It's a funny thing about cartoons . . .

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DURING the Thirties there was a cartoon in Punch which showed two hippos lolling next to each other in the muddy water, one saying to each other: 'I keep thinking it's Wednesday'. (Or was it Thursday?) In the Forties there was a cartoon of a peppery military type jumping into a London taxi and shouting to the driver: 'Royal School of Needlework and drive like hell]'

Both of these cartoons were thought to be, not only funny, but slightly ahead of their time in some way. Was it their slightly surreal nature? Was it the way they were drawn? Actually, looking back, it's easy to see that they felt different because they celebrated the liberation of the cartoonist from the writer. For a long time Punch cartoons had borne long captions, complete with stage directions, which described the people in the cartoon and what they were doing before they even let you know what they were saying - for example, as it might be, 'Old lady, who is on her first visit to London, sitting next to short-sighted dinner guest who has left his spectacles behind . . . '

Words were kept to a minimum when the cartoonist was freed. Sometimes there were no words at all, except in the title. H M Bateman only had to say: 'The Man Who . . . ' and the drawing did the rest, often in great detail. Sometimes the detail was mechanical, as with Heath Robinson or Emmett, but by and large the drawing did the work.

Well, it may be rather puritan of me, but I feel that today the cartoonist is selling himself back to the writer. Cartoons never did entirely without words, of

course. Daily pocket cartoonists such as Osbert Lancaster tended to have a newspaper placard in the background saying 'MPs' Pay Rise Controversy', so that we would know what the cartoon was about. Even mainly visual cartoonists like Larry use writing inside the cartoon. I can remember his drawing of a hotel guest looking out of the dining- room window at a large tanker unloading something into the hotel through a pipe. The lorry is labelled 'Soupe du Jour'.

I can remember another cartoon which caused much hilarity when it was sent in to Punch, showing the approach road to a big town, with three signs. The first says: 'Harlow'. The second says 'Harlow'. The third says 'Who's Your Lady Friend?' I can remember another more recent one showing a cashpoint machine on whose screen, just as a customer has finished, there has flashed up the message 'Now Wash Your Hands'.

I think all those are funny, though not particularly visual. But there is a newer breed of cartoon which is purely verbal and does not really need to be drawn at all.

In the current Spectator there is a drawing of a banker holding up a placard reading 'Gnome Rule for Switzerland'. In the 21 November issue there is a man at a restaurant table on which stands a TV crew; he is saying: 'Waiter, there's a fly-on-the- wall documentary team in my soup]' Further on there is a drawing of a man looking at a notice reading: 'National Gallery, Sainsbury's Wing, Leonardos to the right, Raphaels and Giottos to the left, Own Brands to the right . . . '

None of these cartoons is very funny or rises much above the level of a pun. I used to think that pun-laden cartoons like these were accepted mostly in magazines where the editor was a writer and didn't respond to visual ideas, and the art editor was not brave (or foolhardy) enough to overrule him. But the new humour magazine Squib is edited by a cartoonist, Simon Bond, and the cartoons in there also sprout bits of writing - either inside the cartoon (signpost: 'Dead Man's Gulch Twinned with Whitley Bay') or as a title: 'Just Back from Pisa', under a drawing of two people with heads bent over on one side . . .

What's different about this trend is that the words have been imported by the artists, not by writers. It's a new kind of cartoon, following the lines laid down by Gary Larson and Glen Baxter. Everyone's doing it. There's a cartoon in the current Spectator showing two women pointing at a curious unidentifiable object and shouting: 'It's just one of those things]' The fact an identical idea first appeared in a book called Things (by Peter Clayton and Peter Gammond) at least 20 years ago doesn't change my feeling that cartoons, as we knew them, could be on the way out, and that if anyone today received a drawing of two hippos wondering what day of the week it was it wouldn't get printed.