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The Talk of ’Toon Town

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
Dogs go to war! Gone are the pampered hounds, enter the hero canines. Alden found that over a dozen cartoons—a third of all dog cartoons published in the ’40s—featured a hero St. Bernard rescuing people in the snow. Another cartoon showed a woman volunteering her Dachshund at a recruiting office, saying:”1 thought perhaps he’d be good for crawling under things.” But true to dogs’ more comedic nature, several cartoons pictured scenes of them chasing a military truck, or of MPs looking for a miscreant dog.

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
While flower children and leashless dogs frolicked in the streets in the ’60s, the regulation of pets, especially dogs, became stricter. This was particularly true in cities that enacted “pooper scooper” and leash laws.

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
Enter the era of upward mobility and intense self-actualization—cartoon dogs were depicted possessing the whole panoply of human emotions (and their foibles), not merely speaking but assuming very human-like roles and conversation. “I’m your pet, but you don’t own me,” reads one caption, while another cartoon shows a dog speaking to a man: “I just want you to know, Ted, that I think you’re a good boy, too.” Dogs wore suits and ties, hammered out business deals and palled around with attorneys—reflecting the era’s obsession with the material world. Cartoonists took particular delight in examining society’s conflicted values and ethics, placing them against traditional canine characteristics—loyalty, trust and faithfulness. “Bad” dog took on new meaning, as dogs practiced a host of human vices-smoking, drinking and corporate crime.

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