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The Talk of ’Toon Town
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Alden notes that the concept of family changed significantly in the ’80s, a decade with high divorce rates and an increasing number of single-parent families. Pets began to be viewed as important members of the family, given equal or greater status than children. The indulgences of the time were also grist for the “new” family member-a dog nudges his water dish and asks: “This isn’t tap water, is it?” The lifestyle of dogs became a subject of satire itself: Dog walkers, dog runs and high-end dog products first began to appear—“Hey, I’ll let you know when I’m ready to switch to Cycle Four,” a dog holding a food bowl complains to his master.

Alden found that in the ’90s the number of dog cartoons increased significantly, as did many popular bestsellers about the intellectual and emotional lives of dogs. Cartoons showed dogs exhibiting subtleties of complex thinking—ever moving up on the evolutionary ladder. Dogs were frequently depicted having human-like angst. A two-panel cartoon pictured a drowning person yelling, “Lassie, get help!” with the second panel featuring Lassie on a psychiatrist’s couch. Another showed a dog walking alongside his owner, thinking: “It’s always good dog, never great dog.”

Four Legs and a Tail
Is it any wonder that dogs are the cartoonist’s best friend, offering up limitless comedic possibilities? Has there ever been a better straight man than a dog? From pampered pet to loyal companion, our cartoon canines have followed us through the Great Depression, world wars, suburbia and technology—and along the way, learned to walk upright and speed dial. Their evolution is our own. The cartoon archives of The New Yorker show us that social history is often best written simply, with pen and ink, in the form of four legs and a tail.
 

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 18: Spring 2002
Cameron Woo is The Bark's co-founder and publisher. thebark.com

Thumbnail images by Greg Clarke
Charles E. Martin, 1951 © The New Yorker Collection

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