Political Cartoons: Now You See Them!

By Walker, Rhonda | Canadian Parliamentary Review, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Political Cartoons: Now You See Them!


Walker, Rhonda, Canadian Parliamentary Review


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 prestige(1) 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. …

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