Examining Editorial Cartoons

For my birthday earlier this month, I spent the day with my parents at the Flint Institute of Arts.  We went particularly for the Drawn Together: International Cartoons exhibit that displayed 130 editorial cartoons from 1983 to 2011 once honored with awards from the Aydin Dogan Foundation.


Sometimes we were chuckling, sometimes we were contemplative.  But as we went around the room, we noticed a common thread that unraveled from frame to frame.


The editorial cartoons had different styles, different strokes, different moods, different jokes.  Some were political cartoons, others social commentary cartoons.  There were even conflicting messages from drawing to drawing.


What stayed the same?  The genre.


Editorial cartoons (named because they are often printed in the editorial section of newspapers) can be broken down to these three factors:


  • A contemporary issue currently controversial


  • A distinct good side and bad side (sometimes the good side isn’t drawn but inferred)


  • Portraying the issue and each side metaphorically, either through realistic or fantastical means


But what makes an editorial cartoon stand out is the utilization of these elements:


  • Symbolism


  • Exaggeration


  • Labeling


  • Irony


  • Analogy


What makes an editorial cartoon resonate?  Truth


We continued on to the Worth a Thousand Words: American Political Cartoons exhibit displaying American political cartoons from the 19th and early 20th century, particularly Thomas Nast’s contribution to the genre.


We did a lot of squinting.


This exhibit quickly reminded me of the first editorial cartoon I encountered.  It was on a fourth grade Civil War test where I was assigned to analyze the meaning of an editorial cartoon.  The drawing was of several men inside a house wearing aprons and washing clothes while outside the women were mounted on horses ready to ride.


My analysis boasted declarations of equality and peace-on-earth, professing that the illustrator passionately believed that both men and women were responsible for the washing and the mending.


That earned me a red X.


Turns out the correct answer was that men look silly wearing aprons and doing household chores so only women should tend to them.


This confused me.  I didn’t agree with this answer.  I was taught to honor everything adults said as truth, and newspapers were printed by adults.  By this logic, the red pen answer on my test was correct since the editorial cartoon was drawn by an adult and published by adults.


Yet I still wasn’t agreeing.


It took me a few years to learn that adults lie.  Even in newspapers.  Even to children.


What we must remember when we read editorial cartoons is that the genre is an expression of opinion.  The opinion may be backed by facts, by emotions, by flaws, by reason.  No matter the case, the point of view of the genre originates with the illustrator.


This was apparent to me as I reviewed the historical cartoons about political campaigns and war controversies around the room (a room which was attached to the FIA’s stunning and silent Reference Library).  Each cartoon was overtly opinionated, and I was able to tell the difference between fact and fiction.


But these cartoons were highly persuasive, changing election results and wartime opinions based on the sketches from one pen.


Did that mean the readers were easily persuadable?  Or that the readers found value in the cartoonist’s message?


Those that have their art or prose published are deemed as experts on life.  Just because illustrators and authors have found their way into mass-printed ink, they rise to the level of scholar on every subject.  Artists are sought out for philosophic answers while writers are sought out for advice.


This isn’t true.  As brilliant as artists and authors can be, they don’t always know how many planets there are in the universe or if you should break up with your boyfriend.


And they don’t always have their facts straight.


A reader’s role in reading illustrations or prose isn’t to regard what is printed as fact.  The reader’s role is to question and challenge the art, to use the mind in checking whether the art remains logically true to reality.


Instead of taking an editorial cartoon at face value, take it as an icebreaker.  Research all the facts, study both arguments, and then come to a reasonable conclusion.


As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.  Sometimes a picture is just the start to the solution.

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