So, a picture is worth a thousand words? Only the best pictures, especially with cartoons. This is one of the best. A whole narrative can be read about this, way beyond the immediate impression of a nagging fat lady at the beach.
We are so inundated with visual information that we tend to skim over it without a second glance. We miss the data… we miss the point. Clever advertising copy may be the most interesting part of a magazine. We skim past without really reading, because reading an image requires close study, thinking and imagination to find the message or even the narrative content. To find the idea, the message, the theme, we have to work to meet the illustrator or photographer or cartoonist half way.
Jim Unger edits all the extraneous details out of the drawing. It is a beautiful day, with a light breeze and a sailboat. It is a large lake, and the sandy beach is broad. They seem to be alone. There is no picnic basket or cooler, no blanket or folding chairs, no portable radio or magazine to read. There is no evidence that they are there with grandkids. They are obviously not teenagers hanging out, or young lovers, or young parents. He is not dressed for swimming or sunbathing. It is difficult to imagine her doing either. So what is the back story? What are the narrative possibilities?
I think it is about character and their relationship and what is going to happen next. They are sitting facing away from each other, and do not even look at each other as they speak. Boredom? Embarrassment? Animosity? Look at that tiny little knot at the back of her top. Obviously hard to tie, obviously too small, obviously precarious. Did he tie it for her? Is she unconscious of the absurdity of her appearance, or so self-confident that she doesn’t care how other people see her? Her face looks angry, even tough, but those fat little toes make her look vulnerable. His expression is unreadable, but probably not happy or enthusiastic!
And then there’s the paint tray. Why not? It is a quick, thorough, gentle way to apply the sun screen that he did remember, after all, to bring. The back looks easy enough. But we wonder about the rest of her. However are they going to manage ? Can he pull her to her feet? Will she roll over and lie there like a beached whale? Will they attract a group of amused by standers? Have they done this before?
Are they camping or at the cottage? Or is this an annual day trip, a pilgrimage to get a sunburn, hear the waves, see the sailboats, and skip stones in the water? Are they there from habit, or a nostalgic attempt to recapture earlier, happier, moments.
Maybe Unger was just trying to make us laugh at a fat lady at the beach. But I doubt it. A good cartoon goes beyond a merely well drawn one… encourages to stop and think about it, to move beyond the split second response, to draw our own, possibly different conclusion.
Unger draws a great cartoon. He instinctively makes us care about his characters, their dilemmas and the humour, irony or satire implicit in this moment in time. Here there is great sadness, despite the warmth and beauty of the setting. We would like to be there also. But how would we respond?
Find your favourite cartoons and send them for us to share; I will put up some of my favorites, without commentary