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If art is a mirror that reflects our world, then the art of the cartoon is a funhouse mirror—a distorted and comic image of ourselves, taking the smallest seed of truth and twisting it into a hilarious meditation. Cartoons speak simply and directly about the ironies and foolishness of the human dilemma. The comic arts are a kind of pop psychology—delving into a collective id, the cultural funny-bone of society. It is this meshing of comedy and psychology that inspired Anne Alden, a San Francisco cartoonist, dog aficionado and aspiring psychologist, to consider how these three passions might intertwine as she was casting about for a PhD dissertation topic.
This idea of tracing human-dog relationships through cartoons began one day while Alden was thumbing through back issues of The New Yorker. She noticed a trend—dog cartoons appeared regularly and seemed to take particular delight in satirizing popular social mores. Intrigued, she visited her local library and spent the day reviewing The New Yorker magazines from the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, fascinated by the evolution of the genre. Fifties cartoons showed suburban hounds, those from the ’60s poked fun at counter-cultural canines, and upwardly mobile dogs appeared in the ’80s and ’90s. A light bulb went on in Alden’s head and she began her research project in earnest, parlaying it into a fascinating clinical-psychology thesis.
“I’ve had a ridiculous number of dissertation topics over the years, but this was the first one I really felt passionate about. It also happened to involve data that would be fun to collect and analyze,” Alden admits.
The combination of cartoons and The New Yorker has always been an interesting pairing—the most popular and democratic of art forms and one of America’s most culturally elite periodicals. “The New Yorker is ahead of the curve on social criticism and cultural trends,” says Alden. “And their cartoons and cover art have always been superb—more than a few have taken on a kind of cultural significance or iconic status. Just think of Steinberg’s infamous map of New York City from the ’70s to last year’s “New Yorkistan” map by Maira Kalman and Rick Meyerowitz or the popular cartoon of a dog surfing the ’net ... at their best, these cartoons come to represent a generation, a certain collective consciousness of our times.”
Alden has taken her show on the road: speaking engagements at academic symposiums, drawing big laughs and curtain calls. “It’s lots of fun to be sure, but in the end, I’m mining a very serious idea here. Animals, and dogs in particular, are an integral part of our society-as our society changes, so does our relationship with the animal world, best expressed through the way we live with our pets and in the study of animal behavior,” Alden insists. Her conclusion—that there may be a very thin line between animal and human cognition and consciousness—won’t surprise Bark readers.
The ’20s and ’30s
Alden found that cartoons of the ’30s continued to feature a society at leisure—regardless of the different reality being experienced by a Depression-era nation. People were also shown with many dogs—exuberant consumption perhaps exemplified by Presidents Coolidge and Hoover, each of whom owned packs of dogs. (Coolidge’s wife reportedly dressed one of their dogs in an Easter bonnet for parties.) One cartoon showed a man with 10 dogs on leashes, with the caption: “Well, she has her books and I have my dogs.”
Competitive dog shows and an interest in “pure” breeding were also themes in the ’30s. James Thurber especially was the master at poking fun at this trend.
The ’40s and ’50s
The ’50s found that a move to the suburbs and the post-war baby boom coincided with a dramatic increase in pet ownership. Animal rights groups began efforts to protect domestic animals, a concern that actually made its way into the magazine. Several cartoons showed the ASPCA rounding up stray dogs. Interestingly, Alden notes, many cartoons started to depict dogs exhibiting bad behavior: One pictured a dog charging at a postman. And jealousy brewed in Levittown: “Sure, why not, how about a third TV set for the damned dog!”
The ’60s and ’70s
Alden found that many cartoons, perhaps reflecting society’s inability to rein in its freedom-loving youth, portrayed dogs fighting back: “So, you’ve finally bitten a lawyer.” And mirroring the nascent women’s movement, a theme deconstructing “master” also emerged. One cartoon showed a woman speaking to her dog: “Guess what, Mr. Corbett is going to be our lord and master.”
The ’70s found a resurgent interest in dog cartoons. This was partly influenced by the popularity of the work of George Booth. Beginning in 1969, he started to bring his ineffable stamp to the magazine and has since become one of its most recognizable cartoonists. Booth cartoons often captured the essential character of dogs just acting like dogs. In addition to being known for his psychotic-looking dogs, Booth is also renowned for his portraits of chaotic households with eccentric people with many dogs. “He records their adventures in a very touching way,” says Alden, who once met the cartoonist, “with affection, never ridicule, and always with exacting detail.”
In a humorous parallel to civil rights legislation of the ‘70s, Alden notes, the cartoons showed a similar assertion of rights by dogs—a major change from previous decades. Dogs were most often portrayed talking and behaving like humans. A disgruntled dog painted his own sign: “Beware of Me.” Cartoons also showed dogs having meetings in boardrooms, playing chess with cats and, in one strip, thrusting out a paw and saying to a human: “Shake hands.”
The ’80s and ’90s
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
Thumbnail images by Greg Clarke
Charles E. Martin, 1951 © The New Yorker Collection