Sunday Mailbag

August 14th, 2011 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: I noticed, when trying to re-learn cartooning, that daily and Sunday strips seem to not always have backgrounds. But comic books and MAD mags usually always have some kind of back ground in each frame. Sometimes I find doing backgrounds tedious or even distracting, but I feel I am cheating myself by avoiding them.¬¨‚Ć I also noticed a similar effect with daily/Sunday’s showing most or all of the shots from the same perspective. Whereas, comic books/MAD see to redraw each from a different angle. Are there reasons why daily/Sunday strips skimp or cheat as opposed to comic books and MAD?

A: What you are really talking about here is the difference between cartooning/illustration done for different purposes and mediums, and not just backgrounds specifically. The approach to graphic storytelling changes depending on factors like the intended print/reader presentation, the kind of story being told, the style of the artist and what is or is not necessary visually to tell the story. However backgrounds are a good example of one of the differences between types of storytelling, so we’ll stick to that specifically.

One of the reasons most comic strips today contain minimal backgrounds is for purely technically reasons. Today’s strips print so small in newspapers that detailed backgrounds or art are lost and become muddy and unreadable. There was a time when strips printed very large and cartoonists doing dailies drew them 15″ wide or larger. With all that room and legibility they had the option of doing more detailed or elaborate backgrounds and art because it could be seen and enjoyed by the viewer. Today’s strips print so small, any detailed backgrounds would become mush, and even detailed character work would get lost… especially on newsprint. Due to those limitations, comic strip artists have been forced to simplify their artwork to tell their stories and gags effectively. Some specific styles are simple anyway, and work well for that reason. Most strips are telling short stories/gags meant for quick reading and consumption, so detailed backgrounds seldom serve much of a functional purpose. As far as changing perspective, some strips do or did do that a lot…Rose is Rose still does and Calvin and Hobbes did it frequently. There are many other examples. That is more of a choice with the artist, their style and the story they are trying to impart visually. Some cartoonists keep it simple and stick with the single frame angle with just the characters changing as they interact. A cartoonist could certainly incorporate “camera-angle” changes into a strip and make it work, even with the shrunken sizes of today’s strips. Likewise some backgrounds can and are drawn into dailies, but they need to be able to hold up to the small print size and the newsprint printing. Comic strips done for viewing on the web or via an electronic device have none of these limitations.

Comic books and features in MAD have physically larger print sizes and better paper, so the technical limitations of the newspaper comic strip are not an issue with them. Utilizing detailed backgrounds becomes a function of the storytelling here, and are used when environments and such are key parts of what the artist is trying to describe. Usually cartoons drawn for this format involve longer narratives and therefore demand more detailed descriptions of the scene(s). That said, detailed backgrounds are not always appropriate or desirable. To saturate every panel of one of my MAD parodies with elaborate backgrounds would not only be overkill, but actually would detract from the storytelling. The eye has no chance to rest as it moves along the story, and is bombarded to the point of over-saturation. The pages as a whole become too busy and dense. I will spend some time on detailed backgrounds in a few panels on a given page, where the scene needs establishing or the action needs to be described in a context, but I also will do limited detail or leave out backgrounds entirely in some panels to keep the story flowing. I’m not being lazy, I’m doing that with the effectiveness of the whole in mind.

So, do not feel you are “cheating yourself” by not doing super-elaborate backgrounds in your strip or cartoons. Ask yourself if they are needed for a reason, if the artwork is more effective with them, and if the final output of the work will support detailed background work. Spend time on them if they will make your work better… that is not always the case.

Thanks to Jim Jackle for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


  1. Lee Fortuna says:

    Tom, I really like the way cartoonist like Jack Davis use to do a single color watercolor wash over a little detailed inked background and the characters in a single or double color wash! I think they use to call that a “three color panel? Maybe that’s the way my brain focuses better on the action of the cartoon? Love them old days, & enjoy reading the Mailbag regarding cartooning, Great answer Tom!


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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