Today’s New York Times features an obituary for Ben Blank, a leading innovator in television news graphics. As the obit notes, before Blank, TV news consisted of an anchor, a desk and wall sporting a clock or map. Blank realized that “to pique and retain the viewer’s interest, it was necessary to provide a visual mnemonic that would serve as a logo for the story.” Thus was born the “over-the-shoulder” graphic that has become ubiquitous in video news on both TV and the Web.
While Blank’s contribution to our media culture is noteworthy in itself, what particularly drew my attention was this singular fact: before being hired as a graphic designer for CBS, Blank spent four years as an Air Force cartoonist.
The comics connection is not merely incidental–it reflects how comics and cartoons provided a template for how we communicate today. A single panel gag cartoon, a comic book cover, a splash page: each serves an effective means to convey complex information and to establish an intuitive personal connection. Blank’s genius lay in adapting this design rhetoric across seemingly disparate junk media, to the television from the cartoon.
When we think about the status of comics today, sales stats and museum exhibits are only part of the equation. Small, often invisible shifts like Ben Blank’s–the cartoonist who remakes TV news, comic artists working on Madison Avenue, a novelist who grew up with EC, the comic geek who jumps from commercials to major motion pictures–these are the moments through which comics have come to define modern culture.