Sooner or later politicians
find themselves the subject of a political cartoon. In the hands of a
talented artist the editorial cartoon can be a powerful weapon because the
point it is making can be quickly absorbed and transmitted. Nevertheless
cartoons are frequently overlooked as a form of political communication. This
article suggests that cartoons deserve to be studied and this should be done by
taking into account the type of political regimes, forms of media ownership and
rules that govern the production of cartoons. When this is done a
conclusion emerges that political cartoons, are another means whereby powerful
interests reinforce their views on society.
Most people, young and old, have some familiarity with
cartoons, from comics and graphic illustrations in books, to the “funnies” and
editorial cartoons found in newspapers around the world. Cartoons can amuse,
have messages that are pointed and provide a current social commentary on the
world around them.
One of the most powerful
weapons that a cartoon has is its seemingly innocent humour whose message can
be absorbed easily, without much reflection or resistance. But it is the
instantaneous manner in which this message is transmitted which ensures the
cartoon an important, if often overlooked, prominence in the realm of
communications. A cartoon’s typical placement in the editorial section, and
the fact it is usually produced by the same staff cartoonist, over a long
period of time, contribute to the development of themes and central ideas, and
provide the impact on the persuasiveness of the medium.
To frame the discussion and
explain the importance of political cartoons, it is necessary to consider their
history, underlying theories of cartoons and the techniques of persuasion
applied. Within the discussion of techniques, a consideration of the
effect of censorship on cartoons and other media will take place in order to
further delineate the conceived power of the cartoon image. What cannot
be overlooked is the matter of media ownership and the obligations of the
cartoonist on staff. It is my thesis that the humorous intervention of a
political cartoon does ultimately contribute to the accumulation of information
and formulation of public opinion. Humour is employed as a human
“equalizer”, a tactic which brings everyone to the same level, no matter their
ethnicity, class or gender. And, while some have argued that political
cartoons provide a vehicle for participation in a climate of voter
disillusionment and disenchantment, even disenfranchisement, it is the position
of this article that political cartoons are a resource of the dominant, not the
minority, and serve to reinforce the opinions of the media ownership and the
dominant in society.
A History of Political Cartoons
In Italy, in the sixteenth
century, cartooning or caricatura emerged in rebellion to “high art” and
its wish for prestige1 with possibly
the first cartoons having been painted by Leonardo da Vinci in his study of
caricature. While caricature was meant to be a quick, impressionistic
drawing that exaggerated prominent physical characteristics to humorous effect,
it has also been said to bring out the subject’s “inner nature”.
Caricature then, was an early example of graphic satire that could be
used as an instrument of suppression, oppression or even emancipation, which
“allows the artist to comment on current events and political perspectives”.2
Cartoons with an editorial
nature emerged as part of the Protestant Reformation under Martin Luther
1483-1546. Luther’s cartoons were aimed at an illiterate population, but one
that was willing to counter authority. His cartoons deflated complicated
political debates and portrayed them through the media of printed and
disseminated pictures in order to mobilize the support of both the working
class and the peasantry to ensure his reforms success.
It took another three hundred
years, primarily due to the cost of producing images in newspapers, for
cartoons to appear in US newspapers with any regularity. The editorial
cartoon had its start in 1884 when Joseph Pulitzer had a political cartoon
printed in his New York World newspaper, caricaturing a Republican
candidate. Pulitzer dramatically changed the face of newspapers by
producing his World with lively, eye-catching, graphic news
illustrations and cartoons. William Randolph Hearst followed suit, and a
tradition was established.
Some claim that editorial
political cartoons are a form of visual news discourse; others claim they
simply offer an absurd account of a current social or political condition.
Effectively, a successful cartoon depends on the context of a widely
recognized story or person. The most effective artists are acknowledged
as those who want to contribute to positive social or political change and
often develop their themes and characters over time, even years.
Therefore, although the image itself is intended to be instantaneously
recognized, the cartoonist, as a staff member, is a standard-bearer for the
newspaper and responsible to carry a theme across time and space.
Thus, the humorous
intervention of a political cartoon can contribute to the accumulation of
information and formulation of public opinion. In addition, they
construct social and political issues and offer readers a mini-narrative, or
even a replacement narrative that fills the gap on current affairs.
