Multimodal Public Artifact

The American Dream is one of the most widely held beliefs in the United States. The idea that anyone, regardless of circumstance, is able to work hard, excel, and ultimately achieve economic success has permeated our culture and has become one of the most prominent features of our nation. With shifts in our own economy however, this dream is drifting further out of reach. The collapse of the American Dream is a recent development; as our dreams have shifted from a house with a white picket fence to a particular job or field, the American public has had to cope with the new difficulties associated with achieving the American mainstay. Joe Dator, cartoonist for the New Yorker, discussed this concept in his comic “What do you want to be when you give up?” Dator’s work speaks directly to younger generations; using the phrase ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’, but switching the tone and creating a message far more bleak. The comic is not only timely, it also uses a powerful image, idea, and sentence to deliver a multimodal work of influence that lives on the New Yorker’s website.  “What do you want to be when you give up,” by Joe Dator illustrates the collapse of the American Dream based on the genre of the work, and its rhetorical appeals to kairos, logos, and pathos which help communicate the idea to a young New Yorker readership.

A comic of two small children playing with toy blocks in black and white. The caption reads:
What do you Want to be When you Give Up? by Joe Dator

To understand Dator’s work one must first categorize the piece within the conventions  of its genre. The artifact is a single frame comic using a sentence and image together. Screen Shot 2015-10-06 at 9.42.16 PMScott McCloud (1994) in his work “Understanding Comics” classifies this type of comic panel as an ‘interdependent’ choice, “where words and pictures go hand in hand to convey an idea that neither could convey alone” (p. 155).  “What do you want to be when you give up” derives meaning through both the image and text; without one or the other the message becomes distorted. Understanding the image in tandem with the sentence allows one to ascertain the meaning of the multimodal artifact as a whole.That said, the values of the two in terms of the delivery of the idea are not equal. When we focus further, we see the sentence (What do you want to be when you give up?) as actually forming the message. McCloud suggests that when we see an interdependent panel with an emphasis on words “the more the pictures can be freed to go exploring” (p. 155).
This idea of exploration allows the picture to become something much larger; Dator uses the image to communicate on a different, more intrinsic level. While the sentence establishes the work, it is the image that provides depth.

The depth Dator creates is fostered through his appeals to kairos, logos, and pathos. The image and sentence are the distillation of an entire group of young people’s angst at not being able to follow their dreams and being forced to settle. When we look at the artifacScreen Shot 2015-10-06 at 9.44.24 PMt’s most prominent features we see this message. Through a basic black and white image and a 10-word sentence, Dator is able to communicate this powerfully. Because the comic is interdependent, it is important to notice the text and image as working cooperatively to create a unified message. Analyzing how various features of the artifact act as different rhetorical appeals indicates why Dator’s work is successful.

“What do you want to be when you give up”  places emphasis on kairos which makes it capture an audience’s attention; Dator’s focus on creating a work that is emotionally resonant for a contemporary audience is what makes the work relevant. Kairos is “the way rhetors negotiate or “struggle” with and against their contexts as they seek a particular outcome” [Miller, Kairos] (Sheridan, David & Ridolfo,Jim 2012, pg. 50). On the surface, the work is kairotically relevant based on both audience and timeliness. The comic originally appeared on the New Yorker website on May 25, 2015. Dator is known for combining satire and social commentary in many of the comic panels that appear on the site. Knowing this, one can identify the influence of the piece being largely a work related to U.S. citizens, particularly young professionals who are reading the news source as they are most intimately affected by the current socio-economic climate. This is not the only audience however, the comic also reaches anyone in the New Yorker’s readership regardless of age or position in the workforce. When we look at kairos as  “a function of social concerns (such as the beliefs and attitudes of the audience)” in tandem with “symbolic concerns (such as the linguistic devices that can best articulate with certain beliefs and attitudes)” (Sheridan/Ridolfo pg. 55) it becomes clearer that Dator produced his artifact in response to the social climate he was inhabiting.

In addition to the artifact’s kairotic sensibilities, Dator also appeals to logos as the comic wrestles with the idea of socioeconomic prosperity. Logos is built upon the “rational, factual basis that supports the speaker’s position” (Turbak, Nancy, 1998, p. 2). When we examine the logical appeal of Dator’s work we see a connection through text.

