We can all think of pictures and picture books that make us laugh – there are lots and lots. But we shouldn’t forget that being funny is a serious business. In this special article, illustrator Elys Dolan considers just what it takes to be funny in pictures.
Before we begin I think it’s important to address a problem we’re going to have. This issue isn’t to do with the quality of my grammar or the sheer amount of bums you’re about to see, it concerns discussing what makes something funny.
Nothing is less amusing then being told what to find funny. There’s a quote from E.B and K.S White that describes the phenomenon fairly well. To paraphrase, it suggests that analysing comedy is rather like dissecting a frog, nobody enjoys the process and the frog dies. There’s no way of getting away from it, that’s exactly what I’m going to do today. So I’m very sorry about all the funny pictures I’m about to ruin and without further ado, let’s kill some frogs.
There isn’t a set recipe for being funny through pictures. Like so much comedy the rules are there to be broken and it’s so often down to the individual’s sense of humour. There are a few tricks of the trade I can show you though. To help me with this I’d like to introduce my usual comedy associate, Pants Monkey.
Much comedy is already visual, such as slapstick, some toilet humour etc, so perhaps the most obvious way of being funny through pictures is to depict some of that. Now is your time to shine Monkey! Get those pants off.
I think this is a prime example of over doing it. Throwing everything you have at a joke, obviously trying too hard, can negate what would have been a perfectly funny picture of a monkey bum. Let’s move swiftly on.
Expressions, exaggeration and characterisation
There is a myriad of ways to make a character amusing, some more tangible than others, but I’m always a fan of exaggeration. You can exaggerate the character’s physicality (a classic example of this is Fritz Wegner’s version of Fattypuffs and Thinifers by Andre Maurois) but there’s also plenty of fun to be had with exaggerating facial expressions and behaviour.
To explain Pants Monkey has kindly agreed to demonstrate some expressions for you:
So why might we find this funny? There’s a theory of humour called Benign Violation Theory which suggests for something to be amusing it must be a violation of a norm but also that this violation must be benign, so not a threat or horrifyingly offensive. Here Pants Monkey’s over reactions violate social norms because expressing such extremes of emotion is unusual. This isn’t really a concern though because he’s just a picture of a monkey wearing pants that I drew in a magazine. Therefore he could be seen as funny. Consider that frog well and truly dissected.
It’s not just drawing funny actions and characters that makes for amusing pictures, it’s also how you deliver them. When illustrating a picture book the most versatile reveal is the page turn.
Turning a page provides a pause that builds suspense. Then, overleaf, you can reveal something that undermines or contradicts what the reader has already seen for comic effect. There’s an excellent example of a bathetic page turn reveal in The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith during The Tale of the Really Ugly Duckling which I’d urge you to go and enjoy.
As it’s hard to show a page turn without pages I’ve chosen to demonstrate another kind of reveal, called a Pan Out. Here the viewpoint zooms out to reveal new information that expands on the original image. For example here’s Chicken who’s having relationship troubles:
Pictures, words and counterpoint
In illustrated books, especially picture books, there is an intrinsic relationship between word and image. It wouldn’t be right to ignore this relationship when talking about funny pictures because it’s so often used as a comic device.
You can add an element of irony to your words and images. For example here’s Graham who is so very pleased with himself:
The text depicts Graham’s thoughts and suggests what he’s left for his owners is a positive and generous thing. This is contradicted by the images where we see Graham has actually left an implausibly large turd. It is this discrepancy between these two sources of information that could be seen as funny, if you like poo jokes that is.
This phenomena is knows as Counterpoint. This is when ‘words and images provide alternative information or contradict each other in some way’ (Nikoolajeva and Scott 2006 p17). If you want to see a masterful example of counterpoint read Jon Klassen’s This is Not My Hat.
Of course there are more than these three ways of being funny through pictures. I’m constantly surprised and delighted by new ways other illustrators make me snort with laughter. I hope you’ve enjoyed what you’ve seen and can forgive me for all the toilet humour. I blame Pants Monkey, he’s a bad influence.
Klassen, J., 2014 This Is Not My Hat. London: Walker Books.
Nikolajeva, M., & Scott, C. 2001 How Picturebooks Work. Oxon: Routledge. Maurois, A. & Wegner, F., 1968 Fattypuffs and Thinifers New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
McGraw, P. & Warner, J. 2014 The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny.New York: Simon & Schuster
Scieszka, J. & Smith, L., 1993 The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales. New York: Puffin.
White, E. B. & White. K. S., 1941 The Preaching Humorist. The Saturday Review of Literature18th Oct. p.16a
Elys Dolan was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2014 and the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, as well as being nominated for the Kate Greenaway Medal 2014. Her books include Steven Seagull Action Hero, which follows renegade former cop (and seagull) Steven on a quest to find the mysterious sand thief at Beach City and her new book, Mr Bunny's Chocolate Factory is a riotous romp behind the scenes of a chocolate factory.