Editorial cartoons mainly “lampoon public figures, especially those that
remind us of the differences between the haves and the have-nots – our
politicians, the rich and the famous, and the businesses and governments they
control”3. While cartoons have the appearance of
simplicity, it is this very simplicity that disguises the many levels of
complexity and agenda found in editorial cartoons. And while newspaper
circulation is an influencing factor, the main influence on editorial cartoons
appears to be different political regimes which result in different types of
graphic satire, low, medium and high. However, political cartoons today
are not a vehicle for participation by the middle class, although this point is
Therefore, while political cartoons act as a social commentary, these messages
are not from the powerless to invoke or instigate change, but from the powerful
to maintain the status quo.
A Theoretical Understanding of Cartoons
The difficulty with analysing
editorial cartoons is finding the appropriate theoretical frame. There
are two approaches that can be used. The first approach uses indicators such as
the subject portrayed, the source for the cartoon, the political regime and the
corporate relationship, in order to contextualize the relationships between the
media ownership, newspaper circulation and political regime. Indicators
do not do anything more than identify the subject, the message and the source.
And, the concept of tactics, like the use of humour or censorship, or the
establishment of meaning over time should not be overlooked or underestimated.
Finally, who is not satirized is almost as important as who is satirized
by editorial cartoons.
A second approach which has
been discussed by Raymond Morris5, applies four rhetorical devices which are: condensation,
by compressing disconnected or complexly-related events into a common, singluar
frame combination, by artificially juxtaposing different elements or ideas from
different places with multiple and diverse meanings; opposition, where
everything is reduced to a binary; and, domestication, where distant events are
depicted in terms of everyday life.
Devices such as different
inscriptions like maps, flags, and certain metaphors, symbolically link what
would otherwise be difficult to articulate. “A picture is worth a
thousand words; a map is worth ten thousand”. Thus, if a map or globe is
depicted within the cartoon, it challenges our traditional perceptions of the
landscape. This challenge suggests that not everything that we know to be
true, is true, and touches on deeply held beliefs. The popular culture
approach of political cartoons to the history of our times offers a rich
context. When a history of political cartoons is analysed, not only are
the politics and players of the time represented, but the mood of at least one
segment in society is also represented. In addition, inscriptions like
uniforms, bandages, coats of arms, all contribute to meaning at more than one
level. Unfortunately, even with these indicators and new levels of meaning,
this approach has difficulty answering the questions of who is the target and
whose point of view is represented or reinforced.
Morris has tried to respond to
the first criticism by defining the viewer who he calls the ‘glancer’ or
‘skimmer’. But with respect to the point of view represented, the images
portrayed draw on public knowledge and reproduce a common-sense view of the
world, which is the common-sense world of the cartoonist, as an employee of
that particular newspaper. Morris famously compared editorial cartoons
and their cartoonists to court jesters of the bourgeoisie. His metaphor
of the jester is most appropriate since the court jester mocked rivals to the
king, and was always conscious of the source of their own livelihood.
However, Morris explained that as power passed from the monarchy to the
merchant class, so the role of the jester passed to the caricaturist and later,
cartoonist. Today’s editorial cartoonists, “work for oligopolistic
newspapers and laugh at politics on behalf of business, which by buying
advertising space has become the major patron of the newspaper”.
Next time you are looking at a
political cartoon, apply Morris’s “double standard thesis” which in short
anticipates that business leaders are generally shown to be serious, orderly and
positive while government leaders are generally shown to be foolish, disorderly
and ineffective. In my research, the only exceptions I have found to this
hypothesis were cases of extreme corporate greed and/or scandal (i.e., Enron).
Notably in these cases, cartoonists in fact portrayed the business
deviants, and not the corporations themselves. Morris also points out the
historical change in political affiliation of political cartoonists.
Where once they used to be members of political parties, now most are
professionals, free to lampoon all politics, all the time, and not the business
sector, to which they belong.
The Political Regime
When studying editorial
cartoons, one must acknowledge they more than likely represent the views of the
media ownership. As Conrad Black’s partner and President of Hollinger, David
Radler, said, “There is no departure from media ownership’s views” and, “I am
ultimately the publisher of all these papers and if editors no longer agree
with us, they should disagree with us when they’re no longer in our employ”.6 Even under different political
regimes, such as Morocco, and different ownership structures, the press has
undergone dramatic censorship, even to the point that newspapers arrived on
newsstands with blank or ghost spaces.
