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Kara Wilson is a 6th-12th grade English and Drama teacher. She has a B.A. in Literature and an M.Ed, both of which she earned from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Political cartoons are visuals that comment on political events or issues while hopefully getting you, the reader, to laugh a little. Political cartoons usually involve a caricature (or an image of someone or something that is exaggerating certain characteristics or details), and allusion (an indirect reference to something), which helps create a scene or situation. You've probably heard stories and/or learned about controversies surrounding different political cartoons in the past, and the truth is, political cartoons have been an important part of socio-political processes for longer than you might think.
During the Protestant Reformation in Germany in the sixteenth century, visual propaganda was widely used to portray religious and political figures as heroes or villains. Both woodcutting and metal engraving were trades that many artists and draftsmen participated in to create visual art that had a message. Because there was such a high illiteracy rate, these cartoons became very popular, and simple broadsheet posters or illustrated pamphlets in town or city centers proved to be an effective way to reach many people.
Not long after that, the Italian caricature emerged and became the foundation for cartoonists of the eighteenth century. Political cartoonists created images that were designed to affect viewers' opinions while making them laugh about serious issues. As time moved forward, more topics could be discussed and ridiculed through these cartoons, and just as the number of topics grew, so too did the interest and influence of cartoons in society.
Benjamin Franklin's Join or Die, which shows a snake whose severed parts represent the colonies, is recognized as the first American political cartoon. Franklin used this cartoon to garner support for a political plan. It's a woodcut showing segments labeled with the initials of some of the thirteen original American colonies and a region of colonies (New England, which included four colonies, is represented by one segment). The cartoon helped make Franklin's point about the importance of uniting the colonies. It was used in the French and Indian War to represent the idea that the colonies needed to join forces to defeat the French and Indians. It also alludes to the popular superstition that a dead snake could come back to life if the pieces are placed next to each other.
In 1830, King Louis Philippe abolished censorship of the press in France. Two years later, Honore Daumier produced his famous pear-shaped caricature of King Louis Philippe called Gargantua. Notice that Louis-Philippe is sitting on his throne and swallowing bags of coins. The money has been taken from the poor and is carried up a plank that stretches to the king's mouth. Gargantua was referring to the incredible amounts of money the Government spent on itself while most working people were living in poverty. Even though the king had recently abolished censorship, he was so offended by Daumier's cartoon, that both Daumier and his publisher were indicted and sentenced to six months in prison for 'arousing hatred and contempt of the King's government.
Another political cartoonist who impacted society was American artist Thomas Nast. Nast's cartoon entitled Who Stole the People's Money? is one of the most reproduced and mimicked American political cartoons. In July 1871, The New York Times exposed corruption by members of Tammany Hall, a political organization run by William 'Boss' Tweed. The Times had evidence that the Tweed Ring had taken the public's money through inflated payments and extortion. The estimated sum stolen was $6 million dollars, but it's today thought to have been much more.
In Who Stole the People's Money?, Nast creatively caricatured the Tweed Ring. Upon seeing the cartoon, Boss Tweed reportedly exclaimed, 'I don't care a straw for your newspaper articles; my constituents don't know how to read, but they can't help seeing them damned pictures!'
As you can see, Tweed and his cohorts are positioned in a ring with each member denying blame by pointing at the next man. The four leaders are in front and Tweed is pointing at Ingersoll, a man who was also involved. His hatband reads 'Chairs', referring to Ingersoll's chair-making trade. They are all refusing to take responsibility for their actions and that is emphasized by the man towards the back on the right who is labeled 'Tom, Dick & Harry' (referring to multiple unspecified people being involved).
In 1958, Boris Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for literature, but the communist regime of the Soviet Union would not let him travel to Stockholm and accept the prize. Cartoonist Bill Mauldin responded to this with his cartoon I Won the Nobel Prize for Literature. What Was Your Crime?
As you can see, this cartoon shows two prisoners in a gulag (a Soviet forced labor camp). They are splitting logs in the snow and discussing their crimes as a guard watches them. The ball and chains weighing them down serve as an allusion to where they are and what their situation is. Mauldin won the Pulitzer Prize for this cartoon in 1958, showing just how powerful political cartoons can be.
As we have seen from these examples, political cartoonists use simple objects, or symbols, to stand for larger concepts or ideas. When analyzing a cartoon, think about what the cartoonist intends each symbol to stand for. For example, Ben Franklin's 'Join or Die' cartoon uses a snake with severed parts to symbolize the bigger idea of uniting the colonies.
Sometimes cartoonists exaggerate the physical characteristics of people or things in order to make a point. When you study a cartoon, look for any characteristics that seem overdone or overblown. Think of the Gargantua cartoon of King Louis Philippe. His size, and the way he was being dramatically fed the money of the impoverished is purposefully overdone to make a point about how greedy the king was.
Political cartoonists also often label objects or people to make what they stand for very clear. When you see labels, ask yourself why the cartoonist chose to label that particular person or object.
For example, in Who Stole the People's Money?, Nast purposefully chooses to label a man's hat to show his trade, and he labels the back of a nondescript man 'Tom, Dick & Harry' to show the important point that various unspecified people were involved in this scandal.
Some cartoonists use an analogy, which compares a complex issue or situation with a more familiar one. This can help cartoonists' readers to see the issue in a different light. In Nast's cartoon, the Tweed Ring is literally forming a ring by the way that 'Boss' Tweed and his men are standing. They are all pointing fingers at each other to avoid blame and the blame goes in a circle with no one admitting to taking part in the crimes committed. This creates a powerful visual, which is analogous to what the men were actually doing by avoiding blame and trying to incriminate others.
Irony is often used in political cartoons as well, and is the difference between the way things are expected to be and they way they actually are. Looking for irony in cartoons often shows what the cartoonist is trying to express without directly saying it.
For example, in the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoon I Won the Nobel Prize for Literature. What Was Your Crime?, Mauldin shows two men splitting wood who are obviously prisoners. The general public often thinks of people asking each other what they are in for and discussing their crimes. So the title, which explains that the man is in for winning the Nobel Prize, is the exact opposite of what one would expect. It's ironic and shows that Mauldin clearly thinks Boris Pasternak's punishment is ludicrous.
Political cartoons are comedic visuals that comment on political events or issues. Their history dates back to the German Reformation when metal engravings and woodcuttings depicted images that had meaningful messages portraying religious and political figures as heroes or villains. The popularity of these images spread and were useful when getting the word out to the masses, especially those who were illiterate.
Being able to analyze a cartoon helps us fully appreciate these powerful images that can make us laugh while also making us think about bigger ideas. When analyzing political cartoons, it's important to recognize the methods the cartoonists used to make their point, whether it's through caricatures, exaggerations, labels, symbols, analogies, or irony.
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Back To CourseIntro to Humanities: Tutoring Solution
20 chapters | 366 lessons
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