Before writing Laugther: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, somebody should have told Bergson that one of the best ways to kill humor is trying to explain why a gag is funny. However, from the point of view of the comic-strip artist it is sometimes useful to understand why some things make us laugh more than others. Take this Peanuts strip, actually the fourth Charles Schulz drew. It’s a rainy day and Patty forgot her umbrella at home. She crosses her path with Shermy and “borrows” an umbrella from him. We should admit there’s nothing funny about the situation. We could even say it’s a good deal misogynistic by today’s standards. And yet, it’s one of the most hilarious strips Schulz published. We can find in this strip a classic instance of what Benoît Peeters called a “phantom panel”: an action that is not represented but is implied by the concatenation of two panels; that is, the elision of an image followed by an invitation to recreate that image in your mind (Peeters, 1998: 40). In order to explain this concept, Peeters uses a sequence from Tintin in Tibet that speaks for itself:
When we see the airhostess sticking plasters in Captain Haddock’s face, we understand in that exact moment he fell to the ground while Tintin was shouting at him, which is far more ingenious than actually showing the fall. The comic effect is based on metonymy: instead of showing the cause of the action (the fall), Hergé shows the effect of the action (the bruises on Haddock’s face). The reader completes the sequence by means of a simple deduction.
Schulz uses a variant of this technique, ten years before Tintin in Tibet. But what makes Schulz strip especially funny is that he complicates the process of deduction by delaying it. Our understanding of the sequence is not as immediate as Herge’s. In the third panel we see Patty with the umbrella, which is the equivalent of Captain Haddock being attended by the airhostess, but when we see Patty’s image we are left with the question: “why does Patty suddenly have an umbrella?” This question lingers in our mind until we read the last panel. Schulz had the ability to make the reader pose that question and then spend some time (maybe a second or a fraction of a second) to imagine the answer before being given the solution in the last panel. Delay becomes a means of creating mystery. Mystery becomes an invitation to use imagination. And what’s humor without mystery and imagination?
Peeters, B. (1998) Lire la bande desinée (Paris: Flammarion)
Hergé. (1960) Tintin in Tibet (Paris: Casterman)