Anatomy of a Single-Panel Cartoon

Single-panel cartoons (AKA gag cartoons, AKA New Yorker cartoons) have plot, settings, characters, suspense, drama – really! It’s all there.

How is this possible? It’s just some squiggles and a limited amount of words – if any at all. Let’s take a look at how these magical little one-frame movies do it:


A cartoon can be a blink of an eye or the whole history of the universe, because the space itself, the cartoon frame, represents time. In a single-panel cartoon, it’s showing you a single slice of time. And for every slice of time or ‘now,’ there’s past, present, and future. This is where the magic is.

Bonus: This one is in the movie “San Andreas,” taped to the cabinet in Paul Giamatti’s character’s office! Fame!

Something just happened, is happening, or is about to happen. This is true for every nanosecond. Don’t freak out.

For example, here’s one where obviously something just happened that requires explaining:

Here’s another one, but this time something magnificent is about to take place. It’s going to be great.

Another one, where the potential is yet to be released. But it’s all about to happen.

Now here’s one that takes place pretty much in the present, but there’s still a lot going on. There’s technology. There’s a bemused horse.


Spatial relationships tell stories. Like, somebody in the street and somebody on a balcony. Or someone sneaking up behind someone else.

In this one, space is all there is to the story, really:

Here’s another one where space is the whole gag:

It turns out, all you need to tell a whole story is a little time and space. Or, a lot. In cartoons, you can make as much or as little as you need in one image.

Finally, here’s one that puts it all together:

There you have it: The infinite magic of the single-panel cartoon. Some people tell stories with two hundred million dollars and a couple hours, and some of us use paper and pencil and a few minutes. It’s all good.