The political regime provides
a media context that shows up in the cartoons themselves through specific state
depictions in terms of family metaphors, a technique commonly intended to
generate loyalty amongst the citizenry. Charles Press has also discussed
the impact of political regime and maintained that cartoons in “liberal
democratic countries tend most often to involve appraisals of state
performance, which emphasize the foolishness of government rather than private
citizens and corporations”.7
In the Western world, the
media are privately owned although subject to some state regulation of content
with respect to advertising and competition that is usually enforced by a
specific state agency, i.e., in Canada, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications
Commission (CRTC). In other parts of the world, much of the media is
state-owned. In one interview, Hisham Milhem, a former Washington
correspondent for the Beirut daily Al-Safir, discussed censorship and
the Lebanese press. He argued that in contrast to the Western world, in
many Arab countries, the main media outlets are operated by the state. He
pointed to the case of Lebanon, which although viewed by the US as a democracy
with a pluralistic press at arms’ length from state control, in fact
journalists have been threatened, jailed or killed over their work.8 The outward difference between
the Beirut newspapers and papers from other Arab states, was ownership.
But Milhem makes the point that this ownership is only arms’ length from
the Lebanese state. He said, “most newspapers are privately owned, but
financed by outside states, and sometimes wealthy individuals”. And even
the Beirut papers that are published in the West, have their content carefully
scrutinized to ensure that it does not criticize Saudi Arabia, although the
English content does not receive as much censorship as the arabic content.
Techniques of Persuasion
Is an editorial cartoon a form
of rebellion? Some have argued that cartoons are an avenue of protest,
and indeed cartoonists in their own publications, have argued their work
represents their own freedom of expression. Furthermore, their
recontextualization of events evokes reference points in a way a photo
cannot, therefore assisting in the educating of a population on government
policy, i.e., foreign policy. This same argument would hold that cartoons
challenge the way we accept official images as real and true. The
question is, who are these cartoons directed at, and who is directing them,
behind the cartoonist?
My theory is that cartoons
provide policy information from the point of view of dominant corporate
Certainly, the cartoon on an
editorial page must represent the views of the media ownership, or the
cartoonist risks early retirement. And the media in Canada today are
owned by recently converged or merged corporations with diverse corporate
interests, resulting in a considerable stake in the Canadian economy.
Therefore, would it not serve the corporate interest, at times, to offer
a slightly patronizing (humourous) view of the government, or at other times,
to outright condemn or condone a particular government policy, depending upon
whether it is helpful to business interests or not?
Cartoons are graphic
editorials, not just illustrations that pass judgement without knowing how much
or whether at all they affect public opinion (similar to theories of
advertising). And although the newspaper readers of today have a higher
literacy rate than Luther’s working class, the simplicity and condensed
meanings accompanied by a wide latitude of humour allow the political cartoon
to escape the censure received by the written word. In these politically
and culturally correct times, editorial cartoonists can still draw what
editorial writers may not be able to say. Finally, editorial cartoons are
encyclopedias of popular culture.
The accepted principles of
journalism do not generally allow for the satirizing of the subjects of news
articles even though some editorial writers have used the editorial pages as a
venue for satire. In contrast, an editorial cartoon is almost always a satiric
social commentary. Ultimately it must be emphasized that a political
cartoon is a historically constructed image depicted in a very specific context
for a specific audience. Also, while most articles try to provide a
balanced version of an event, a political cartoon is wholeheartedly and
If successful, a cartoon can
create what Greenberg refers to as, “metaphoric entrapment” where the cartoon
image and real subject are so closely linked that any other interpretation seem
Cartoons are not limited in
the same way as text. Words in an article are usually intended to provide
an unequivocal meaning. Cartoons are inscriptions of a moment in time which is
best understood during the same period in time illustrated by the cartoon.
The more time that passes, the more likely that the cartoon will be
understood differently than when it first appeared. On the one hand, the
cartoon has an immediate sociological resonance by providing a representation
of “now”. Remember, it is impossible to view the past. Many symbols
in cartoons such as uniforms and machinery of war become quickly unfamiliar
with the passage of time. The temporal nature of cartoons, therefore, is
also limiting to their longevity, a fact which has led to the underestimation
of the power of the political cartoon. This underestimation can be
advantageous, since cartooning according to Barajas, is an act of freedom that
borders on insanity. And it is this link to insanity that both absolves
and frees the cartoonist while rendering the cartoon virtually unchallengeable.10
Finally, there are a number of
limitations that cartoons face, some of which can hinder the cartoon’s effectiveness,
or at least, soften the ‘blow’. Certainly the comprehension of the
message does not guarantee its acceptance or endorsement. Also, cartoons
are generally seen as a source of entertainment rather than information, and
finally, the form of illustration or visual communication itself has received
comparatively little analysis in contrast to the level of analysis text has
received, which also can be tied in to the lack of visuals used in papers and
books in sociology contrasted to science.