What do you Want to be When you Give Up? by Joe Dator

The sentence calls to mind the economic status of the nation to the artifact’s audience. Analyzing Dator’s text allows an audience, through logic, to comprehend his message. Connections can be identified between the text and the shrinking middle class in the United States, the nation’s income inequality (most notably the 99 percent movement), crushing student loan debt faced by students, and the seeming requirement of higher education to achieve success. All of these factors loom large in the minds of many Americans making the appeal to logos powerful when considered in tandem with the kairotic value of the work.The reason the sentence is successful ties directly into the time at which it was produced. The appeal to logos is made possible by the timeliness of Dator’s work. If this piece was created in 2005, three years before ‘The Great Recession’,  versus 2015 (when it was actually released) the audience’s understanding of the work would be fundamentally different. It is this specific time combined with the connotation surrounding the sentence that helps establish the rhetorical value of the work.  

The emotional aspect to this realization allows Dator’s audience to derive a more complete understanding of the comic. Felicia Walker (2005) defines pathos as “the appeal to emotion or the ability to persuade by making people feel something”. The emotion conveyed through the combination of image and text is palpable in Dator’s work. The bleak sentence is meant to grab the audience emotionally, and make them aware of the downtrodden American sentiments of economic freedom and the American Dream. Doubly effective however is the image; most notably the children and the toys they are playing with.What do you Want to be When you Give Up? by Joe Dator

 The black and white children-sitting indian style in a cluttered room-communicate innocence and purity. When we contrast this purity with the sentence, which is a skewed version of ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’, we begin to see the taintedness associated with the work. Examining further, we see another appeal to ethos in the actual toy the two are playing with, building blocks. The stack of blocks and the infinite creations that can be built with them serves as a parallel to what the American Dream used to be. The idea that we can follow our passions and achieve based on hard work. When we look at the uniform stack in between the children we see order and uniformity. These children are no longer building freely, rather they are constructing into tight spaces creating columns and fitting into rows.
What do you Want to be When you Give Up? by Joe DatorThis analogy can be interpreted by an audience to mean not only that these children are losing their ability of creative exploration, but also that the building blocks of our own great nation are becoming stagnant and uniform.  

While the sentence emphasizes logic, the image is meant to bring out emotion (and create empathy). Because the work is an interdependent comic, the image and text work cohesively to create meaning. Connecting the logos derived from the sentence, and the emotional impact of seeing the two children and their toys creates a resonant and heart-wrenching idea. Having youths describe their plans when giving up (rather than their hopes and aspirations) calls to mind regret for not only younger generations, but also looms large in the mind of anyone who feels as though they have not achieved their American Dream.

Joe Dator’s comic, “What do you want to be when you give up”, emphasizes the shifting paradigm of what Americans know colloquially as ‘the American Dream’ towards a connotation far more bleak through  both the type of multimodal artifact, and the rhetorical appeals woven into the work. As an artifact it is easy to see the value of what Dator creates. The power he conveys through a single sentence and a basic, black and white etching, is a testament to the influence a skilled rhetorician can achieve. Talking about a subject as serious as the collapse of the American Dream, and how a nation who prides itself on economic opportunity is losing the baseline it so often brings to light, makes Dator a rhetor who discusses difficult subjects. That said, he created this work because it needs to be said; like many other rhetors, Dator does not shy away from the tough subject, rather he embraces it and transforms the message in a unique, novel, and powerful way.

Fair Use Statement: This digital text contains source material taken without the expressed consent of the original creators of the content. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107

Purpose and Character of Use: I am using this content academically; I am not attempting to recreate or distribute any works used as my own. Furthermore, the context I have provided around the sources is meant to elevate the understanding of said sources in a way that is scholarly, accurate, and novel.

Nature of Copyrighted Work: The work is for sale currently as an art print. I am not displaying the work in that fashion, nor have I used large images of the source that could be reproduced as an art print.

Amount Used: I only use the image when necessary to illustrate a point or provide meaning to my audience.

Impact on Market: I think this work elevates and analyzes the source in a way that is positive and transformative. I have provided links to the source material’s website in an effort to make it easy for readers to purchase the print.  


  • Sheridan, David & Ridolfo, Jim & Michel, Anthony. (2012). The available means of persuasion: Mapping a theory and pedagogy of multimodal public rhetoric. Parlor Press. Retrieved  September 30, 2015 from


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