There’s an early Calvin and Hobbes Sunday strip – you may have seen this one, it has been bootlegged to death – where Calvin and Hobbes dance to a record. That’s right, a record. Not a CD. Not a cassette. Calvin places the record on the turntable.
Now, most people still know what a record looks like, even if they personally have never owned one. The black wheel with colored cardboard in the center is something of an icon in popular culture. I even have CDs printed to look like records. But the fact of the matter is, that comic strip is already dated. For those whose first purchase of music came in the form of a cassette or CD, that small detail makes the comic different. Suddenly Calvin is not doing this now. He is of a certain time. It sets you back. It’s like watching a black and white movie. Instead of being totally absorbed in the story, you first take a step back. “I am watching a movie.” It isn’t a big step, but it does matter. And it changes the way you read the comic and relate to the characters.
Cartoonists seem to fall into three general categories when it comes to this. There are the cartoonists, like Gary Larsen (The Far Side), Patrick McDonnell (Mutts), and Jim Davis (Garfield), who put their characters in a world that is out of time. There are few (if any) cultural references. A joke from the 80’s makes sense today: there is nothing topical about it. Second, there are the cartoonists who are all about current events. Bill Amend (FoxTrot) had Jason attending the current summer blockbuster every year. I remember when he attended Jurassic Park with a dinosaur mask stuck on backwards so he didn’t get to see any of the movie. Years later, he attended the first Star Wars prequel. I’m not counting editorial cartoonists here, just because they’re topical by nature.
The third category are the cartoonists who try to be out of time, but draw the things of modern living. Phones will date your comic strip like nothing else. I can’t think of any comic strips that showed cell phones 15 years ago. Before that, there was the switch from rotary to touchtone telephones (rotary? touchtone? Man, I feel old even talking about this stuff). Cars change every ten years or so. There are lots of incidental props that cartoon characters use as part of a joke that no one will notice until years later. They’re invisible, in a way, until the passing of time makes it so, so obvious.
I’m not saying this is a bad thing. Really, it’s inevitable if you’re going to set your comic strip in the real world. I mean, are you supposed to not use a phone, for fear it may detract from the joke 40 years from now? It’s just something I think about, when I’m drawing my comics.
I’d love to draw a comic that takes place on Mars starring a bunch of weird-looking aliens.
Those of you still reading this may be wondering: when will this end? Soon. You may also be wondering: which of these general and not-too-accurate categories would I, your blogging cartoonist, prefer to make my nest? Glad you asked. There is a reason I set Welcome to Falling Rock National Park in the middle of the desert. I won’t have to draw things like refrigerators, cars and phones. I’d rather draw trees and cacti and mountains; things that won’t change for another million years or so (another reason is that I just enjoy drawing nature more than human-made things, but that’s another topic). I hope that, if I’m still drawing Welcome to Falling Rock National Park years from now, I won’t have to look back on my early strips and wince at too many outdated references. I’m sure I’ll have a lot to wince at anyway, so one less winceable thing will give me peace of mind.
Next time I need to draw a phone, I’ll try to draw one that looks like a Future Phone. That way I can cover all my bases.