I dare to venture a guess that most history scholars have at one time or another used a political cartoon to make a historical point, be it in class, in a publication, or even privately in discussions with laymen. In fact, walking through a history department you are bound to find a political cartoon adorning a wall or a professor’s door. Political cartoons are indeed excellent historical source material. The problem is that most of the above uses are superficial and seldom live up to the standards of source criticism historians work by. Reading a cartoon, especially a historical one, is not a “natural” process; it takes work and an understanding of not only the period in question but of visual analysis, of the artist, and of the publication.
With proper methodology cartoons can be even more valuable material for historians than their neighbors on the op-ed pages of daily papers. This stems from the cartoons wide circulation among the readers (studies have found political cartoons to be among the most read parts of the paper), from their encapsulation of salient issues of the day, but perhaps most of all from the fact that a successful cartoon captures the contemporary mentality by essentially using already accepted, or at least, widespread ideas. A few more words on this last aspect; many scholars argue that cartoons have to communicate known ideas for them to be understood and appreciated. Cartoonists tend to agree; “the idea contained in a political cartoon must not only be easily understood but even be already widely established before the cartoonist uses it”, British cartoonist Nicholas Garland explains. Essentially the cartoonist encapsulates the public awareness of an issue and then adds a recognized commentary. This is one of the reasons Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaimed cartoons to be “often the truest history of the times”. As communication scholar Janis L. Edwards concludes; “political cartoons historicize the present and form a collective record of the social imagination regarding events in political life”.
Considering the frequent use of individual cartoons and the potential of cartoons as source material it is striking how limited historical research of political cartoons is. In fact, Kent Worcester goes as far as comparing the existing scholarship on cartoons to that on political campaign buttons. The most frequently cited reason for this lack of scholarship is methodology. In increasingly inter-disciplinary academia this is, however, no longer an acceptable position; historians must be able to utilize the theories and methods of art history as well as of humor studies and communication studies. A more pressing concern is the limitations the existing lack of scholarship on cartoonists constitutes for any research on their work.
Thomas Nast, the cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly who “took down Boss Tweed”, is generally accepted as the Great American Cartoonist, and indeed of him there are a few historical biographies ( I review Fiona Deans Halloran’s recent Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons in the upcoming issue of Studies of American Humor). Beyond Nast, the proverbial Hall of Fame for cartoonists is populated by talents such as Joseph Keppler, Homer Davenport, Rollin Kirby, Edmund Duffy, and Ding Darling. Of these earlier cartoonists and influential members of the American press there is some, if limited, historical research; Richard Samuel West’s work on Keppler and Darling, Leland Huot’s book on Davenport, and S.L. Harrison’s research on Edmund Duffy stand out among the few.
M. Thomas Inge
The comics occupy less and less space in newspapers in the United States these days, and even when they have a page or two of their own, each strip is so reduced in size that old timers have to squint to read them. Why don’t we give them more respect? These features occupy a few seconds of our time, but when well done, they can put a smile on our faces for the day, and maybe something to stick on the refrigerator door for others to enjoy? We should treasure them.
For as long as we have been recording our history, people have been telling stories and jokes through the combination of words and pictures, and most nations have had a tradition of sequential or narrative art and caricature. It was not until a little more than a hundred years ago that American cartoonists began to produce in the newspapers their own version of this distinct art form, which came to be called the comic strip and which would entertain millions of readers the world over with the antics of the Katzenjammer Kids, Mutt and Jeff, and Buster Brown.
Although few have recognized the cultural and aesthetic values of the comic strip, and its partner the comic book, the time has come to acknowledge that these are no ephemeral forms of entertainment, although printed on cheap paper and designed to be thrown away. Rather they are a significant part of our heritage to be cherished for their enduring artistic and social importance. Several publishers have recently understood this and are issuing handsome, hardcover complete collections of such strips as Peanuts, Dennis the Menace, Dick Tracy, Terry and the Pirates, and Gasoline Alley.
Comic art has much in common with other forms of literary and visual expression in the modern world. As in fiction, the elements of narrative, characterization, and setting are important, and as in poetry, ideas must be developed within a very short reading time through symbol and suggestion. As in drama, a story or incident must be staged before our eyes within a box-like frame and with sharp limitations on dialogue and compressed time. As in motion pictures, visual devices such as cutting, framing, close-ups, and montage are used by the comic artist, and settings can range from the realistic to the fantastic.
While not following Occupy Wall Street as closely as I would like due to a hectic schedule, I have noticed the role of humor in the protests, especially in the signs.
As M. Thomas Inge’s earlier post pointed out, political cartoons have long been a major form of humor in American political discourse. With this in mind, here are few cartoons that I have found worth considering: (please also see Halloween specific Occupy cartoons here)
from: DailyKos cartoons (more here)
Mike Luckovich from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
See slideshow of cartoons here.
Please comment on cartoons and post links to others in the comments.
(c) 2011, all cartoons are copyrighted and used under fair use