Some claim that political
cartoons have not received a great deal of scholarly attention because of their
use of satire which is seen as “useful, but abject”. In defense of satire
and cartooning, Barajas maintains that the fundamental principle of cartooning
is simple, that the fear of ridicule will modify the subject’s behaviour in
question, or persuade the subject to change.
Markiewicz states that
generally, humor will not change an already-held opinion, and it is difficult
to measure humour’s effects on comprehension and source evaluation. As
well, she found that retention does not appear to be altered by the use of
humour. She asserts in her study that over 42% of television advertising
uses humour in its messages. This underscores that particular industry’s
commitment to the idea that humour persuades even in the face of inconclusive
results. Specifically, Markiewicz looked at the use of a satirical form
of humour across several studies, and in one particular case, she measured the
effect of the addition of a cartoon to a message. Overall, Markiewicz
found that humour did not contribute to persuasiveness, nor retention, nor
If this study is to be seen as the most conclusive and thorough study on
persuasion (it exceeds the limits of this paper to confirm this point
definitively), what conclusions can be drawn about the role of humour in
editorial cartoons. If they are not intended to persuade the
glancer, what are they intended to accomplish? Markiewicz helps
confirm my hypothesis that persuasion is not the goal of editorial cartoons but
that they are essentially an instrument to contain and constrain public opinion
for the benefit of major corporate interests.
Words are more easily censored
than pictures. And as already stated, political cartoons provide a
one-sided, satirical view of an issue, politician or government. In my
own cursory survey of political cartoons from around the world, there seemed to
be little problem objectifying women (portrayed in US cartoons on the Middle
East as belly-dancers or harem girls), or discriminating against other nations
with a disturbing Orientalism.12 What are censored seem to be images that either make the leader
of the current political regime look foolish or images that ridicule the
dominant religion. This is very difficult to measure and does not account
for cases of ‘self-censorship’ which may be more prominent in authoritarian
regimes. For example, in Algeria, there have been cases of
self-censorship, to avoid punishment. In Chinese cartoon literature, the
“manhua”, whose growth was closely linked to political changes and power, has
gone through quite an evolution. Originally their targets were political
leaders and international relations in the late 1800s. Once China became
communist, political cartooning was forced to restrain itself. While
there were cartoons that documented the trials and tribulations of the
Communist Party in China, more often, daily life was the dominant subject
matter. At one point, in fact, officials of the Communist Party actually
moved to prohibit any criticism of the Guomindang policies with The
Publication Law of 1937 which instilled a real fear of punishment, even
death, and ultimately, self-censorship behaviour.13 Some cartoonists, in an effort to
avoid the overt censorship of their work, drew animals instead of people to
officially disguise their message. Liao Bingxiong, one of China’s famous
cartoonists, portrayed cats and mice in lieu of individuals to relay his
messages in a series entitled, The Cat Kingdom.
There are other ways to censor
besides outright censorship laws and the instilling of fear to instigate
self-censorship. Limiting access to technology and other media beyond
state-media can result in a form of censorship. For example, Moroccans,
unlike Algerians, could not retrieve information from outside the state very
easily because there was no clear path to European free satellite reception.
Algerian citizens, on the other hand, could tap into satellite coverage
for free and find out what the world was saying about current events. And
this raises another point, that class plays a role in censorship. Only
the wealthy had access to purchased satellite coverage in Morocco, but the
penny illustrated news was accessible to everyone. Perhaps in some cases
a cartoon can impart greater information than television. Both cases
would be correct, and depend upon the source or physical location of the media
and population. On the one hand, Algeria received free satellite
coverage, therefore its citizens would not be as persuaded by the censored
press. On the other hand, since there was no free satellite access in
Morocco, only the wealthy could afford to find world news that was uncensored.
In this case, the middle class would likely be more subject to the
persuasiveness of the press and its censored version of current affairs.
