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Seeing the world in four panels

Exclusively for the Magazine, Phill Jupitus's history of the four-panel strip


Phill Jupitus
Forget the front page of the newspaper, you can get all the cultural, social, and political insight you need from the classic four-panel cartoon strip at the back. Here comedian and self-taught artist Phill Jupitus (right) draws a four-panel history of the art form, while the genre's leading proponents explain how it's done.

For as long as there has been the concept of daily newspapers, there has been the political cartoon. And in the 20th Century there has been a natural symbiosis between the modern newspaper and one particular form of cartoon, the four-panel strip.

One classic example is Alex, who appears on the front of the Daily Telegraph's pull-out business section. Alex is a merchant banker in the City - arrogant and selfish, with a wimp of a sidekick in his colleague Clive.

The format, as co-creator Russell Taylor explains, is simple.

"You set up the expectation in the first frame, where they are, then you have two frames of normally quite ambiguous language which appear to send you one way, and then there's the last frame and, no, you're completely wrong. Actually they were talking about something completely different."

With the most successful newspaper strips running for decades, there is a chance to develop characters to reflect changing times, suggests fellow Alex creator Charles Peattie.

"When it started it was like Alex the yuppie, and we didn't think it would last very long, but the economy's become the story, it's constantly on the front pages and they talk about that even more than the ideological stuff."

The pair garner inspiration from furtive lunches with contacts in the City.

The strip is an idiosyncratic window on the news.

SEE YOUR CARTOONS
The Magazine asked for your four-panel cartoons and among those we received was an unpublished comic by Tank Girl creators Jamie Hewlett and Alan C Martin.

Artists like Garry Trudeau - creator of US satirical strip Doonesbury - use it as a platform to highlight issues that people may pass over as they read the drier editorial sections of the newspaper.

"There is the advantage of emotional involvement," says Trudeau. "That the readers come to care about the characters and thus their points of view may resonate a little more strongly. People get involved in a way that they might not with a columnist say."

In 2004, Trudeau caused a huge furore when he simply used his space to list the US war dead. He had already drawn national attention to returning amputees by making one of his characters BD lose a limb in a skirmish in Iraq.

Doonesbury is published in 1,500 newspapers in the US and around the world, including the Guardian. In 1975, US President Gerald Ford recognised its influence saying: "There are only three major vehicles to keep us informed as to what is going on in Washington: the electronic media, the print media, and Doonesbury... not necessarily in that order."

19th Century cartoon of Gladstone in an asylum
Cartoons as newsy political satire goes back hundreds of years

At times like the Watergate scandal it has thrived, with Trudeau describing the resignation of Richard Nixon as "a very tragic day for people in my profession".

"Watergate had all of us in its thrall," says Trudeau. "The news weeklies were filled with editorial cartoons. It was a kind of golden period for political cartooning. There was something new every day.

"In my medium, which was syndicated strips, it was problematic because at the time, the convention was you work six weeks in advance and there was a new high level official resigning every week and that became a problem and my deadline kept shrinking - four weeks, three weeks, two weeks and finally by the end of that period I had a one week lead which is what I have to this day."

Of course, not all classic newspaper strips are overtly political.

If the words don't have that nice cadence to them, you almost lose the gag because your reader has to read through to the end without a stumbling block
Lynn Johnston

Canadian Lynn Johnston has been chronicling the daily lives and problems of a family called the Pattersons in her strip For Better or For Worse almost every day for nearly 30 years. The strip is massive, syndicated in 2,000 newspapers in 20 countries.

For her, the four-panel strip provides an extremely creative medium.

"It's four little windows and four camera angles. And the way I work, I time it more or less the way you time a stage play and I draw everything out in pencil first which for me is like drawing a ghost which is all soft and loose and transparent and then when I ink everything it's almost like touching the side of the face when you touch it with your pen, and drawing the hair it feels like you're really drawing the hair.

"It's a magic, you really have to see it happen, it sort of flows out from your head to your hands."

And of course as well as the drawn art, there is the art of words.

"You need an economy of words when you're doing this type of thing," says Johnston, "because if you run too long or too short if the words don't have that nice cadence to them, you almost lose the gag because your reader has to read through to the end without a stumbling block."

And that lack of a stumbling block is one of the reasons the four-panel strip remains such a powerful medium.


Below is a selection of your comments.

With cartoons such as Chain Bear, Qwantz and David Shrigley breaking down the barriers of conventional cartooning I wonder if the medium is out of control. The panels are breaking down and I wouldn't be surprised to see the cartoon spilling out of its casing and down onto the text in short time as artists are given free reign.
Bill Meade, Biggin Hill, UK

It's about time sequential narrative as a medium got the focus and credit it deserves. We have to remember it's simply a narrative method (an extremely flexible and accessible one) and stop confusing the medium with the majority of content it tends to carry, such as children's comic content or superhero tales. There's a massive audience out there that is missing some amazing storytelling (Persepolis, Maus, Joe Sacco, Seth etc) because they are prejudiced by the majority content or just don't know that such comics are available. It's time booksellers stopped shelving all comics together in the sci-fi and fantasy sections and instead offered comics according to subject area or by author name.
Ian Collier, Cambridge

I often draw cartoons for my family. You can point out situations in a funny way that might become awkward stated in an actual sense. I could engage politics easily as well in cartoon form, as they do leave the door open to humorous attacks.
Kevin Humphreys, Liverpool, England

Bill Watterson created one of the best comic strips with Calvin And Hobbes. He has the amazing ability to make you laugh and cry at the same time. His strip never lectured you but made its points in very obvious and sometimes not so obvious ways. He also made sure his stuff was never licensed so the strip never grew tiresome to its readers. He also made the ultimate sacrifice by ending it. Something many strips should have done years ago but are too caught up in the corporate money making machine.
Andy, Accrington

My favourite cartoon strip has to be Dilbert. It should be compulsory reading for all desk-jockeys - staff learn what to expect from Management - short-sighted stupidity - and how to cope accordingly, and managers will finally realise that they are indeed guilty of short-sighted stupidity and adjust their attitude. I live in hope of the nanny state catching up with me on this one.
Michaela, Runcorn, UK


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