from The New Book of Knowledge®


A cartoon is a drawing or a series of drawings that tells a story with a funny or serious message. Because they exaggerate people's weaknesses and poke fun at current customs, cartoons may make us laugh. But they can also make us think about important issues.

Early Cartoons

The term "cartoon" originally described an artist's first rough sketch for a painting or other work of art. But the art of drawing cartoons as we know them today began in the early 1700's with the English artist William Hogarth. He drew pictures that poked fun at the social customs of his time. Another English artist, Thomas Rowlandson, mastered the art of caricature (or cartoon portraits) during the late 1700's and early 1800's. Another important step in the development of the cartoon was the work of the French artist Honoré Daumier. He was known for his funny but bitter attacks on powerful people during the 1800's. His cartoons once landed him in jail for six months. But Daumier had made his mark on journalism. The political cartoon soon became a regular feature of journals and magazines throughout Europe.

The first important American cartoonist was Thomas Nast. His work was a regular feature of the American magazine Harper's Weekly during the late 1800's. Nast's cartoons attacking Tammany Hall, a corrupt political organization in New York City, and its leader, William "Boss" Tweed, led to Tweed's arrest, trial, and imprisonment. Nast is credited with the popularization of many symbols still in use today, including Uncle Sam.

Cartoons Today

There are several kinds of cartoons drawn today. The most popular kind is the comic strip. Other kinds of cartoons include the editorial cartoon (or political cartoon), caricatures, and gag or panel cartoons. Animated cartoons are a series of drawings that are photographed one at a time to create the illusion of motion

Comic Strips

Comic strips are series of drawings that appear as regular features in newspapers or magazines. Some have a story that continues from one day to the next. Others have a humorous new situation each day. But all feature a set of established characters. Comic strips are one of the few art forms that originated in the United States. It is estimated that they are read by more than 200 million people every day. This makes them one of the world's most popular art forms.

Comic strips began when Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World, asked cartoonist Richard Outcault to create a continuous character dressed in yellow so that the newspaper could experiment with yellow color printing. The result was The Yellow Kid, a depiction of Irish slum life in 1895.

William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the New York Journal, sensed a real circulation builder in these "funny papers." He commissioned a whole staff of cartoonists to create the first color comic section. This appeared in the Journal's Sunday edition. The Katzenjammer Kids, Alphonse and Gaston, Happy Hooligan, and Little Nemo in Slumberland were among the most popular. Soon daily comics in black and white were added. The first one, introduced in 1907, was the forerunner of Bud Fisher's Mutt and Jeff.

Other smaller newspapers around the country wanted to carry comic strips. But they could not afford to hire their own cartoonists. As a result, the system of syndication was born. The syndicate (an agency) hires cartoonists, helps develop their features, and then sells their work to many individual newspapers.

More and more publishers and syndicates began to carry comics. At one time there were over a hundred syndicates selling comics. Bringing Up Father (also known as Maggie and Jiggs), Moon Mullins, Toonerville Trolley, Barney Google, Skippy, Harold Teen, Smitty, Mr. and Mrs., The Timid Soul, and Blondie were among the favorite strips in the early 1930's.

In the mid-1930's a new form of comic began to appear: the story strip. These strips used more attractive, realistic artwork rather than humorous artwork to tell exciting stories that continued from day to day. They quickly built up a great following. Dick Tracy, Little Orphan Annie, Gasoline Alley, Tarzan, Prince Valiant, and Flash Gordon are a few examples. Some of these new strips, such as Popeye, Li'l Abner, and Alley Oop, combined a continuous story with humor.

Modern Comic Strips. Many of the comics that emerged in the early 1950's are still published today. Among the most widely syndicated are Blondie, Beetle Bailey, Hagar the Horrible, Hi and Lois, B.C., The Wizard of Id, and Andy Capp. Peanuts, by Charles Schulz, is one of the most popular comic strips of all time. Since Schulz's death in 2000, newspapers have continued to run reprints of his classic Peanuts comic strips.

Other comics today offer more than just funny characters and situations. They address women's issues (Cathy), family life (Rose Is Rose), the experiences of teenagers (Luann), and ethnic diversity (Jump Start). They also provide social and political satire (Doonesbury, Opus). Comic strips today reach a much wider audience through the Internet.

Licensing. The syndicates make full use of the comic characters by licensing them to publishers and manufacturers. Licensing has become an even larger business than syndication. Peanuts, Garfield, and Popeye are the leaders in the field. They earn many millions of dollars a year for their use on hundreds of products. These include toys and clothing, which are distributed throughout the world.

Other Kinds of Cartoons

Editorial cartoons are drawings intended to dramatize the news or sway public opinion. Early in the 1900's the political cartoon began to disappear from the humor magazines. The political cartoonists went to work for the newspapers instead because their work could appear every day and be more up to date. Editorial cartoons are so called because they are usually run on a newspaper's editorial page. They have changed since the days of Thomas Nast. They have become less political and more humorous. In the 1960's, John Fischetti began to draw single-panel editorial cartoons that made the editorial cartoon even more popular. Masters of this political humor have included Pat Oliphant, Jeff MacNelly, Ann Telnaes, and Mike Peters. All these cartoonists have won Pulitzer Prizes for their work.

Caricatures are drawings that make people look amusing or ridiculous by exaggerating their features. Caricaturists sometimes work at theme parks or at special events where they create souvenir caricatures for guests. Caricatures are also used to satirize public figures in editorial cartoons or humor magazines. One of the most famous caricaturists of recent years was the American artist Al Hirschfeld. He created whimsical, stylized portraits of stage and screen actors and the characters they played.

A panel cartoon uses established characters like a comic strip. But it consists of a single drawing instead of a series. Popular panel cartoons include Family Circus, Dennis the Menace, Ziggy, and Non Sequitur. Gag cartoons also consist of a single panel (or, occasionally, a series of panels). But they do not use recurring characters. The only weekly magazine that still features large numbers of gag cartoons is The New Yorker. Over the years it has published such notable cartoonists as James Thurber, Charles Addams, William Steig, Roz Chast, and George Booth. The Far Side is one of the most famous recent examples of a gag cartoon.

How a Cartoonist Works

Cartoonists typically begin their work by sketching out an idea, either on paper or using a computer program. They may make many sketches before they are satisfied with all the cartoon's elements. Then the finalized sketch is redrawn (first in pencil, then in black India ink) on a sheet of heavy bristol board. Or the pencil drawings can be scanned into a computer, where they are cleaned up, "inked" in, and colored. A week's worth of strips are sent to the syndicate at a time.

Cartooning can be a very competitive business. However, with so many new opportunities available for cartoonists (such as the Internet, theme parks and vacation resorts, comic books, and the increasing number of animated films and television series being produced), cartooning will continue to attract talented authors and illustrators.

Mort Walker
Creator, Beetle Bailey
Reviewed by Bruce Blitz
Creator and host, Cartooning with Blitz


Help | Privacy Policy




(Separate multiple email addresses with commas)

Check this box to send yourself a copy of the email.


Scholastic respects your privacy. We do not retain or distribute lists of email addresses.