Hemingway, Schmemingway

Hemingway, Schmemingway

When literary titan Ernest Hemingway was challenged to write an entire novel in six words, he famously responded with “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” That short line, which summons up an easily imagined, far more complex tale of a family’s tragedy, is rightly regarded as a superlative piece of storytelling, a skillful trick by a writer whose work usually employed thousands of words.
But for a cartoonist, it’s less impressive. We create those kinds of extraordinarily compressed narratives all the time; indeed, it’s our stock in trade. Comic strips usually deliver their messages in three or four panels, gag panel cartoons in just one. As a cartoonist, I’m often amazed by the amount of time politicians, award presenters and clergypeople spend making their points. Because I think that if it takes more than a couple of words and an image, it’s too much.

As an example of how a single panel can imply a story that stretches beyond what the reader sees, check out this cartoon I did recently for the Healthy Travel Blog. It’s not an epic on par with Hemingway’s, but the caption similarly invites us to construct a much longer narrative. It’s that narrative–the implied story of an entire vacation by a guy whose personality you’d probably not want to emulate–which is both the source of the cartoon’s humor and of it’s larger commentary, which tags everything from the way tourists deal with indigenous cultures to the inclination of some people to make extremely regrettable decisions. And the reader experiences all of it in just a couple of seconds.

The fact that cartoons are brief by necessity is yet another reason they make great content. In a world where the typical reader’s attention span equals the half-life of a neutrino, cartoons are the perfect medium to deliver a complex message efficiently. Maybe not all cartoonists are Hemingways, but for most the equivalent of writing a novel in six words is just another day’s work.

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