Political Cartoonswhere Everythings Black And White

Political cartooning is the best example of the use of hostility in humor. The artist is the reader's surrogate attorney, while the cartoonist represents the reader's outlet for bitches and gripes. Cartoons offer a chance to blow off steam, a chance to say, "Yeah! Give it to 'em." A cartoon's value is as an irritant, a lightning rod, a catalyst.

According to Alan Westin, in his portfolio of political cartoons, Getting Angry Six Times a Week, political cartooning has a long stormy history that probably began when the first critic scratched an irreverent caricature of a tribal chief on a cave wall. Practitioners have been a powerful intellectual and political force. Benjamin Franklin drew the famous "Join or Die" cartoon that showed the colonies as separate pieces of a serpent. Thomas Nast created the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant, and helped drive Boss Tweed and his Tammany crowd from power in New York in the 1870s. Clifford Berryman's drawing of Teddy Roosevelt refusing to shoot a cub bear was the inspiration for doll manufacturers to create "Teddy's bear."

Until World War II the center of gravity of American political cartooning was profoundly conservative. But then the granddad of today's political cartoonists, Bill Mauldin, focused on the irreverence of the American GI, even as another hero, Herb Block—known as Herblock—focused on the hypocrisy of American political figures. Political cartooning has never been the same since.

Today's cartoonists were the children of the turbulent sixties. They cut their opinionated liberal teeth on the excesses of the McCarthy era, the agony of Korea, then Vietnam, and the student protest movement which resulted in tragedies like Kent State.

Since then, racial segregation and civil rights, women's lib and abortion, antiwar sentiment, Nixon and Watergate, the FBI and the CIA, police abuse, freedom of the press, treatment of the elderly, pornography, busing, capital punishment, terrorism, and affirmative action have provided the grist for a steady diet of cartoon barbs.

Today, we are in the golden age of political cartooning. There are more than 150 full-time editorial cartoonists lampooning the dominant social and political attitudes of our day. They are growing in number and prestige in counterproportion to that of their India-ink cousins, the sports cartoonists, who are dwindling so quickly they may soon be an endangered species.

"Even those editors who don't have the guts to hire their own political cartoonist," says Tony Auth, "can subscribe to four or five syndicated cartoonists and take their pick without having to hassle someone with a strong mind."

The newspaper political cartoon is an offensive weapon in a negative medium. You'll rarely see a good cartoon about anything positive. And cartoons are rarely, if ever, ambiguous. They're strong, biased, and opinionated. The dream is to make the opposition gag on their breakfast.

According to Jules Feiffer, "Outside of basic intelligence, there is nothing more important to a good political cartoonist than ill will. Cartoons are more likely to be effective when the artist's attitude is hostile, to be even better when his attitude is rage, and when he reaches hate, then he can really get going."

Cartoonists delight in their self-perception as the champion of the common man. "The worst you can do to a cartoonist," says Doug Marlette, "is to deprive him of his suffering." Only secretly do they sometimes wonder what gives them the right to take advantage of editorial power and shoot from the hip so often. Occasional tastelessness and even unfairness go with the territory.

"Cartooning is not a fair art," says Mike Peters. "You can never treat anyone justly. Most cartoonists like me—who like to attack—are like loaded guns. Every morning we start looking through the newspaper for a target to blast. That's our function. If you're trying to be fair, whatever you're putting across is going to be watered down."

Cartoonists aren't happy or positive they're getting their message across unless they're besieged with obscene mail, threatening phone calls, and petitions urging they be reassigned to the unemployment line. "The dream of every editorial cartoonist is to get picketed. It's got to be," says Peters.

The only option an incensed target has that seriously troubles cartoonists and their distributors is a lawsuit. Not because the lawsuit can't be won, but because they're so expensive and time-consuming.

The paramount element political cartoons have in common is that they're devastatingly funny. Political cartoonists would like to be feared for their anger, but they also want to be loved. Their caricatures and situations raise smiles, laughs, whoops, and the desire to repeat the message to your associates. Increasingly editorial cartoons not only expose the emperor's naked body (or thought) but do it humorously.

Why humor? Journalism tends to make all kinds of people and things bigger than themselves. "Humor just reduces them back to their rightful size," says William Hamilton, and it makes the point memorable. In addition, the competition of TV encourages the use of visual jokes. "To maintain an audience, the cartoon has to be entertaining in itself. You have to make an editorial statement, but you need humor and ridicule," says Paul Szep.

Cartoons also have an inherent weakness—you have to do it all in one shot. The visual metaphor must be a well-known subject. "People must re ally understand what you're talking about before you start communicating," says Hugh Haynie.

Therefore, humor must make a biting point, not just play against the illustration. It can do this by either exaggerating the art or exaggerating the joke.

The real test is coming up with ideas day after day, so while they don't like to advertise it, political cartoonists are ripe markets for freelance humorists who know their style and idiosyncrasies. Just send them the idea. They'll do the drawing.

Exaggerated Art

Artwork for political cartoons is far more important than in single-panel cartoons. For one thing, the ability to caricature famous and recognizable personalities is a must. The best cartoons must hit you squarely in the jaw, so the artists look for personalities that are easy to caricature by taking a distinctive physical feature and exaggerating it. A stout woman is depicted as very fat. A tall man becomes a giant.

The most frequent caricature is that of whoever happens to be President. Nixon, with his dark-shadowed face and beady eyes, was a political cartoonist's favorite target, pounced on with devastating force. "I miss Nixon," said Don Wright, "but I wasn't willing to sacrifice the country just to have an easy subject around."

Another requirement is the use of stereotype symbols, like Uncle Sam, the Russian bear, and religious artifacts. Action is always exaggerated. To some cartoonists, the CIA is a cloaked individual stealthily sneaking around corners. To others, it's Frankenstein's monster breaking down doors and crushing innocents.

Pat Oliphant has a distinctive style that's instantly recognizable. His characters are usually engaged in a burlesque of some current controversy. And always, in the lower corner of the panel is a wisecracking penguin commenting on the action. His style has been so widely copied that it's almost reached the point where many young cartoonists find it obligatory to insert a smart-alec animal of their own in the corner of their drawings.

Exaggerated Joke

Besides physical characteristics, cartoonists jump on names that lend themselves to double entendres. Bill Sanders tells of a municipal court judge by the name of Christ T. Seraphim. Wrote Sanders, "He used to take his first name seriously and the Bill of Rights in vain."

To attack the high cost of health care, Kelley of the San Diego Union drew a scene of a patient in a doctor's office falling backwards off his stool after reading his bill. The doctor scribbles on his chart, "Reflexes normal."

There's probably not a happier tribe of scalpers in the world than cartoonists. "What can be better than being able to draw, get pissed at people, and mouth off whenever you want to?" says Mike Peters. "Now I'm getting paid for what I used to get in trouble for when I was in school—drawing in class," says Ben Sargent.

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