The history of cartoons

Let’s talk cartoons. They matter, you know, unless you think they’re just for kids. The subject for thought here is not the stuff of Sponge Bob Square Pants. History tells us that in their beginning, cartoons were expressly made for adults. They were send-ups in words and pictures that mirrored and mocked us, and because they overstated how we looked and talked, people didn't take them personally.

Early cartooning began with artists like England’s William Hogarth who satirized the vices of his generation in the 18th century cartoon series “A Rake’s Progress.” The following century saw Spain’s Francisco Goya ridicule his time in the cartoon series “Caprichos” and France’s Honore Daumier parody the follies of fellow Frenchmen in the newspaper The Daily Charivari.

While satirical illustrations by these men have long been applauded, those by women are far less known. Would you believe there were female cartoonists in Hogarth’s day? If you didn’t know that, you do now.

Continued quest for equality and recognition

The House of Illustration in London, Britain’s only public gallery given over to drawing, has mounted a show billed “UK’s largest ever exhibition of the work of pioneering female comic artists” – 100 in all by both contemporary cartoonists and those from earlier generations. Exhibit co-curator Olivia Ahmad wears her agenda on her sleeve, saying to British daily The Guardian that it’s a “myth” to think there are few women in the cartoon industry. Her cartoon show is meant to correct that impression.

It doesn’t help her cause that the ever-popular International Comics Festival known as Angouleme in France, which boasts 200,000 visitors annually, failed to nominate a woman in its celebrated awards this year. After outrage erupted, Angoulême added some women with the explanation that there aren’t enough females to choose from. Ahmad’s show argues the point.

Another cartoonist to raise consciousness about female cartoonists is New Yorker cartoonist Liza Donnelly who penned a book in 2005 about fellow cartoonists from the roaring twenties to the present called “Funny Ladies.” This virtual walk through time provides a snapshot of societal shifts. In the ‘20's and ‘30's, you see female cartoonists describing their gender as independent and at work. Helen Hokinson, a 20-year veteran staff cartoonist for the New Yorker in its early days, drew two sisters telling their mother, “Dorothy and I have decided to go on the stage this summer. We don’t want to get into a rut.”

In the ‘40's, you saw a woman sitting across from her husband surreptitiously reading the newly published Kinsey report “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” tucked inside a House and Garden magazine. Later, in the ‘70's, you saw a world reverting to traditional roles for the sexes. Making the case is a cartoon of a female fish looking out from inside a fish bowl while a male fish perched atop the rim of the bowl -- feet up, arms behind his head -- lounges in his underwear. The only things missing are a football game playing on TV and a six-pack by his side.

The female complaint about being overlooked is a legitimate one. But in their effort to stop the divide, they end up adding to it. Besides, there’s no democracy in the arts and shouldn’t be. The job of arbiters of taste is not to keep things even between the sexes -- or the races, for that matter. #Buzz