The History & Evolution of the Artform of Cartoon


Where did cartoons come from, and how are they made – both today, and in the past?

In its earliest form, a cartoon was a type of illustration that was drawn (and later animated) in an unrealistic style. The Merriam-Webster dictionary explains that, although the word cartoon is now most frequently used to describe humorous drawings, comic strips or animated films and TV shows, it’s origins in English were quite different.

Fine Art

Interestingly, the word cartoon was first associated with fine art, long before becoming the standard word used to describe a movie or short television program aimed at children. The word came from the Italian phrase “cartone” and referred to full-size drawings which were usually made on sturdy paper as a precursor or outline for a large piece of work that might take days to complete.

The finished cartoon was just an intermediary step, however; the idea was to hand this medium over to skilled craftsmen who would transform the cartoon into a stained tapestry or stained glass. Despite this, some of these early cartoons have survived to this day and are highly prized as pieces of artwork in their own right.

Raphael Cartoons in London, such as “Christ’s Charge to Peter”, and especially those created by Leonardo da Vinci like “The Burlington House Cartoon” often sell for huge amounts at auction, and on occasion, can even fetch a greater price than the final artworks that they inspired.

In Mass-media

Throughout the centuries the style of cartoons started to become less formal and would regularly be used to express Satire in the pages of newspapers and magazines. The first known examples of this were found in issues of punch magazine dating from 1843.

Calling these drawings cartoons was intended to be ironic, as they were often preparatory cartoons being created for grand historical artworks being created for the newly built Palace of Westminster.

By this time, cartoons could be broadly defined into two categories; gag cartoons, such as those created by John Leech, and comic strips. Both of these forms of cartoon have survived to this day.

Artworks created by Alec Monopoly the graffiti artist can often be thought of as single panels from a comic strip, but he sometimes incorporates political undertones into his work as well, such as his popular “Smell of money” piece that is sold as a HD print on large canvas.

Comic Books

By the 1930s, magazine-format “Comic Books” were a staple on the shelves of newsagents. Many of these were aimed at children, introducing characters such as Batman, Superman, and Spiderman, all of whom are still popular today. Comic books would also be printed that focused on reprinting the cartoons found in newspapers, intended for a more mature audience.

Around this time, publisher DC Thomson sent surveyors around Great Britain to interview children and learn what subjects they would most like to read about in books and comics.

This research eventually resulted in the creation of The Dandy in 1937, a revolutionary comic book that used color to great effect and featured many stories that were based specifically on the research performed earlier in the decade. Huge sales of The Dandy saw DC Thomson launch a similar product – The Beano – in 1938.


Early animated cartoons were largely inspired by the comic strips of the day, which led to the word cartoon taking on yet another new meaning. Both early animated movies in an unrealistic or semi-realistic style, and shorter films such as Tom & Jerry and Road Runner were now referred to as cartoons.

William Hanna and Joseph Barbera struck gold with Tom & Jerry, who were first created in 1940. Metro-Gold-Mayer, one of the largest filmmakers of the time, snapped up the rights to these hugely popular characters and had Hanna & Barbera produce 161 theatrical short films featuring the characters.  People got more hooked to cartoons and animations when 60s cartoons quickly rose to fame. In fact, movie and television experts around the world were one in concluding that cartoons in the 60s started the new era of television.

They weren’t the first to experiment with this style, however; the Looney Tunes brand had already created Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Mavin the Martin and Speedy Gonzales, to name but a few. Tom & Jerry eventually surpassed the popularity of all of these characters with its slapstick humor that appealed just as much to adults as children.

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