Best political cartoonists don't hesitate to slash their subjects, author says
Sunday, October 21, 2007
By Bill Eichenberger | The Columbus Dispatch
Editorial cartoonist Art Young, who worked for several Chicago newspapers in the early 1900s, had a simple motto: "To have a life as a caricaturist of the kind whose pictures 'never hurt' is my idea of futility." Cartoonists such as Young, unafraid to hurt, are the inspiration for Donald Dewey's new book The Art of Ill Will: The Story of American Political Cartoons, which looks at the development of the form from the Colonial period through the present.
"If they don't hurt," Dewey wrote in a recent e-mail, "editorial cartoons are just taking up space in a paper that might be used more profitably for a McDonald's ad. . . . The cartoonist who worries about 'alienating consumers' isn't worth your time, my time or anybody else's. Unfortunately, there are far too many of them around."
Similarly, in Dewey's estimation, "A cartoonist who isn't partisan isn't worth looking at. What's the point otherwise?
"Many of the rules for cartooning stem from syndication and a greater reliance on generic themes so nobody feels left out in Oregon about a reference to Pennsylvania.
"The usual result is toothlessness. Syndication has made cartoonists richer at the expense of the relevance of the form."
The Art of Ill Will features more than 200 illustrations, including Benjamin Franklin's 1754 image of a snake cut into pieces with the caption "Join, or Die" -- considered the country's first editorial cartoon.
Q: Can editorial cartoons turn elections?
A: I think it's been demonstrated fairly clearly that cartoonists don't swing elections. Even the fabled story of Thomas Nast bringing down Boss Tweed is more romance than fact. What really brought down Tweed was a New York Times expose in which a bookkeeper from Tammany Hall traced the passage of dollars from taxpayers to private pockets. (And even with this, remember, Tweed was re-elected to his City Council position.)
Another glaring example is Richard Nixon -- every political cartoonist's favorite subject for mockery since he had been vice president. But despite that, he was elected to the White House twice.
Overall, you would simply have to say that political cartoonists are preaching to the choir, not least because of the newspapers they are working for. Somebody in New York who reads Newsday regularly is not going to be exposed to the right-wing frothings of a Post cartoonist, and vice versa.
Q: To what should cartoonists aspire?
A: I would hope it would be humor and originality at the service of political relevance. In the best of cases, their images can outlive a given political issue or social event -- witness Nast on the Catholics in the New York City schools, (Bill) Mauldin on Lincoln's statue after Kennedy's assassination. These have as much power today as when they were done.
Q: Early political cartoons were wordy, with loads of texts accompanying the drawings. Was the move away from that convention a positive one?
A: In my opinion, they definitely improved with fewer words, and this was inevitable given the newer cartoon vehicles (daily and weekly publications) and the enhanced printing methods.
The most interesting thing about the transition was the growing community of symbols.
Q: Our political cartoons have been full of racial and ethnic stereotypes, haven't they?
A: The starting point for any discussion of ethnic-racial stereotypes is that they are created by the prevailing power structure.
Let's take a very common example: the Irish drunk. In the 19th century, the English were as alcoholic as the Irish. In fact, penny gin almost crippled the country -- so much so that the broken pub hours were introduced to discourage drunken bodies clogging up the main thoroughfares of London and Liverpool.
Which isn't to suggest that the Irish have never been known to drink. But when they came off steerage in New York in the 19th century, they walked into an Anglo-Scots society that controlled, among other things, the media. Suddenly, they were the epitome of the drunkard in word and picture. The fact that they were poor didn't help, either.