Historic Virtuoso Cartoonists Essay (OSU Festival of Cartoon Art 2001)
I'm in the middle of writing my impressions of this past weekend's Festival of Cartoon Art, and in the process I thought I'd post my 2001 essay. Here it is, as originally included on pages 31 and 33 of the catalog.
A virtuoso cartoonist creates comics which combine utterly original graphic techniques with a purely personal and artistic point of view. Much like a virtuoso violinist, a virtuoso cartoonist shapes appealing artistic experiences for the audience in a way which no one else can. Defining these qualities becomes problematic, beginning even with the question of whether to include the work of cartoonists who work in collaboration. Do we focus only on those cartoonists who "did it all?" (Of course, this distinction ignores the fact that many, if not most, cartoonists use assistants of one sort or another.)
To be sure, in some circles the auteur theory often holds quite strongly. And I would agree that, on average, it is most common that the most satisfying comic art arises from single creators; the harmonious blend of words and pictures (in those comics which use words) perhaps comes most naturally when a single intelligence judges how the two elements best combine, where neither element dominates and both are intrinsically necessary. For example, the classic comic strips which rank most highly in popularity polls are invariably those created by a single artist. The quality of the line, the turn of phrase, and the world view are themselves, in these cases, perfectly in balance.
Recall, though, that virtuoso violinists are not expected to write the music they perform - their acclaim stems from their technique and the interpretive sensibilities they convey. So too, I think, should we value cartoonists for the skills they bring to interpreting a story, whether their own or someone else's. The comics art form, after all, was nurtured (and still primarily thrives) in commercial environments - settings which, if they are not antithetical to "pure art for art's sake," are at least more at home in collaborative ventures.
But cartooning is about storytelling, shaping a narrative idea through the juxtaposition of visual elements. The script for this narrative may be written by the cartoonist or by someone else, but ultimately it is the cartoonist's job to provide its shape, a map for the reader to follow. The best source text will still translate into mediocre comics unless the cartoonist applies a strong storytelling - story-shaping - dimension to the work. Collaborative cartoonists tell the story just as much as the "writer" does, for a comic's words ultimately depend upon the images and their arrangement for their context. The best cartoonists can take any source material and, through their technique, give it shape in a way no one else would consider.
We would do well also to recall that "virtuoso" can also mean an experimenter or investigator; and certainly, many of the most highly regarded cartoonists are well-known for their own experiments with the comics form. What distinguishes these cartoonists is that their innovations, their explorations, and their re-imaginings all serve to facilitate their storytelling, not simply as ends in themselves. The work such cartoonists produce must ultimately communicate a felt experience to be appreciated for more than simply novelty value. A virtuoso experimenter may begin with Simple tricks, but the tricks themselves soon become but an expanded toolbox from which the cartoonist can draw a wider range of techniques than are available to the non-experimenter. The virtuoso uses such experiments to create humor and art which touch our emotions as well as impress our understanding. Not every experimenter becomes a virtuoso, but every virtuoso was, at one point or another, an experimenter.