One panel or sixteen

June 16th, 2015 By Melinda Johnston

In 2013, the Turnbull Gallery exhibition Next in Line took a look at the upcoming cartooning talent unearthed as a result of the Cartoon Archive and Listener’s inaugural Young Cartoonist Competition. In that exhibition we asked ‘what’s next in line’ and pondered the future of the editorial cartoon: ‘Aware of both change and continuity, young cartoonists remain committed to strong draftsmanship but also excited about digital technology and the possibilities it may bring.’

Shows three zombies stumbling through a cityscape and all saying 'HOUSE PRICES'. The cartoonist is making an exaggerated comment on the way that his age group (early thirties) in Auckland are obsessed with house prices and the purchase of their first home, noting that 'I feel like I'm hiding in my (rented) basement, trying not to get bitten and roped into the whole absurd situation.'
Toby Morris, 'House Prices', 2013. Ref: DCDL-0025755.

Toby Morris, a runner-up in that competition, was one of those advocating a new kind of cartooning. As a graphic designer and art director, Morris has highly developed computer skills, but he still believes ‘it’s hard to beat the character and potential for expression that comes from ink on paper’. That said, Morris was clearly interested in the opportunities that were being opened up by the digital cartoon, explaining that:

I am interested in... how viewing and displaying cartoons predominantly digitally will change things... Won't be long before we see editorial cartoons for digital platforms that have elements of animation (gifs?) or interactive aspects — mouse here it says one thing, mouse here it says another, or you can open a door in the cartoon etc. I think if you can use things like that for a purpose rather than as a gimmick that could be really interesting.

What seemed like futuristic speculation back in 2013 is now one step closer to reality, with Morris’s The Pencilsword now appearing regularly on Radio New Zealand’s website The Wireless. Featuring animated GIF files and sophisticated commentary, these works reflect a new direction in political cartooning.

The digital cartoon

The dividing line between comics and cartoons can be subtle and difficult to pin down. The Cartoon Archive’s focus has historically been on the editorial political cartoon, although in 2014 our collecting policy officially extended to take in ‘cartoons in strip form’. The complexity of making clear distinctions between comics and cartoons was the subject of a recent panel discussion, sponsored by the Alexander Turnbull Library, held as part of the Wellington City Library’s Comicfest.

What became clear in this discussion is that a number of today’s cartoonists were using both the cartoon and the comic format to make social and political commentary. While Toby Morris describes his works as autobiographical comics, many of The Pencilsword episodes clearly perform the same commentary function as do editorial cartoons as we currently know them — that is, in the so-called ‘golden rectangle’ format that’s come down to us from the twentieth-century printed newspaper. It’s just that in the case of Morris’s works, they use 16 frames rather than just 1. However, as Morris also pointed out in the panel discussion:

The golden rectangle possibly came from a concern regarding space — now there is this endless hunger for content, it must be so much more open about how we as cartoonists can deliver that stuff. I’m interested to see how that’s going to change things. It doesn’t take more space on the internet to have one panel or sixteen.

If cartoonists can say ‘more’, they can also influence how their readers encounter that content. As comics theorist Scott McLeod pointed out back in 1993, the digital world can expand the possibilities for how consumers view comics, moving beyond the two-dimensional page to a more seamless flow of content. However, as Morris noted, the catch is accommodating that technology in a way that doesn’t just reduce it to a gimmick.

A good example of success in this regard is Morris’s ninth Pencilsword cartoon, Inequality Tower, where the digital format has enabled the viewer to seamlessly scroll down through the content, while the sense of the never-ending tower adds to the commentary on income distribution. In this instance, the form and the political commentary enhance each other, albeit in a way far removed from the golden rectangle. It is exactly these kinds of developments that mean that we, as a repository for New Zealand cartoons, have to continually rethink how and what we collect.

The ninth Pencilsword cartoon. Talks about inequality in New Zealand.
Toby Morris, 'Inequality Tower' [part01], April 2015. Ref: DCDL-0031460.

Collecting born-digital cartoons

Since the early 2000s, the Cartoon Archive has been collecting born-digital cartoons, receiving several hundred cartoons each month. We designate these cartoons born-digital, because the digital file that we receive from the cartoonist (usually a JPEG) is the so-called ‘original’. That is, while it may have started life as a pen and ink drawing, by the time it is in its final incarnation (often via a program like Photoshop), the ‘original’ cartoon is the digital object. This term is also useful in distinguishing these kinds of cartoons from those which have been ‘digitised’, that is, where we hold the original drawing or newspaper clipping, but we have taken a high-resolution photograph of that cartoon, thereby creating a surrogate digital file.

What’s different about Toby Morris’s cartoons, however, is that they are the first-ever cartoons collected by the Cartoon Archive where the cartoonist has intended them to be distributed solely via an online channel. That is, they have been created with online readership in mind. In conjunction with this, these cartoons are also the first animated GIF files received into the Turnbull Library’s collection, which meant that our digital archivists had to run some additional checks to ensure not only that we could preserve these but that our NDHA viewers could display the animated GIFs correctly for our users.

One of our guiding principles when collecting born-digital cartoons has always been to acquire the best-available file from the cartoonist. In this instance, this meant that we collected the high-resolution GIF files. However, because each instalment of The Pencilsword comprises several GIF files, we were losing their original screen layout, and as previously noted with the ‘Inequality Tower’, this means that a valuable part of their intended reception would also be lost.

We therefore had many discussions about how we could both collect the best-quality file and reflect the published context. In this instance, we knew that the annual Web Harvest would also be archiving The Wireless website. This allowed for a solution: by providing the researcher with a link from the catalogue record back to the archived version of the website, they could encounter the cartoon as it would have been experienced in 2014. This system is still a little imprecise, but we are confident that the information is being captured, and that despite the challenges of ever-changing technology, we can adapt to meet future needs.

Furthermore, while seeing the cartoon in context may not seem so important now (currently the researcher can simply visit The Wireless website directly), in 50 years’ time the Cartoon Archive will have the high-quality digital file stored in a secure environment, it will be findable on our catalogue, and we will hold an archived and stable record of its publication context, no matter what happens to the content on The Wireless’s website in the ensuing years.

he ninth Pencilsword cartoon. Begins with 'This is Richard. His parents are doing ok. And this is Paula. Her parents? Not so much. Each panel shows the named child as a toddler.'
Toby Morris, 'On a plate' part01, May 2015. Ref: DCDL-0031461.

As for the Pencilsword cartoons themselves, we’re excited to have them in the Cartoon Archive collection. They represent a new voice from the next generation of cartoonists, and what’s more, it’s a voice that seems to be finding an international audience.

The tenth instalment of The Pencilsword, ‘On a Plate’, has recently gone viral: as of early June it’s had over 1 million views on Imgur (at one point it was clocking 60 views per second); it’s had over 40,000 Facebook shares and has been featured on the Huffington Post; plus it’s been translated into other languages. You can read Toby Morris’s own thoughts on this cartoon in his article ‘For Richard, For Paula’ where he notes that he wanted to challenge thinking on privilege: ‘In Mumbai, in Denver, in Nantes and in Wellington it rings true. The fact that the story has been received so voraciously around the world only strengthens my belief that what I’m saying has truth in it.’

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19 June 2015 1:09pm

Great blog Melinda. I was one of the 40,000 that shared Toby Morris's Pencilwood "on a plate" cartoon.