The funny line drawings that we today refer to as cartoons have been with us for probably as long as people have drawn on the walls and floors of caves or in the wet sand of beaches. The name actually comes from the Italian "cartone," meaning pasteboard -- the cheap paper that artists often used for comic or satiric drawings or for quick sketches. Cartoons have had an up and down history in this country, where they have been well loved by the general public, including (and perhaps most especially by children) -- just think of all the comic book heroes to whom America has given birth! But they have also been the subject of Congressional hearings and even a comics code in the 1950s, which sought to protect children from the influence of the more sensational kinds of comics that were being produced at the time.
Until the 1970s, the influence of cartoon art in children's books was one of those boundaries that artists in the field weren't supposed to cross -- that is until Maurice Sendak produced his now famous In the Night Kitchen, which took its inspiration from the genius of the early 20th century American cartoonist, Winsor McCay, and from the genius of Walt Disney's early animated cartoons from the 1930s. Today, of course, the influence of comics seems to be everywhere, spilling over into every genre in the entertainment and publishing industry -- from Hollywood movies to children's books.
Two recent books from the North Carolina children's book publisher, Front Street, are good examples of how picture books are proudly and dramatically drawing the reader back to comics as the source of their inspiration. The first of these books, The Letter Home by Timothy Decker, is about a young medic's experiences in World War I, told in sharply drawn panels with minimal captions in the form of a letter sent home to his young son. With understated simplicity of line and word, it is a moving and a very timely story. The second book, Magic Beach by Crockett Johnson -- the creator of Harold and the Purple Crayon as well as the comic strip, Barnaby -- was discovered by Philip Nel in a long-forgotten archive of Johnson's work. It's the story of two children, Ann and Ben, who discover that, when they write words in the wet sand of their magic beach, the things they write come to life -- from bread and jam to a king, his horse, and his castle. Quickly drawn, elliptical, it is the essence of the cartoon, then and now.
Copyright 2006© John Cech
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