The Problem with Unfocused Political Cartoons

One of the primary concerns of those who have fallen victim to the satire of political cartoonists is that there is no way to refute the allegations that the artist has suggested in the cartoon. It is why newspapers receive angry letters and cartoonists receive threats. That is also why riots erupted in the Middle East over the Danish Mohammad Cartoons which were published in September 2005 (the riots happened in 2006, so there were other dynamics at work as well). Cartoonist Steve Bell put it this way, “There is no comeback. It confirms me in my belief that since most of us lack the capacity to answer a cartoon with a counter-cartoon, the cartoon target’s frustration and sense of impotence may be what leads to implosion.” That is true most of the time. However, the unfocused cartoon is not impregnable by prosaic argument.
If a cartoonist cannot come up with an idea to specifically criticize or goes on a long weekend and must fulfill an obligation to his/her editors/syndicates, it is very likely that the resulting image will be so generalized that it can be plugged into any situation and impress only those who are staunchly opposed to the object of the criticism. Take the following recent cartoon by Bob Gorrell for example:

Bob Gorrell Incompetence

By Bob Gorrell – October 17, 2014

The “O” in “incompetence” is drawn like the symbol of the Barack Obama campaign. So, does the artist suggest that everything Obama does is incompetent? Does that extend to his golf game and basketball skills? Has he proved himself incompetent in all of his administrative duties? How far back does the artist suggest that his incompetence extends? Does it extend to the Benghazi incident? Does it extend to his ordering of the assassination of Osama bin Laden?


This cartoon (which was syndicated nationally by the way), is such a throw-away image that any circular image could replace the “O” and be used by a cartoonist to lampoon any institution. But this image lampoons nothing. It is so unfocused that it is not even an insult to the President, but it may be an insult to editorial cartoonists. It is no better of a criticism than the unfocused angry e-mails written by newspaper readers that pile up in the inboxes of cartoonists and editors across the country. However, this cartoon does inspire a paraphrase of the familiar momily, “If you can’t say something satirical, don’t say anything at all.” Yep, Bob Gorrell should have just taken the day off rather than have produced this trash.

Bob Gorrell is a capable cartoonist. Following is one of his more competent cartoons that critiques the performance of the President:

Bob Gorrell Obama Air Offensive

By Bob Gorrell – October 15, 2014

In this cartoon the artist suggests that Barack Obama is responding to ISIS by talking too much and using ineffective military strategies in response to the military advances of ISIS. This is what a political cartoon is supposed to look like. If only all political cartoons were drawn so well that they fit into Steve Bell’s thesis that they can only be refuted by an equally well-executed cartoon, we would not be subjected to the unfocused images. Unfortunately, syndicates and editors demand anything, and that is sometimes all they get.

(c) 2014, Larry Bush

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6 responses

  1. This is terrific. Thanks for posting. It seems the political cartoon has gone the way of verbal discourse, where now, people sneer and say “Really?” rather than actually providing an explanation of their disagreement with another.

    1. Thank you for the kind reply, Rachael (I believe that is your name). Sometimes, people need tools to help them reason through a disagreement. The argument I made in this blog can be used to also express disagreement with a political advertisement on television. They are brief and, in many cases, satirical. But if the viewer is made uncomfortable by the content, it may be because the content is so unfocused that it is ineffectual when examined closely. We have that problem in our gubernatorial race in Florida right now.

      1. Thank you for the reply, Larry! I appreciate your thoughts. Do you have your own blog? I would love to follow it.

  2. You are very kind. I only blog for AHSA. However, I do have more research on-line. Just google, “Larry Bush political cartoons” and you will find some of the analysis I have done of political cartoons. I was the researcher for “Art of the Poison Pens.” So all of that stuff is on me–for better or for worse. If you have access to Proquest, my thesis is in there. It is called, “More than Words: Rhetorical Devices in American Political Cartoons.” Don’t expect to see any drawings by me. I know my limits.

  3. Alas, not even political cartoons have escaped the systematic dumbing down of our culture.

  4. It may be a glib reply, but I’ll say it anyway. The “dumbing down” comment may be an example of “unfocusedness.” Actually, there are so many editorial cartoons that are drawn during any political process that the best ones are remembered and celebrated while the mediocre, while still in existence, are intellectual cast-offs.
    Two reasons why unfocused cartoons get published are because cartoonists have an agenda and only draw cartoons that fulfill that agenda–see Michael Ramirez (staunch anti-Democrat), or editors demand a cartoon on a given subject that the cartoonist can’t do anything with. The most successful cartoonists are those that are given free-rein to go crazy. In this business, the crazier the better.

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