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A picture is worth a thousand politicians

Cartoons catalyze social justice

Published: Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Updated: Tuesday, September 21, 2010 17:09

Legally speaking, racial segregation in the United States is an issue that was more-or-less resolved in the sixties. Yet, until 1985, minority group members in Palm Beach, Florida, were still officially required to possess an ID card to get around town. In a sudden change of heart, Florida politicians became so ashamed of their racist legislature that they abolished their minority branding "passcard" requirement. What caused this rapid altercation? Protests? Lobbyists? They may have contributed, but the true instigator of this legal and cultural transformation was a series of Doonesbury comic strips.

1,000 words and maybe a law

Outraged by this modern-day version of Jim Crow legislation, Gary Trudeau, the mastermind behind the Pulitzer-Prize-winning editorial cartoon strip, blatantly mocked the Florida government. Local politicians got the hint. Known as the Doonesbury Act, this incident revealed a lot more than the continuing injustice of de facto segregation. It also proved that editorial cartoons are a substantial, even practical, medium of social and political change.

The impact of editorial cartoons on widespread public opinion has never been a secret to politicians. During the 19th century, Thomas Nast, the so-called "father of political cartooning," published a series of demeaning caricatures of the corrupt New York politician Boss Tweed, who stole millions of dollars from the city treasury. Later on, police officials used Nast's caricatures to identify the chieftain when he fled to Vigo, Spain.

Since Nast, the editorial cartoon has imprinted itself in the pages of almost every news-related publication in the world. "The political cartoon is the first thing that I look at when I open up the Op/Ed page of any paper," says Jason Chan, U3 biology. "I wouldn't read a paper without a cartoonist; that would be a crime agianst the readers."

Visual politics

Why are readers so attached to this unique form of political criticism?

"I like reading editorials, but for some reason, the visual element of political cartoons draws me in more," sayss Jill Breit, U2 psychology.

The graphic nature of the editorial cartoon deliberately establishes an emotional impact on the reader that can be more effective than a written article. In one quick glance, a reader can sum up a complex and controversial political topic. With the use of visual metaphors and caricatures, political cartoons contain a straightforward bias that "cuts right at you," says Chan.

Pictures are, in fact, more controversial than words.

"It's a very pointed medium," said Joe Sacco, a Pulitzer-Prize- winning author and cartoonist, in a February 2006 interview with The Nation. "I think there is an inherent power in the immediacy of an image."

Sacco is referring to the Jyllands-Posten Mohammed Controversy, in which a Danish newspaper published a series of 12 cartoons about the Islamic Prophet Mohammed, criticizing extreme censorship in Islam. The printing of these famous cartoons created a fury within the international Muslim community, resulting in cartoon censorship, rioting and even murder.

Editorial cartoons, such as the Mohammed series printed by Jyllands-Posten, are dangerous as well as powerful.

Go ahead, offend someone

"A particular risk for the cartoonist is that unlike the written word, the cartoon as a visual image can be more easily misinterpreted and often with serious repercussions," notes Tim Benson, founder of The Political Cartoon Gallery in central London, in a 2004 Guardian article.

As "graphical columnists," (a term coined by New York Times cartoonist Daryl Cagle), editorial cartoonists understand that their medium has the power to be more controversial and in turn, more offensive, than a written article. No one knows that better than the editors of high-profile newspapers. According to the American Association of Political Cartoonists, cartoonists are losing staff placements at high-profile newspapers. Why would newspapers fire cartoonists, given their impact on political, social, and cultural change?

One explanation is that the rise of online editorial cartooning is changing the nature of the medium. That is, political cartoons are becoming increasingly radical.

"Online cartoonists are not afraid to offend people," claims Breit. "They're not catering to a particular reading public."

These cartoonists, in fact, have their own cult following.

"I'm hooked on Howard Tayler's Schlock Mercenary cartoons," says Chan. Other well-known radical cartoonists, such as Don Asmussen and Dan Perkins (a.k.a Tom Tomorrow) have also expanded to the virtual world.

The Internet provides cartoonists with the ideal outlet for contentious creativity, explains Cagle, who harangues the phenomenon of "Newsweekification," which refers to "the funny, inoffensive, trivial cartoons that Newsweek chooses to run each week-just like The Times. The secret to becoming a popular editorial cartoonist is to be funny and not express an opinion."

Yet, as the Doonesbury Act proves, expressing an opinion is precisely what gets things done.

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