Whether it’s Stephen Hawking leaving a wheelchair or the Buddhist Steve Jobs meeting God, these grief gags show the decline of cartooning as an art.
Recently, following the death of Stephen Hawking, social media users were treated to the usual display of sad words and images. Among these were the by-now-standard death tribute cartoons, most of which focused on Hawking’s wheelchair: sitting empty as he flies out of it; sitting empty as he walks away; sitting empty as he turns into cosmic energy.
These images proved offensive to some people, implying as they did that Hawking had been constrained by his illness and was not a whole, functioning person with a brilliant intellect.
But death tribute cartoons are nearly always problematic, and their rise is connected with the decline of cartooning as an art form.
In the mid-twentieth century, magazines and newspapers were omnipresent, and so were single-panel cartoons. There were gag cartoonists and there were editorial cartoonists, who provided a visual take on the news.
Back then cartoons felt dynamic and alive – but as the twentieth century dragged on, the single panel became a dead format. All the good simple cartoon ideas had been used and re-used and used again, and not everyone can create an original single-panel image that’s funny or makes an interesting point; in fact, almost nobody can.
As publishing began to decline, the art was the first thing to go. Today very few newspapers have full-time editorial cartoonists, preferring the freedom of choosing from a roster of syndicated artists. But one of the most popular and durable editorial cartoon formats has expanded into internet culture, and that is the death tribute cartoon.
The death tribute cartoon is different from simple tribute art, in that it uses a visual format designed to amuse, but to be maudlin instead. As near a perfect description for the death tribute cartoon as I can find is German writer Winfried Menninghaus summary of the concept of kitsch: “A simple invitation to wallow in sentiment.”
Every celebrity’s death is treated as an occasion for cloying fantasy or impossibly awkward visual metaphor.
The most common death tribute cartoon trope shows the celebrity arriving in heaven, most often encountering St Peter. It doesn’t matter what religion the celebrity actually practised (as with Steve Jobs, a Buddhist, who was placed in this context at least ten times, including on the cover of The New Yorker).
St Peter only tenuously represents religion in this context anyway; he represents popular emotion and the love of the crowd. He behaves like the maître d’ of a celebrity restaurant, trading quips with stars and sometimes even grabbing a selfie.
Sometimes there are other famous dead people eager to hang out with the recently deceased. It’s a ludicrous reflection of our obsession with celebrity status.
Other popular death tribute cartoon tropes include: a prop associated with the deceased, abandoned and weeping; fictional characters associated with the star sharing a drink, or weeping; the world itself, weeping.
The Hawking cartoons weren’t the first to show a star escaping a wheelchair; this also happened with Christopher Reeve and Muhammed Ali. Ali was also pictured in one strange cartoon lying on the floor of the boxing ring, having apparently lost to a skull-headed figure labeled “29,000+ HEAD BLOWS INDUCED PARKINSONS”.
The democratisation of social media means that it is nearly impossible to tell the cartoons created by an artist in the employ of a media outlet from those made by a complete outsider.
With the Hawking cartoons, the one deemed most offensive by the Huffington Post was in fact by an amateur, but a much more bizarre one (showing Hawking pumping his fists in the passenger seat of Elon Musk’s space Tesla) was from a publication.
The competition is serious: the right tribute cartoon at the right moment, going viral, can alter the trajectory of an independent artist’s career.
Our culture demands the instant tribute, the quick crystallising of emotion, and death tribute cartoons are made for that. We are instantly ready to be nostalgic about anything and anybody. Death tribute cartoons are a feature of a society constantly being made aware of what it has lost.
They’re never funny, they rarely make much sense, and they pander in a way that’s embarrassing. I’m sure we’ll see many more of them.