Pseudo-cartoons are no laughing matter

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The other day on Radio 4 the comedian Graham Norton was quoting from an old Punch cartoon which had tickled his fancy enough to stick in his mind. It was a drawing of a psychiatrist looking down at a patient on a couch and saying to him: "That's not much of an inferiority complex, is it?" It has stuck in my mind as well, not because it's quite funny but because it is a cartoon of a type that doesn't seem to be done much any more, the cartoon with witty dialogue, or with a witty twist on a situation. One of the very best examples of the latter was the JW Taylor cartoon showing a late 18th century publisher talking to a young lady novelist, saying: "We like the plot, Miss Austen, but all this effing and blinding will have to go."

We don't see many cartoons like that today. What we see, increasingly, is cartoons like the one that appeared in The Independent not very long ago, showing two people reading books about film. One is entitled Le Film Noir. The other is called Le Film Renoir. What is interesting about that cartoon, apart from the fact that it doesn't make you laugh, is that it isn't a cartoon. It is a mild pun dressed up as a cartoon. And what worries me is that there are more and more of these pseudo-cartoons all over the place, the illustrated plays on words.

For instance, there was a cartoon in, I think, The Spectator quite recently, depicting two explorers in Africa. They are staring into a clearing. There, in the clearing, two disembodied feet with facial features are dancing. One man is saying to the other: "Tutsis!" Am I alone in finding it easy not to laugh at that?

It's nothing to do with the subject matter. There is a long tradition of cartoons showing encounters between modern life and ancient culture. I can remember a Charles Addams drawing of two explorers in a Stone Age cave inspecting wall paintings and one saying to the other, "The paint's still wet!", at which point you notice a Stone Age man emerging menacingly from the shadows behind them. I can also remember a fine Bill Tidy cartoon of an expedition in the jungle in which the member bringing up the rear has just looked round and seen a huge ape like King Kong or Godzilla crashing through the trees behind, and he is saying to the other members: "Look out! It's ... it's ... Oh, God, I'm terrible with names!"

The Addams cartoon is pleasantly creepy. The Tidy cartoon is funny because it combines high drama with banal forgetfulness. But the Tutsi cartoon is just a pun. It isn't surrealist or anything. It is simply a situation manufactured to make a feeble pun work. In the wake of Addams and Tidy, it's a tradition shrivelling and dying before our very eyes.

And what worries me is that this sort of thing is spreading like a disease. Yesterday I browsed through a pile of Spectators, Oldies and Private Eyes and found that it is affecting really quite intelligent cartoonists. In a 1994 Spectator I found a Colin Wheeler drawing of two Australians (wearing hats with corks) watching a man on fire run past. One says to the other: "A flaming Pom". It's outlandish enough to raise a faint smile. But when you find so many other cartoons on the same lines you begin to groan out loud.

Here are some examples at random.

Two boats coming out of a Tunnel of Love pulled by a bigger boat marked Tug of Love.

A roll of wallpaper decorated with pictures of cameras, labelled "WALLPAPERAZZI".

Two violent working-class people saying to each other, "We're the battering classes".

A Stone Age man leaning over another one who is dozing on a round carving, saying, "He's fallen asleep at the wheel".

A drawing of ancient Egyptians having a riotous party, labelled "TUTANKHAMEN BEHAVING BADLY".

Two people saying to each other in semaphore: "Have you noticed? We don't talk any more."

Had enough?

Here's the most excruciating one of all. It's from the 23 November Spectator. It shows a collection of flying officers in a lecture room, with a big sign saying: "RAF Slimming Club", and the chief officer is saying ...

Are you ready for this?

The chief officer is saying to the RAF Slimming Club, "OK, chocs away, chaps".

Well, I think something is going seriously wrong if so many of these puns are being illustrated and bought and published, and I don't care if anyone writes in and says it's all very Post-Modernist, along with other punning series like Lost Consonants

I don't think it's anything of the sort.

I think it's a loss of nerve among artists. I think it's Mad Cartoon Disease. And I think it stinks.