Peter & Jane and Pat the Dog nearly killed my interest in reading. Giles saved me. My grandfather had a nearly complete run of the annuals, and though I had little or no understanding of the history or sociology or the politics that informed them, it was obvious that they were intended to be amusing, perhaps funny, and it seemed reasonable to assume that the captions were the key to this. So, after a miserable day attempting to spell my way through the well-meaning but unrewarding adventures of the textbooks I turned to the pages of Giles' late 1940s and 1950s collections again and again, asking questions of my parents and sometimes getting answers. "Who is this little ugly man? He's in lots of the cartoons." "Lord Beaverbrook." "What's he?" "He owned the newspaper." "Is that his name?" "No." "Is that his name?" "No." "Is that..." "No, give it to me.... that's his name." "Oh." And eventually this informal and unconventional course gave me a reading age almost equivalent to that of Pat the Dog.
But my initial premise had been quite mistaken. Giles wasn't funny because of the captions; indeed, they were irrelevant to whatever humour the drawings offered, and perhaps even destructive. Certainly, the words were a distraction. The interest, and the comedy, which is of a non-explosive kind, was all in the drawing
A few years later my mother started reading the New Yorker, which was dense with articles the first sentence of which induced complete boredom, and many weirdly entertaining cartoons of another world. These were mostly small, abbreviated sketches, and, to my surprise, were almost entirely reliant on their text. Captionless they were unintelligible, and uninteresting. Even with their words decoded the social territory on which they relied was alien, but without them the drawings were dead, and this was true of some of the best.
This was very different from Giles, though it must be granted that as he aged he became progressively more reliant on the verbal support of his captions, and that after the mid-sixties his drawing began to deteriorate in vigour and inventive detail. This mattered because his verbal invention had never been robust, certainly not strong enough to be the mainstay of the presentation, and as the drawings failed the strain on the captions became insupportable. I can hardly bear to look at anything he did after 1969, and nobody should form an opinion of his work on the basis of the later 'written' work, as opposed to the 'drawn' humour of his output from 1945 to 1960.
This distinction between approaches, drawing and talking towards humour, applies very broadly across the cartoon world, and it seems that few can move from one to another, and hardly any are equally strong in both. On the whole, American cartooning is verbally driven, whether it is a strip or a single frame image. It is a rare Garfield or Dilbert that attempts or has any visual interest. These are illustrated dialogues, verbal gags with schematic drawings functioning as stage directions, and the New Yorker is still full of such things, though I like them less now and feel guilty about my ingratitude. Some, Gary Larson is a good example, are mixed cases, but in such instances, and this is overwhelmingly true of Larson, the imaginative content is predominantly and initially verbal, only subsequently being realised in a drawn form. The contrast with Giles' vacant babies is sharp.
Indeed, the bias of British cartooning seems to be in the other direction, being fundamentally pictorial and with a much blunter and less neatly jointed verbal humour (our jokes rarely close with a click, and we never slam them shut in any case). But the verbal/pictorial distinction is valid here too. Matt thinks abruptly in words and casually draws the point out; Peter Brookes maps his discoveries and later adds supplementary legends. Martin Rowson's frenzied curses are pre-scripted before delivery from the linear scaffold of his design; Bell beats his victims clumsily with a pencil, only afterwards offering a tedious explanation of his motives. But all, with the exception, perhaps, of Matt, are visual by contrast with their American contemporaries, at least the ones of which I am aware. Then again, put all these cartoonists alongside Ed MacLachlan, who is a comic draughtsman par excellence, and they appear verbally dependent, though without the redeeming hellzapoppin wise-crackery of the purer form. Perhaps it is sentimental of me, but I would trade them all for an early Giles.