s might be more fun, and more detailed, representing life and people is in fact made more dynamic by the progress of technology.

    Taking your example of someone talking on there Bluetooth headset: You ask if the person is talking on the phone, or performing a monologue. That is an actual point of confusion in real life, not just in the way it’s drawn. We’ve all had moments when we’ve wondered if the dude walking down the street talking to himself is crazy, or just “plugged in”.

    Also, if you take a quick look at video games, while the TV itself may be less interesting to draw, what is on the screen has steadily become more and more interesting. Pacman, while iconic, is basically a yellow pie chart, while Master Chief is a complex study of geometry, anatomy, textures, colors, and shadows.

    As a cartoonist, or any sort of artist, representing present day is as much an exercise in characters as it is in objects. In this sense while technology is becoming minimized from a visual perspective, from a social perspective it’s becoming maximized, giving us plenty of new ideas and situations to draw, paint, sculpt, build, or film.

    – J

  10. I think all the people who didn’t get Tom’s joke are just John McPherson fans seeking retribution. Or John McPherson, seeking retribution.

  11. Steve jobs had nothing to do with it. The iphone was actually bigger than most cell phones when it game out. Also he did not invent or have anything to do with blue tooth headsets, or lcd tvs.

  12. Very funny, thoughtful. I am an American Indian artist. When I show my traditional friends the art I have done symbolizing the culture with pigments on paper, they like them. When I show them other interpretations of the symbols I do on a computer they do not like them so much, they resist them because of the computer’s intervention. Very few American Indians have embraced cultural art on computers but I really enjoy it, but my own tribal friends are not the market. The same idea expressed on paper vs a computer clearly creates a vast difference in reactions and understanding….

  13. Personally, I think this article is funny, even though I disagree with the premise.

    I see new technologies, and the way we interact with them, as a rich vein of humor just waiting to be tapped. The picture of the flat-screen television next to the framed photo (or painting) is just waiting to be lampooned. Same with the woman looking down at her smart-phone. And as someone else has already observed, you don’t need an explanation to tell what the gadget is. With a little creativity, the reader can infer from the joke — or it may, itself, be the center of the joke.

    By the way, the guy walking down the street with the earbuds is a Secret Service Agent, and the guy with the clunky headphones is actually an undercover agent listening to a wiretap.

  14. How ’bout this: Two guys walking down the street, and phone rings. You can tell the phone is in the first guy’s pocket, but both guys check to see whether it’s theirs that’s ringing. Second guy pulls a little dot (almost invisibly small) from his pocket, and squints at it, and says, “It’s not me.” First guy pulls an enormous 50s-era, rotary dial phone out of his pocket to the astonishment of the second guy. First guy says, “I got tired of people looking at me like I was nuts for talking to the air.”

  15. thank you for the comics. F you for the Steve Jobs specification. That’s insensitive and unfair. *Technology* did this, and it involved a lot of us.

  16. Have you seen the new BBC series Sherlock? Well, new, it started last year, but anyway… You really should watch the first episode. They use texting and mobile phones as an integral part of tge story and came up with their own visual language fornit. It is quite excellently done and shows that with creativity you can solve the problem you pose.

  17. Write a comic set in the 70s-?

    It’s an interesting idea to ponder, but I think if it really were an insurmountable hurdle then sci-fi cartoons/graphic novels/etc depicting any kind of technology wouldn’t exist because it would be impossible for the reader to make sense of it. If artists and readers can understand pretend technology that doesn’t even exist, then I’m sure they can manage everyday items they both see and use all the time.

  18. Steve Jobs has also ruined fair market competition, small time innovation, and the lives of thousands of southeast Asians. You can start a whole series!

  19. Great article. Still today I have problems with people talking to themselves on the street. Unless I see a piece of technology on them, I just assume they don’t have all their marbles. Even after finally seeing a bluetooth earpiece, I think it is an undeclared form of acute narcism… I’ll call you back, I’m in public having a private conversation!

  20. Fantastic comparison…
    Man how technology makes life easy and at the same time makes it difficult
    Really wonderful article.