OPINION — Humans have always felt the need to admonish those in power. Combining the art of caricature and satire, editorial cartoons have become an effective way to speak truth to power. In a way, editorial cartoons are one of the truest expressions of free speech and a safeguard against oppression. As long as artists are free to level criticism in a way that is humorous and entertaining to the masses, the ruling class will never escape reproach.
Early on, caricaturization emerged as a prominent method of satirical communication. Artists could poke fun at political, religious, and other authority figures by exaggerating their physical attributes, making them look foolish. Some scholars believe this could be the reason for the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten’s strange depictions in statues and on wall paintings as he is shown with a sunken chest, potbelly, and scrawny arms and legs.
As societal and governmental systems began to form as the familiar establishments we see today, early Greek and Roman poets developed satire as a way to point out the shortcomings of those establishments. Using humor to expose the corruption and follies of societal norms became a way to bring criticism and, ultimately, methods of improvement to the attention of the public in a light-hearted and palatable way.
The word “cartoon” emerged during the Renaissance, and is derived from the Italian word “la carta,” meaning strong paper or map. It refers to the preliminary full-sized sketch an artist would draw on heavy weight paper, which would be used as the template for their work. Whether it was a painting, a sculpture, stained glass, etc., all great works of art started out as cartoons; making the great Renaissance masters like Leonardo De Vinci and Michelangelo were among the first cartoonists in history.
Early editorial cartoons were distributed individually only as the artist was able to hand-produce them. But when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th Century, satirical cartoonists were able to reach a broader audience with a more consistent message. This increased the cartoons’ exposure exponentially; it also made it more difficult for those they were mocking to ignore.
Kings, clergymen, and other powerful institutions were known to tax, threaten, and even imprison cartoonists who dared to subvert their authority. This drove independent cartoonists into a symbiotic relationship with another relatively new mass media invention – newspapers. The very first American cartoon was Benjamin Franklin’s famous “Join or Die” cartoon published in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1754. It depicted the body of a snake divided into eight segments representing the eight Royal colonies in America as they were assembled at the time. (Delaware was still considered part of Pennsylvania, while New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut were grouped together as “New England.” Georgia was omitted completely having only been officially named to the colonies two years prior to the cartoon’s publication.) Under the editorial umbrella of newspapers cartoonists found support against authoritarian retaliation; however, with the adoption of the First Amendment in 1791 protecting the freedom of the press, American cartoonists were emboldened to challenge the status quo even more vehemently.
Around the time of the Civil War, a German-born, American cartoonist named Thomas Nast was hired by Harper’s Weekly as their political illustrator. Nast has been credited with creating some of the most iconic political symbols still used today, such as the elephant and the donkey to represent the Republican and Democratic parties respectively, as well as the instantly recognizable look of “Uncle Sam.” Nast focused most of his editorial efforts on William M. “Boss” Tweed, who was the head of a corrupt New York Democratic political network headquartered at Tammany Hall. Tweed and his cronies openly engaged in buying votes, judicial corruption, and massive embezzlement from city contracts. Nast’s cartoons proved instrumental in exposing the “Tweed Ring”, which was manned by bought – off politicians, police officers, and other city officials. Tweed himself allegedly said, “Let’s stop them damned pictures. I don’t care so much what the papers write about me – my constituents can’t read; but damn it, they can see pictures.” Turn’s out, he was right, Nast’s cartoons were incredibly effective at motivating voters to cast out Tweed’s pocketed politicians. The political backlash caused Tweed to flee the country to Spain, but he was extradited by authorities who reportedly recognized him from Nast’s cartoons. Tweed later died in a New York prison after being sentenced for his crimes.
While partnering with newspapers and other publications has provided cartoonists with some protection against political reprisals, satirists will always be at odds with people who are unable to balance their beliefs with a sense of humor. The Islamic prohibition on any depictions of its highest religious figure, the Prophet Muhammad, has long been a point of contention between satirists and Muslim purists. That conflict reached a boiling point on Jan. 7, 2015, when two militant Islamist extremists attacked the French satirical humor magazine, Charlie Hebdo, for publishing cartoons depicting Muhammad. The two men forced their way into the editorial offices and asked for the editor and four cartoonists by name, killing them along with seven others. Reports of the account said that the men were heard cheering, “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad,” and, “God is Great.” To honor the indomitable will and unwavering spirit of free speech, the magazine didn’t miss its next weekly publication, which depicted Muhammad with a tear running down his face, drawn in the style of one of the slain cartoonists on its Jan. 14 cover. The character is seen holding a sign that reads, “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”) with the caption “Tout est pardonne” (“All is forgiven”) across the top of the page. The incident caused an international movement and discussion about the roll satire plays in free speech.
Editorial cartoons can come in a wide variety of satirical potency. They can range from an innocuous “gag” to a deliberate slap in the face to a specific individual or group. What makes these cartoons either detrimental, or harmless is completely in the eye of the beholder. The point is to have that reaction, whether it’s just a small giggle or a seething enragement. Talk about it with family and friends. Discuss what you like or dislike about what you see, you may find another side to an issue that you hadn’t noticed before. If you find your reaction to a cartoon to be an extreme one – stop and ask yourself, “why does this make me feel the way it does?” Chances are, if a cartoon makes you angry, it’s because you see a glimmer of truth in it; a truth you may not want to accept. Or maybe you just don’t get the joke.