Something about the world feels a bit askew right now. Perhaps it is the exhaustion left in the wake of a lingering pandemic, a looming recession, a worsening climate crisis, and now, a war that makes all of the “This is fine” memes floating around in the digital ether seem dangerously relatable. Recently, as the global crisis continues to deepen, the uncertainty and anxiety that lies at the red-hot center of our lives has been captured in cartoon-form by a new wave of young, emerging artists, almost all of them women. With their unflinching, honest takes that hold a mirror to our lived experiences, this new generation of humorists have been championing a fresh collective voice in the cartooning space that pokes fun at our anxiety-riddled lives. Their incredibly popular cartoons have many things in common—their ability to reflect the little comedies and tragedies of our mundane experiences, a cutting bite of humor, and most importantly, their tell-it-like-it-is honesty.
What is it about this new era of cartoons that seems different than everything we’ve seen before? “In my opinion, women artists tend to draw directly from their own lives. They’re more autobiographical in their work, and there’s a lot of identity wrapped up in it,” says New York-based cartoonist Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell. “You find a more introspective, anxious, personal perspective in womens’ art. The other aspect that sets our generation apart is that a lot of us are interested in identity politics, and that reflects in the humor of our times.” Whether it be the challenges of city-living, the volatility of our jobs, the pursuit of finding love in an age where dating apps are all but dead, our crippling social anxiety after years of pandemic-induced isolation, or just the expectation vs reality chasm of “adulting,” this specific “moment” in cartooning captures the facets and nuances of our knotty, messy lives. In a sense, these cartoons are a respite; an assurance and a declaration that we’re not alone in our daily battles, a balm that soothes our fear that we don’t quite have our shit together, and that’s okay.
This specific “moment” in cartooning captures the facets and nuances of our knotty, messy lives.
In a recently published cartoon by Campbell, a group of girls huddle around a rug strewn with a cheeseboard and a half-empty bottle of wine; the narrator’s face is framed in the glow of her phone’s torchlight, as she says, “And then, suddenly it was 3PM, and she hadn’t really got anything done.” This witty nugget of adult-horror taps right into the very familiar dread of an “unproductive” day, but at the same time, it also shines a light on what these cartoons achieve so effortlessly—while talking about our little daily struggles that can often cloud our days, they inject humor into our very mundane problems, and make them a little less daunting.
“I have found it personally therapeutic to draw and write about my own anxieties as a way to figure out how I really feel about things. It visualizes a perspective, which can be helpful both as a creator, and as a viewer. To be able to talk directly about a fear gives it less power, and to poke fun at it makes me feel like I can handle it better,” says illustrator Siobhán Gallagher. “Drawing and consuming comics about dread is a way for a lot of people to just cope. When you don’t know what is going on, what is going to happen, or what to do, sometimes humor is the easiest way to just deal.”
The experiences depicted in these cartoons echo across demographics and geographies, which has helped them find viewers from all across the world. When cartoonist Whitney Taylor, who is known for her slice-of-life, autobiographical cartoons, was faced with giving birth at the onset of the pandemic, she turned her experience of motherhood into cartoons for The New Yorker’s Culture Desk. “I had a baby in the first month of the pandemic, so parenting in this scary, lonely time has been something I’ve been making cartoons about lately. I’ve found a lot of support from other cartoonist parents who are going through similar things,” says Taylor. “I’m leaning into the mess of trying to stay functional in all of this, while also retaining a sense of humor, because what other choice do I have?”
The cartoonists equally celebrate the joy, irrationality and the agony of our lives. And their works’ relatability is perhaps the biggest reason behind their popularity—some of which have garnered hundreds of thousands of likes on Instagram. “Misery loves company, and no one wants to feel alone in their struggles. Personal cartoons feel more authentically true to a viewer,” says veteran cartoonist Amy Hwang, who has been drawing cartoons for The New Yorker since 2010. “The popularity of these cartoons may have more to do with the individualistic “me” culture we live in. We like anything that reminds us of ourselves.”
“To be able to talk directly about a fear gives it less power, and to poke fun at it makes me feel like I can handle it better.”
The reality of our times—whether it be a teetering war or forest fires raging in a different continent—has felt more pressing and immediate due to the pervasiveness of social media. While the connective tissue that holds together our digital lives has stoked anxiety and worry in many, in an ironic double-act, it has also democratized the medium of cartooning. Today, it’s become much easier for both emerging and established cartoonists to share their work online and reach audiences across the world. Where previously a newspaper constituted the most effective way to reach a mass readership, many of the artists spearheading this new wave of cartooning have found ways to overcome editorial constraints by sharing their work on Instagram, and in doing so, have garnered a huge audience who revel in the joy of their cheeky, honest-to-god cartoons that tease issues and ideas that readers often deal with themselves.
“Women have always existed in the cartooning space and made slice-of-life cartoons; lots of us started off self-publishing, either in print, online, or both. In recent years we’ve become an increasingly visual, online culture, which has helped us recognize more of these artists,” says Taylor. Gallagher agrees. “Our work reflects our thoughts and fears, coming straight out of our mouths (and pens). We now have more room to do whatever we want, as opposed to catering to what we think a male-default audience may like.” Social media has not just helped cartoonists circumnavigate editorial controls, but also share their work more freely with a wider, more diverse audience.
Beyond social media, publications, such as The New Yorker, have also opened their doors to a younger generation of women artists, a shift helmed by cartoon editor Emma Allen. In her new book Very Funny Ladies: The New Yorker’s Women Cartoonists, cartoonist Liza Donnelly also notes Allen’s contribution in turning the lens on emerging, singular creative voices. Along with embracing more non-binary artists and people of color, this evolution in the industry has also welcomed artists with unique illustrative styles, unlike the “traditional” style of editorial cartoons. “Good cartooning is about good storytelling, not necessarily “good” draftsmanship. That includes smart, efficient writing, good pacing, and visuals that contribute to the storytelling,” says Taylor. “Indie comics have always had a range of styles, while this has been less so in more commercial works. I’m excited that publishers are increasingly embracing a larger range of cartooning styles. I think it’s reflective of the growing expansiveness and awareness of the medium of cartoons.”
The witty brevity of both illustrations and words that often underscores deft storytelling in cartooning is felt across Liana Finck’s work. A regular contributor to The New Yorker, and an artist with a knack for observing and capturing the absurdity of our lives, Finck has come to be known for her wildly popular cartoons with an immediately recognizable style, that are marked by her distinctive line work. “Her drawings have so much humor built into them because of the way they are drawn,” says Campbell. The growing readership of Finck’s cartoons reflects publishers’ eagerness to usher in artists with idiosyncratic visual voices; and as editorial horizons widen to let in artists with disparate voices and styles, it also makes more room for expression and personality.
Throughout history, as civilizations churned, governments rose and fell, and our lives shifted and warped to adapt to the future, cartoonists have always questioned the status quo, challenged authorities, reflected the truth of the people and shone an equal light on our triumphs and tragedies. “Cartooning has never been a particularly lucrative or respected field, so the people who gravitate towards it tend to do it out of conviction, compassion, and compulsion,” notes Taylor. Hinged on honesty and humor, cartoons have always helped us unpack our lives and laugh at its idiocies, as does this new wave of identity-led cartoons by women, that celebrates and embraces the joy and the anxiety of the present moment in time, that is well and truly ours.