Thursday, January 1, 2009

Cartoons Vs. Comics

You're a cartoonist, but you make comics. You're a comicker, but you make cartoons. Wait -- animators make cartoons. Toothpaste for Dinner is a comic, but there are cartoons like it in the New Yorker. Leonardo DaVinci made cartoons, but never comics.  What's going on?

The first meaning of "cartoon" was a preliminary drawing made prior to starting a painting (or stained glass or tapestry). It jumped meanings upon the appearance of newspapers and magazines, where it was used to refer to humorous illustrations. These were single panels accompanied by captions, not word balloons.

"Comics" comes from the same Greek word as "comedy." As the comic strip as we know it developed in newspapers, the form was distinguished by word balloons, sequential narrative and emphasis on the image. Newspaper comics were bundled in magazine form, giving us "comic books."

Early attempts at animation date to cave paintings sometimes feature animals with extra legs, to simulate running. The zoetrope and praxinoscope were fancy approximations of the flip book effect, but no one would truly achieve animation until film.

In the studio, the artists recruited to draw the animation cells apparently adopted "cartoon" as their word for the drawings, and it spread to include the films themselves. Soon, cartoon meant film animations as well as single panel, captioned gags printed in periodicals, and comics meant newspaper strips and comic books, which were mostly humor when they started.

That rather arbitrary demarcation would be survivable if cartoonists didn't draw comics.

The limited search data I've seen shows "cartoonist" about twice as frequent as "comic," with end destinations that suggest people who type "cartoon" are often uncertain what they want, unless it's Cartoon Network. "Cartoon" may be a lowbrow term for comics the way some people calls magazines "books."

"Comicker" and "webcomicker" are slowly gaining traction but I wouldn't expect them to appear on resumes any time soon.

I've done as I always do when confusion reigns: I found something I can decide on, and I made a decision. Hence, my use of "webcomic," not "web comic."

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