31 May 2012

Desert Island Discussions

At Vanity Fair, culture blogger Bruce Handy and New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff discussed the enduring popularity of the desert island cartoon well after people stopped being stranded on desert islands. I recall sketching one myself back in college, which just shows how common a trope they are.

Mankoff implies that such cartoons wouldn’t have seemed so funny back when sailors were really being stranded on unmapped shores. During the Age of Sail desert islands produced adventures like Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Treasure Island, The Swiss Family Robinson, The Coral Island, Haakon Haakonsen, and more.

Lord of the Flies (itself a rewrite of Two Years’ Vacation) and John Dollar (a response to Lord of the Flies, and set nearly a century in the past) might be the last of that literary line. What remains are lifeboat sagas (Life of Pi) and science fiction that replicates the same situation off-Earth.

In the 1930s, when the cartoon genre seems to have become entrenched, the situation was still close enough for people to picture Amelia Earhart surviving for years on a Pacific island. Since then, Mankoff said, the database of New Yorker cartoons (360+ examples) has shown a pronounced change in the realism of desert-island cartoons:

The original ones were more about isolation from the strictures of society, especially the moral strictures of the time. If a man and a woman were on the island in the 30s or 40s, the cartoon probably has a sexual content. The woman might be asking the man, “How can I be sure you’re a millionaire?”

Then, later, the cartoons represent different things, mostly just isolation. And eventually they just represent the cartoon trope, if you will. For instance, I did a cartoon in the 80s that has a man on a desert island thinking, “No man is an island, but I come pretty damn close.” And he’s tiny, and the island is tiny. And that’s one of the interesting things that happened over the years, that it’s not a real island anymore. Originally it was a real island. Now it’s more the idea of an island, an icon. . . . And also now the jokes tend to be almost completely self-referential.
Curiously, castaway movies are still going strong.


ericshanower said...

I think you're mistaken about one thing. Lord of the Flies (which I love) is a reworking of The Coral Island (which I've never been able to get through).

J. L. Bell said...

I'm sure William Golding knew The Coral Island and the rest of the best-known desert-island literature. But check out Jules Verne's Two Years' Vacation (Deux ans de vacances, also titled Two Year Vacation, A Long Vacation, and Adrift in the Pacific) to see an even more similar antecedent: a whole school of boys stranded on an island instead of three young sailors, and an emphasis on forming a society rather than survival and adventure. The parallels go so far as the older boys using a jargon term for all the younger ones.

Sam said...

I have a minor fascination with cartoon tropes... One of my favorites is a sidewalk vendor selling wind-up somethings.

Whatever the something is is the punchline. Example: wind-up sidewalk vendors...

J. L. Bell said...

Can these tropes be cross-pollinated? A cartoon of a sidewalk vendor on a desert island selling useless little wind-up boats. A sidewalk vendor selling little wind-up men who are stranded on the vendor's stand.

J. L. Bell said...

A few days after writing this post, I remembered that there's another term for what I called "desert-island literature." Such stories are robinsonades, as defined here by World Wide Words and discussed at greater length on Wikipedia.