Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University


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Flies in the face of fashion

What's Buggin You Now?





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Cartoonists find humor in insects

A cartoonist is a person who creates cartoons. Cartoons, both single and multiple-panel creations, are regular features of newspapers and magazines. These line drawings are designed to be humorous. That is why cartoon renderings are often called comics. In Sunday newspapers such comics are grouped in what is generally referred to as the funny pages.

Bug ScoutBugScout cartoon

So what is the basis for cartoon humor? The cartoonist is often inspired by foibles of human nature. The foibles are expressed through words and actions of cartoon characters, which can be human or animal. Sometimes cartoon characters have both human and animal characteristics, such as animals that walk upright on two legs and talk.

Many times both human and animal characters are included in the same cartoon. "Peanuts," created by Charles Schulz, featured Snoopy the dog and a whole host of children, including Charlie Brown and Lucy. Garfield the cat and his owner Jon are another example of humans and animals sharing the same comic strip.

Some cartoonists have used insects either as characters or as a foil for their humor. Jim Davis, a native of Grant County, Ind., and the creator of "Garfield" is one example. In a recent (Jan. 28, 2011) cartoon strip, Garfield is sitting in an easy chair watching TV and hears, "Someday insects will rule the earth." Garfield zooms away and appears in the last panel wearing insect antennae, which prompts Jon to ask, "What now?" Garfield answers, "Going with the flow, slave boy." This is a cartoonist's take on the overwhelming success of insects in the ecology of the earth and the suggestion that they are the dominant organisms.

Of course, fear of insects and other arthropods is always good for a laugh in cartoons. Garfield has had a long-standing feud with spiders. In most instances the poor spider ends up getting smacked by Garfield, who is armed with a rolled-up newspaper. Garfield is just modeling the general, though unfounded, fear that most people have for spiders!

Johnny Hart is the creator of the "B.C." cartoon series. "B.C." is set in prehistoric times and features cavemen and other creatures, including philosophical ants and an anteater doing what it does best - searching for a meal of ants. In one strip (April 9, 2010), the anteater resolves to resist temptations of the flesh, to which the ant responds, "Bless you, kind sir." "ZOT," the sound produced when an ant becomes an anteater meal, follows. The anteater says, "Chitin, on the other hand…" Chitin is one of the components of the insect exoskeleton; the word apparently prompted many "B.C." readers to consult their online dictionaries for the definition.

Even Walt Disney used insects to inject humor into his comic strips. In a "Donald Duck" cartoon strip from March 28, 1948, Donald is depicted as being bothered by a fly. That pesky fly prompted Donald to call a pest control company for assistance. The pest control company ended up finding termites and ants. Donald ended up with a big pest-control bill. The final panel shows a disgusted Donald with the fly still buzzing around his head!

Insects were a mainstay of "The Far Side" cartoon created by Gary Larson. In these cartoons, the insect characters were depicted in biologically-relevant situations, such as a praying mantid female pointing out to her brood that before most of them are grown they will have been eaten. Or mocking humans with a female insect driving a car adorned with one of those yellow triangular signs with the phrase, "Maggot on Board."

Gary Larson also included entomologists in "The Far Side" renderings. In most instances, "The Far Side" entomologists were depicted with short pants, tall boots and pith helmets on their heads. Of course, most cartoon entomologists, including those in "The Far Side," also had a butterfly net in hand.

So using the philosophy that if you can't whip them you might as well join them, I created the "Bug Scout" cartoon to teach about insect pest management. "Bug Scout" adhered to the widely held notion of the bug catcher in terms of a costume. After all, as cartoonists have shown for years, there is humor in almost everything, including insects and entomologists. It is sometimes good to be able to laugh at yourself!


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox