Friday, July 09, 2021

The First Desert Island Cartoon?

Desert Island Cartoons. I say it, and you know what I mean. It's been a popular gag cartoon trope for a long time. Heck, it was even a TV show (Gilligan's Island), right? Even though, as Bruce Handy notes in this 2012 Vanity Fair article,

"You’d think by now, in a world equipped with G.P.S. and Google Earth, cartoonists would have wrung every last drop of humor from the premise of castaways marooned on desert islands."

-- But desert island cartoons still persist.  

I remember selling my very first desert island cartoon. It was a thrill to be able to make a decent gag out of such an old idea. It first appeared in the magazine Legal Affairs, aimed at the legal profession. The tour guide in the boat (obscured by the watermark) has the line:

"And to port, the most sequestered jury in the world."

 (My cartoon is now available for licensing at Cartoonstock.)


OK, OK, but when was the FIRST desert island cartoon?  

Here's then-New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff on its history, from that same article:

"The desert-island cartoon originally comes out of desert-island literature—Robinson Crusoe. It’s the classic thing of tragedy plus time equals comedy. In the 17th and 18th centuries, shipwrecks were common and you could actually be stranded, and people were stranded, on desert islands. Our desert-island cartoons probably started in the 1930s.

"One of the interesting things about that is that originally the desert island in cartoons is quite large, and the ship is sinking in the background, so there’s a narrative. You sort of understand how they got on the island. Later, the island becomes an icon [i.e., the tiny island with a single palm tree].

"Probably there were desert-island cartoons in comic magazines that preceded The New Yorker. I don’t know specifically, but probably in Judge and Life, comic magazines that precede The New Yorker [which debuted in 1925] and that New Yorker cartoonists probably worked on in the early part of the century, and even in the 20s."


Desert islands, or as they're sometimes called "deserted islands," figure in popular literature like The Tempest, Swiss Family Robinson and Lord of the Flies. Perhaps the interest was originally in response to the rise of urban centers and a nostalgia for a simpler, agrarian times. Regardless, there is nothing approaching any scholarship examining the appeal and longevity of desert island gag cartoons. 

Let's see if we can add to the knowledge database of the desert island single panel motif. 

So far as the first desert island cartoon, my friend Dick Buchanan may have the answer. Here is a cartoon from the satirical magazine Judge, September 17, 1887, that Dick has unearthed:

The cartoon is by Michael Angelo Woolf (1837 -1899). He was London-born, but lived most of his life in Brooklyn, NY. He was known as an artist, satirist and actor.

From Michael Lund's biographical sketch "Another Other Half: A Look at Michael Angelo Woolf and His 'Waifs:'"

"'The father of the modern comic picture—the man who woke the laughter of a generation [...]
—died at 1 o’clock yesterday morning,' The New York Times declared on March 5, 1899. The deceased was Michael Angelo Woolf, a now largely-forgotten cartoonist who in his own time, as the obituary’s epithets for him suggest, was both well-known and well-liked. Born in London in 1837, Woolf moved to America at a young age and first pursued an acting career in Philadelphia. At the close of the Civil War, he turned his efforts instead to art and went to France for instruction. After returning to America, and beginning in the magazine Wild Oats in the 1870s, Woolf would focus much of his career in cartooning on drawing his then-famous illustrations of “waifs,” a character type that was inspired by New York City street urchins. Returning to the life of the city’s poor time and time again, in a career that spanned some thirty-odd years, Woolf, a generally liberal and sometimes conservative cartoonist, opened up a world of which many of Harper’s Weekly, Judge, and LIFE’s middle class readers had little first-hand knowledge."


I agree with Mr. Lund that while Woolf was popular in his day, describing him as the "father of the modern comic picture" is hyperbole. That honor should go to his contemporary, Thomas Nast. Woolf is best known now for his cartoons about children of the slums of New York, much like photojournalist Jacob Riis. 

Back to the point ....

But is this the FIRST desert island cartoon? I don't know for sure. It's the earliest I have ever seen, but without going through thousands of 19th century cartoons in Judge, Puck, Punch and other publications, I don't know. It's merely a possible contender.

My thanks to Dick Buchanan for spotting this cartoon and sending it on!

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