Monday, January 21, 2008

Toons to Tempt the Muse

That’s not a misspelling. Although music moves me as I write, so do visual images, including—yup—cartoons.

Now you know why I subscribe to the New Yorker magazine and have for almost 20 years. My office bulletin board is festooned with recent faves; I rotate them to suit moods and assignments. Current attractions include cartoons by Tom Cheney and P.C. Vey. Since I don't have permission to post them here, I'll (lamely) describe a couple that connect to my work.

You may think I like cartoons because I write mainly humorous stuff. But there’s more to it. I'm in awe of art forms that are at once succinct and insightful. While I, the novelist, trudge through tens of thousands of words to deliver my point, other artists perform their jobs with stunning concision. In that camp I include cartoonists, poets, short-story writers, songwriters, musicians, potters, painters, and photographers, not to mention comedians, floral designers, and chefs. We can appreciate their work in a single sitting, a glance, a gulp. And when it thrills us, we replay it. We view it from various angles. We chew slowly.

A cartoon, like any good picture, is worth a thousand words, and may require as many to describe. You can recount a cartoon to someone who can’t see it, but there’s no way you’ll match the artist's punch. It’s like describing a hedonistically delicious dessert or a brilliant comedic monologue. (Or, for that matter, great sex, but that's for another blog.) In short, you gotta be there.

But cartoonists face some of the same challenges that we novelists do. For instance, they must create a viable world. A favorite Tom Cheney toon features a Realtor showing a property with a gaping hole in the floor through which the cosmos is visible. The Realtor says, "Of course, the real charm of the place is that hole in the space-time continuum."

I write about fantastical phenomena and Realtors, though not always at the same time. Drafting my novel Sensitive, I took pains to vividly render my characters astral-projecting and talking with the dead. Since I had never done either, I had a license to imagine the experiences as well as an obligation to do enough research to get the details mostly right. When we spin suspense fiction, our series protagonists regularly bump up against violent death. Thus we must build a universe on the page that makes heinous crime both shocking and inevitable. Whiskey Mattimoe is a Realtor whose clients have a high probability of turning up dead. I enhance that probability by making Magnet Springs a resort town that attracts the rich and greedy.

Like all true artists, cartoonists make connections where none typically exists. They twist clichés and thwart expectations. And yet they make sense. If they don’t, we don’t "get it," and the cartoon fails. The same is true of the stories we tell on our own broad canvases. Our characters must be recognizable but completely fresh. Our endings must satisfy and surprise as solidly as a single-frame cartoon.

In closing, allow me to describe a toon by P.C. Vey: Two women are having tea. Next to the hostess is a cat wearing a Zorro mask. The hostess says, "I know it's illegal, but quite frankly we couldn't get by without the cash and jewelry he brings home every night."

Yeah, yeah, you gotta see it, and I did. And it started me drafting a new mystery series starring a woman who trains her Devon rex cat to steal. If you think that's impossible, you haven't seen this video or met my Devon rex, Flannery, who as far as I know steals only hearts. Still, Flan gets into enough trouble to make a genuine cat burgler seem plausible. At least in the world of art I can make.