Stick It to ‘Em: The Art of Political Cartoons

[17 October 2007]

By Bill Reagan

When I was a child, my first connection to the newspaper came through the comics. First via the Sunday funnies with their bold colors, easy expressions, and a level of wit that suited my adolescent sense of humor (while Charles Schulz’ Peanuts will forever hold a place in my heart, Snoopy’s repartee featured neither bark nor bite) followed by the daily comics with my favorite Sunday characters transformed into tiny, monochrome panes on the penultimate page of the paper. For years I thought that was all the newspaper had to offer, until one day when I noticed there were also comics in my parents section of the newspaper.

I remember my alarm at seeing a cartoon sketched in another region of the newsprint, far from the home of Peanutes, Beetle Bailey, and Hagar the Horrible: For how long had this cartoon subculture existed, hiding itself among long-winded letters and bank advertisements? Why had no one alerted me to the additional guffaws to be found elsewhere in the paper? It was quite upsetting until I spent a few days seeking out these clandestine comics and found them, at my young age, impenetrable: The artwork was inconsistent, the characters were different every day, and worst of all, they just weren’t very funny. (I didn’t know who Gerry Ford was, but as far as I could tell, he was no Dennis the Menace.)

“They’re not actually comics, Bill,” Mom explained. “They’re cartoons, but they’re meant to make you think more than to make you laugh.” A cartoon that doesn’t try to make you laugh? Mom and Dad could have that section of the paper to themselves.

Of course, I would come back to them later in life. I came to admire political cartoons for their ability to distill a complex editorial issue into a simple, potent one-liner, and admire their creators for regularly finding fresh ways to lampoon a person or a topic. I have never been concerned with partisanship in such cartoons because I have never coddled one side of the political aisle as sacrosanct: As the adage goes, no matter who you vote for, the government wins; each party offers ample fodder for both poignant exception to policies and amusing examination of principles.

Donald Dewey’s The Art of Ill Will: The Story of American Political Cartoons fulfills the promise of its title, tracing the American political cartoon from its earliest days (the first is credited to Benjamin Franklin, whose “Join or die” woodcut first appeared in 1754) through America’s most turbulent times (its various wars, economic upheavals, racial divides, and political scandals) to the state of political cartooning in the 21st century.

Yet despite being a book about politics, Dewey manages to avoid political bias by emphasizing the form’s consistently contemporaneous commentary, motivated by political opportunity rather than pure idealism: While the current administration is the subject of the vast majority of pen-and-ink jabs in 2007, their editorial cartoon celebrity results primarily from membership in the ruling party, not from a political slant in the industry. (Though the distinctive features of Condoleezza Rice, Dick Cheney, and the President himself have certainly been a boon for caricaturists.)

The Art of Ill Will features over 200 cartoons, from Franklin’s famous first through a cynical (though perhaps not inaccurate) commentary on the current war in Iraq, as well as 80 pages of Dewey’s commentary and chronologies. His well-researched text offers insight into the historical setting that allowed the form to burgeon in the late 19th century, as well as interesting anecdotal information that illuminates shadowed elements of political history. (For instance, when explaining a cartoon that features Lincoln and his aides burying the constitution, “a widely held view following the passage of the Conspiracies Act that suspended habeas corpus and jailed almost forty thousand people on the flimsiest of pretexts.” While clearly not Honest Abe’s shining moment, I’m surprised that the Bush Administration has not made more of this precedent during their defense of the Patriot Act.)

Dewey divides his 75-page introduction into 12 sections, covering various distinct stylistic developments in the cartooning realm within a chronological framework. In these sections he informs about (to name a few) the early proliferation of symbolism such as Uncle Sam, donkeys, elephants and eagles (“The plethora of symbols spanning human, animal and mythological was inevitable for a fledgling republic seeking an identity”), the use of words within the image along with the caption (as the populace became more literate, the image no longer needed to carry the entire message), the development of racial and ethnic stereotypes (America’s legacy of political cartoons is as cluttered with shameful evidence of ignorance as its history books) and the challenge for artists to speak out at a time when the nation needed solidarity (whether by sympathy or political bullying, cartoons during wartime were considerably more generic, more likely to feature the black-hooded image of death than the face of a leader.)

The Art of Ill Will concentrates much of its energy on the first burgeon of political cartooning occurring in New York at the start of the 20th century. While he explains how the local political machinations of the times influenced the popularity of the form, some of that information is rather esoteric and left me eager to skip forward to a period when I (or at least my grandfather) had been alive and the cartoon captions made immediate sense to me. But Dewey effectively demonstrates that the power of a political cartoon is dependent on who holds office, and how well their activities are known by the populace: Newspapers had stiff competition for readers at that time, and pointed cartoons helped to build and maintain circulation.

Of course, mere opportunity is not always the motivation behind a sketched mockery, as certain iconic figures have been favorites of the cartoon trade whether in season or out. As Dewey says, “By cartooning standards, the greatest Presidents have been Jackson, Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, Nixon, and Reagan.” Nixon’s comic staying power was particularly impressive: His near-constant appearances in The Washington Post while he was in office led to his canceling of his Post subscription in order to shield his daughters from the ridicule, and those cartoon cameos extended well beyond his Vice Presidency and turbulent Presidency and right up to his death. (Such is the fate of a man with the twin albatrosses of well-publicized corruption and easy caricature.)

One frustration I felt while reading The Art of Ill Will was Dewey’s emphasis on objective history without opinion, resulting in great many well-phrased rhetorical questions with notably few answers. In this way, the book sometimes seemed like a cartoon whose barbs have been filed down so as not to antagonize readers. When asking whether the political cartoon has influenced American opinions or simply reinforced existing attitudes, he asks, “Have they been only an entertainment all along, with congressmen and presidents taking the role of mothers-in-law for the joke telling?” But that question, along with many others, is never answered. Dewey is like a trial lawyer who presents an impressive dossier of facts but fails to persuade the jury in his closing statements, leaving us to form our own opinion about the influence that political cartoons have had on American society.

Wait, did I just find fault in a writer because he refrained from interjecting his own opinion while discussing history? Forgive me. In this era when information is regularly infused with a red or blue hue, when too many writers and artists offer the so-called facts along with suggestions about how we should interpret those facts, it’s actually quite nice to get to the end of a book and have to form one’s own opinion. Sometimes even Hank Ketcham doesn’t allow that.

William Reagan is a freelance advertising copywriter specializing in compressing large concepts into short sentences. He enjoys observing the American political system in the same way voyeurs stare at car wrecks on the side of the highway, less concerned with who was involved than with the particulars of how it happened. (It's best not to drive behind him during an election year.) He squirrels away his literary acorns at WilliamReagan.com.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/stick-it-to-em-the-art-of-political-cartoons/