Saturday, January 26, 2008

Billy Ireland's use of map shapes in his cartoons

In yesterday's post about late Columbus cartoonist Billy Ireland, I had mentioned how similar Ireland's political cartoons from the first decades of the 20th century to those being produced in the first decade of the 21st (The main differences being how rare abstraction was in Ireland's work, and how intricately drawn it was).

The most frustrating similarity? Ireland tended to over-label the components of his cartoons. And by "over-label," I simply mean "label." Because so often, Ireland's ideas are so perefectly crystallized in the drawings themselves that the labeling becomes completely superfluos.

Now, one of the many rewarding aspects of a book like Lucy Shelton Caswell's Billy Ireland, whcih collects so many cartoons from a single newspaper cartoonist in one place, is that by seeing such a large swathe of their work, one gets to see the issues they were most concerned with and become familiar with the techniques they used.

One strategy that Ireland seemed to employ quite often was using the shapes from the map as components in his drawings, using, say, the shape of the United States as the body for an animal, thus visually telegraphing that the animal is a symbol for the U.S. (and thus making labels or good old tried and true Uncle Sam unnecessarry).

Here are a half-dozen or so examples, all culled from Caswell's book.

This one's actually pretty abstracted for Ireland. The eagle doing the feeding and the world-bird are both pretty loose in terms of representation, leaning closer to "cartoony" cartooning than a lot of his political cartoons tended to. I'm not 100% on what real world events this was responding to—I gather from the other cartoons on the topic in the book that plenty of other countries were relying on the U.S. for food in and around World War I?—but the point of the cartoon sure is clear.

The words "the world" seem pretty unnecessary on the baby bird, since it's head is shaped like the world. Similarly, the "U.S." tag on the eagle seems a bit much. You can't get much more obvious in terms of "This is America!" symbolism than an eagle dressed like Uncle Sam.

Of course, this likely has more to do with the way cartooning was done in Ireland's day than any sort of weakness on his part. I mean, the words "Some job!" aren't necessarry across the top, but all of his cartoons have similar over-telgraphing, explaining the joke to readers, in case the picture itself doesn't do the job.

But looking at the picture, it's hard to see how it wouldn't. The size of the baby bird, it's huge gaping mouth, all those other babies, the tiny eagle, the look on his face—it's pretty clear the bird labeled U.S. is comically overwhelmed in its task of feeding the world, right?

Note the way Ireland tags the eagle with "U.S." It doesn't have the letters written on its body, or a button, or a T shirt, as is more cocmmon these days, but has a tag hanging off it. He does this a lot when labelling characters; sometimes they just grow off the character like that, and some time they dangle by a string, as if they were price tags.

Here's a great cartoon in which he uses the shape of the United States as a central image. What a great, simple, evocative way to say "this boat symbolizes the United States." I like the contrast with the especially realistic men doing the rowing, and the Uncle Sam who looks as real as your own uncle. It makes the images single non-representational image—the United States-shaped boat—stand out.

Again, I don't think it was necessarry to mark it "USA," but hell, it was 1917; maybe most Columbus Dispatch readers hadn't taken basic geography in school. I don't know.

Here's one I love—an Americamel. In this case Ireland resisted labeling the beast "U.S.A.," but labeled a couple of individual states on it. Maybe he had to label Florida, so people didn't mistake that for a turgid camel penis or some sort of cancerous chest growth.

And another great use of the shape of the United States. Check out the Americow's haunches. The north western states really blend into an emaciated cow's ass quite well, don't they? This is one that kinda confuses me. I think the americow is the mom cow and the gigantic calf is Europe, looking to feed off the states, despite the states needing their own food? I don't know, really. But those are some nice-looking cow heads. And clever use of a globe and map. And Uncle Sam as farmer.

Finally, here's Ireland using the shape idea on a more local level...

Here, the labeling of everything except the state is probably needed, as were it not for the "Mother Nature," there'd be no way to know that was anything other than some random old lady. Again the shape from the map is the only highly abstracted part of the drawing, calling attention to it and giving it stronger impact. I don't know why more Ohio cartoonists don't do this...the state's shape is such that it could easily be used to stand in for almost anything concave, you know?

It's probably not apparent to any of you not from Ohio, but the background to the right? That's taken from the seal of Ohio. Those hills are in Chillicothe, where Ireland was born. The area is currently a state park.


Senath said...

I just wanted to thank you for doing these Billy Ireland posts. As a Chillicothe native and frequent visitor of Coulumbus, I really should have known about him, but I didn't. I'll have to check out more of his work.

Do you happen to know where he's buried? I remember seeing an "Ireland" marker in Grandview Cemetery in Chillicothe.

Anonymous said...

There's nothing more beautiful than driving down 23 or 104 and seeing the flat wasteland of central Ohio give way to the lush hills of Chillicothe.

Of course, once you get there, it smells pretty bad, thanks to the paper plant.

Caleb said...

Do you happen to know where he's buried?

No, I'm afraid I don't. I would imagine it's in Chillicothe, but I don't know for sure, or whereabouts in Chillicothe.

Irish Poet Dom Giovanni said...

Good article. Very pleased to be informed about Billy Ireland, being from both Ireland and Ohio. But your comment that political cartooning was "stll new-ish." New-ish?

In Martin Luther's day political cartoons were being printed with woodcuts on the new-ish presses. The island of England was awash in political cartoons from the early 18th century right through Punch some two hundred years later.

Benny Franklin was publishing them in Philly. Lincoln was reading them betwixt bouts with his generals, etc. etc. Next time that I visit "home" in Ohio, I may look up this museum. Thanks.

Dom Giovanni