Inspiration for Insurrection or Harmless Humour? Class and Politics in the Editorial Cartoons of Three Toronto Newspapers during the Early 1930s

By Vokey, Scott | Labour/Le Travail, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Inspiration for Insurrection or Harmless Humour? Class and Politics in the Editorial Cartoons of Three Toronto Newspapers during the Early 1930s


Vokey, Scott, Labour/Le Travail


HISTORIANS ARE WELL ACCUSTOMED to interpreting the whole range of written records, statistics, and to a certain extent, oral recollections, but few employ illustrative sources as a means of examining past events and ideas, or the popular perceptions of historical process. Hesitant to recognize editorial cartoons as legitimate historical sources, historians have often relegated the comic image loan aside of social history. This is truly unfortunate, as cartoons not only depict the personalities and the customs of the past (1), but reveal subtle, not so subtle, and even subversive, visualized commentaries on the events and ideas of a given period.

This study seeks to deconstruct the popular: to employ the cartoons' metaphorical and symbolic meanings, or "metalanguage for discourse," (2) in order to examine the social order of Toronto during the depths of the Great Depression. (3) Amid the socio-economic and political tension resulting from the extreme levels of unemployment and poverty, no Canadian city represented the clash of classes, ethnic groups, and ideologies as well as Toronto during the period 1929-1933. The economic, social, and political crises of the Depression were clearly evident in the city's newspapers and within them, their editorial cartoons. An analysis of the metaphors and symbols present in the cartoons allows for the discovery of some of the unintended meanings masked during the production and transmission processes as well as providing an analysis of the more obvious contemporary cartoon code. The intense ideological and class conflict of the period is especially exemplified in the city's Evening Telegram, Toronto Star. and The Worker. Examined in their historical context the cartoons' ideological, political, economic, racial, regional, gendered, and uniquely urban Toronto elements are exposed as part of an ideologically-based manipulation of images designed to convey a desired message to a selected audience. Thus, this overture of cultural history seeks to establish the link between popular culture (superstructure) and the socio-economic and political (base) systems supported or challenged by a seemingly harmless Example of this culture: editorial cartoons.

This essay bolsters the argument for a wider, more inclusive, more democratic and, therefore, more accurate employment of particular historical sources and general cultural analysis. Popular culture represents a "dialectic of cultural struggle" (4) because it:

Constitute(s) the terrain on which dominant, subordinate and oppositional cultural values and ideologies meet and intermingle, in different mixes and permutations, vying with one another in their attempts to secure the spaces within which they can become influential in framing and organizing popular experience and consciousness. (5)

Images such as those found in the editorial cartoon have always been employed and manipulated by those who hope to maintain, as well as those who want to usurp, power within a society. The graphic models and stereotypes contained in editorial cartoons are powerful reference points in the evaluations and social transactions of popular life as they act as "repositories of cultural meaning (6) that provide the historian with an "unofficial" look into the past.

Editorial cartoons are invaluable to the cultural historian because they share a common code or lexicon that "consists both of signs and of rules or conventions that determine how and in what context these signs are used and how they can be combined to form more complex messages." (7) This code is determined by the social conventions supporting communication, which include the prevailing historical, moral, socio-economic and political conditions that shape this set of rules.

Cartoonology

Editorial cartoons are a reduction of an idea, a conclusion without an argument, effective because of succinctness, poignancy, and topicality. Complex ideas that would require a lengthy written explanation can be compressed into a single metaphor contained in an individual image.

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