While cartoons are less
censored than text overall, and even find their way into state-owned media
within dictatorships, therefore fulfilling the same goal that these images
fulfilled when the world was largely illiterate, censorship is a technique of
the state, in contrast to the use of humour, which is a technique of major
corporate interests. Thus, the debate between the state and capitalism
can be found within the use of these particular two techniques of persuasion.
Editorial cartoons have every
appearance of simplicity, but are nothing short of a packed punch. Their many
levels of complexity and agendas are only evident when certain theoretical tools
are applied to understanding them, the circumstances of media ownership and the
political regime in power. And, although they may be non-partisan, they
are most-definitely affiliated with corporate interests and whatever those
interests may be.
That editorial cartoons are of
sociological importance is undoubtable since they provide a visual rhetoric, a
“cognitive map” for understanding popular culture and politics, and a venue for
“othering” since, in contrast to the written word, they can escape the
constraints of political correctness. In addition, editorial cartoons are
agenda-setting or contribute to the construction of a normative agenda, the
norms of the corporate economy in Western states, and the norms of the king and
state in Arab states. Some might argue that an editorial cartoon can
present one point of view one day, and another the next, and this would support
the argument that cartoons are an instrument of the bourgeois. But, if
one considers that cartoons individually present one side only, and that they
are endorsed by the media ownership, and that certain cartoonists are more
successful than others, it becomes apparent that they only represent the side
to whom their artists owe their livelihoods. And instead of trying to
explain the hypodermic needle effect of editorial cartoons, providing a clear
analysis of both the political regime and the ownership of the media together
clearly has the potential to establish parameters for a study that might
actually bear fruit. While it may be an obvious point that there is a
direct correlation between the freedom of expression and the political regime,
this does not explain the contained power or message of a political cartoon.
That these are not altruistic vehicles is a necessary comment and underlined
by the fact that cartoonists who hold radical views or do not have wealthy
backers (links to major corporate interests) are not successful or widely
circulated cartoonists. Further, cartoonists who specialize in drawings
on minority viewpoints receive little press support. Thus, political
cartoons can be characterized as an instrument of the dominant in society and
representative of the interests of the media ownership.
1. Barajas, Rafael (2000). The Transformative
Power of Art: Mexico’s Combat Cartoonists. In NACLA Report on the
Americas, vol 33, No. 6, May/June, 2000, p. 7.
2. Landes, J.B. (2001). Visualizing the
Nation: Gender, Representation, and Revolution in Eighteenth-Century France.
Cornell University Press: London.
3. Murray, Jeffrey S. (1994). Comic
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4. See Hess, Stephen and Kaplan, Milton
(1968). The Ungentlemanly Art: A History of American Political Cartoons.
Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.: New York. Heller, Steven and Anderson, Gail
(1992). The Savage Mirror: The Art of Contemporary Caricature.
Watson-Guptill Publications: New York; Slyomovics, Murray and Barajas.
Slyomovics, Susan (1993). Cartoon Commentary: Algerian and Moroccan
Caricatures from the Gulf War. In the Middle East Report, Vol. 0,
Issue 180, Power, Mass Media and the Middle East (January to February), pp.
5. Morris, Ray (1992). Cartoons and the
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the Jester’s Mask: Canadian Editorial Cartoons about Dominant and Minority
Groups 1960-1979. University of Toronto Press: Toronto. Morris, Raymond
(1995). The Carnivalization of Politics: Quebec Cartoons on Relations with
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6. Canadian Forum, No. 12, 1994.
7. Press, Charles (1978). The Political
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8. Milhem, H., Stork, J., and Ethelston, S.
(1993). Politics and Media in the Arab World: An Interview with Hisham Milhem.
In Middle East Report, Volume 0, Issue 180, Power, Mass Media and the
Middle East (January-February), pp.16-19.
9. Greenberg, Josh (2002). Framing and
Temporality in Political Cartoons: A Critical Analysis of Visual News Discourse
in CRSA/RCSA, 39, p. 184.
10. Barajas, Rafael (2000), op. cit. P
11. Markiewicz, Dorothy (1974). Effects of
Humor on Persuasion. In Sociometry, Vol. 37, No. 3, pp.407-422.
12. Michelmore, Christina (2000). Old Pictures
in New Frames: Images of Islam and Muslims in Post World War II American
Political Cartoons. In the Journal of American and Comparative Cultures,
Vol. 23, No. 4, Winter 2000, pp 38-41.
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