Cartoons. Cartoon animation. Cartoon strips. Cartoon illustrations. Political cartoons. Joke cartoons. Gag cartoons. Pocket cartoons.

ALL THESE ARE well-known phrases connected to the graphic art of humorous illustration. The original ‘cartoon’ was simply a preliminary sketch for a serious, finished masterpiece such as Leonardo Da Vinci’s Cartoon whose joke was completely lost on Peter Cook in the TV comedy series Not Only But Also. The current understanding of the word is that it is a comic illustration, usually rendered with black ink and more often than not, coloured in a variety of media.

Add to this the art of caricature, and you have a potent arsenal of inky, satirical weapons with which to splatter the powerful and corrupt who need telling a few home truths about their behaviour.

Political Cartoon by cartoonist in London

The joke cartoon serves to produce an oasis of humorous recognition amidst the desert of the grey news copy. Often political, as in the pocket cartoons on the front of the broadsheets, the gag cartoon is mostly known for plumbing the depths of mundane human experience and telling us things that we realize we already knew but couldn’t express. Or else they can surprise us with imaginative jokes drawn from a lateral perspective and audacious visual puns. This can be extended into a three or four panel routine with the cartoon strip which tells little funny stories from the lives of cartoon characters. The cartoon strip, is, in effect, a mini-sitcom, with the characters being the most important ingredient. Get them right and the strip’s stories virtually write themselves. Or so many comic strip artists might wish!

When the serious issues of the day require a deeper, more satirical lambasting, the political cartoon comes into play. From the days of the political cartoon’s 18th century originator, the London based James Gillray, this powerful form of satire has been one of the cartooning mainstays in most national newspapers. Using gags, symbolism, caricature combined with a level of artistry not normally seen in the smaller confines of a pocket cartoon, the political cartoon has been known to change the opinions of newspaper readers. In fact, cartoonist Vicky’s lampoonery of Harold MacMillan as ‘SuperMac’ is often believed to have contributed to his defeat in the general election. A similar public image shift was said to have been caused by Steve Bell’s savage and scathing portrayals of both Margaret Thatcher and John Major in the Guardian.

But, the cartoons we are subjected to by the media are really just the surface of all cartoon activity in the UK. Moving into the more invisible worlds of advertising, education, PR, promotions and business presentations, cartoon illustrations are often seen as the best way to put across an idea. In the same way that a picture is worth a thousand words, a cartoon can be worth more because it is done with humour. Therefore, when a business presentation has to make its point within a limited time, a few apposite cartoons can convey the information far more efficiently than a series of bar charts and several spoken paragraphs of text. Cartoon illustrations can be seen on book covers, in certain magazines, glamourizing drab pages of text, in adverts, on websites and, even on clothing.

And, of course, the cartoon portrait, otherwise known as a caricature is used in all of these variations where specific people are being mentioned or suggested. The caricature is an exaggerated likeness of a person’s face and, in many cases, body. With skilful lines and an attention to not only what to include but also to what to omit, a good caricature can say more about a personality than a verbal description. And there is a good scientific reason why caricatures are so effective. The way the human brain works to recognize all the different faces we see every day is to actually make an mental ‘caricature’ such as ‘big nose’, ‘thick eyebrows’, ‘small chin’ etc. Without these mental visual notes, we could be prone to making several social faux pas every day. Many caricaturists are finding a profitable sideline these days on the corporate and wedding entertainment circuit by drawing lightning quick caricatures of party guests. Or, as one caricaturist says: ‘It’s great earning a living from insulting people at parties!’

Despite this wide variety of applications for cartoons, their use is growing scarcer in the UK. Everywhere you look for a face in newspapers and magazines, you mostly find a photo. Many dry and boring articles are illustrated with either photos or library graphics, when they could have been brought to life by a cartoon illustration. There is a feeling of a perceived ‘low status’ unlike in Europe where cartoonists seem to command more respect and certainly, higher visibility, with a plethora of satirical newspapers on sale at every news kiosk.

All forms of cartoon are part of the humour business. Many comedians were once cartoonists and some cartoonists also try their hands at stand up comedy. A lot of entertainers and celebrities, like Jonathan Ross and Richard Branson collect cartoons and comic books.

Laughter is well known for being ‘the best medicine’, so if there were more cartoons in the daily press, magazines and websites, there would be a good chance that we could all be giggling away into our nineties.