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.
As strategists on both the left and the right celebrate the inclusion of Paul Ryan on the 2012 GOP ticket for what seem like a lot of the same reasons, I suppose that we can also add humorists and cartoonists the list of beneficiaries of this nomination. So for the moment at least, everybody is winning.
Many of this first round of editorial cartoons also emphasize the marquee name of Ryan, whose ideological convictions and actual specificity when it comes to stuff (like, you know, budgets) threaten to eclipse whatever it is that Romney was predicted to one day have had from the beginning. It’s not surprising, then, that many cartoons adopt pretty a reasonable approximation of Ryan’s star status, as though betraying a certain ironic accuracy in Romney’s own recent gaffe that, when introducing Ryan at a rally, the attendees were meeting “the next president of the United States.”
One of the more curious trends among Romney/Ryan cartoons, however, is that of violence, in the sense that Ryan’s proposed budget is set to (or threatens to, or is thought to) significantly curtail federal spending, which forces us to consider the vocabulary with which we address financial reform — “slashing the budget,” for example, or “trimming the fat,” or the seemingly benign, “budget cuts,” which nevertheless implies a sense of slicing, incision. When, however, cartoons begin to give a visible body to what in language has become almost innocuous or unremarkable, the results can be a little literally gruesome, as we see in this telling cartoon by Dale Cagle:
Although Cagle’s may be the most extreme example, there is a certain stab-happiness and almost Shining-grade blade-eerieness to the way in which sharp implements signify Ryan’s fiscal conservatism.
The best way to characterize Stephanie Eisner’s controversial editorial cartoon about the killing of Trayvon Martin is to borrow a phrase from Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” a song that has been in my head all week anyway because I’m teaching Do The Right Thing in my film class – which just so happens to famously end with the killing of an unarmed young black man. That phrase, by the way, is Chuck D’s succinct biography of Elvis Presley, and it works equally well for Ms. Eisner’s cartoon: straight-up racist. It is hard not to see the cloying, ironic intonation of Trayvon as a “colored boy” as either outright derogatory or, at our most generous, as the work of a young woman in America who is horrifyingly oblivious to her own go-to vocabulary for thinking about black people.
The cartoon was originally published in the March 27, 2012 edition of The Daily Texan, a student newspaper at the University of Texas at Austin, but it was quickly pulled from paper’s website after receiving almost instantaneous negative attention. But it was put back up later in the day, and the editors expressed a willingness to publish the views of individuals even if those views are controversial. But it was pulled off again two days later, when Eisner was also fired from the paper, and the editors finally backed down after backing her two days earlier when the cartoon had first went back up. (This is their public apology, although I personally believe that they should have just left it up and let the cartoonist accept responsibility for her work, which I would be happy to debate in the comments section below.) At some previous point in all of this, Eisner herself had publically defended her cartoon, which took some serious explanation – which is precisely what a good cartoon should be able to circumvent – and then she later also apologized and assured everyone that she was not a racist. This all happened very quickly and has already been extensively documented (for example, please read in order this, this, and then this), and so the fallout itself is not something that really needs retelling.
Nor am I willing to suggest that Ms. Eisner is in fact a racist, which she is probably not. The problem, however, is that in her misguided attempt to critique what she imagined to be a media bias when it came to the depictions of Trayvon Martin and his killer, George Zimmerman, the resulting cartoon betrayed both an misunderstanding of the meaning of “yellow journalism” and an almost complete ignorance of the actual issue itself. (Plus it doesn’t seem to care that a real person, you know, died.) If, like many editorial cartoons, the content is meant to be read ironically, then how else are we to interpret the its picture of “the media” telling the story of a “handsome, sweet, innocent colored boy” as anything other than Eisner’s perceived lack of bias against Trayvon? By creating such a disparity between “white man” and “colored boy,” Eisner is not only mining an archaic, emasculating American idiom, but also reminding her readers that it is still important to discriminate against black people, even when the white person (Zimmerman) seems to kind of clearly deserve a closer look based on his actions. The cartoon can therefore be read not as an appeal for neutrality in the media, but for some kind of messed up balance of bias – one that will put Trayvon in his place because he is not “innocent” of being black. In other words, according to the logic of this cartoon, Zimmerman is not “big, bad” to the same degree that Trayvon is not “handsome, sweet, innocent.”
I’m reminded of a joke that Slavoj Žižek told on a recent episode of the public radio show Smiley and West, a joke which the philosopher used to illustrate we he sees as the true spirit of capitalism:
“Like we in Slovenia, in my country, we have a beautiful disgusting saying that if you ask a Slovenian farmer, God appears to a Slovenian farmer and tells him I will give you a cow but I will give to your neighbor two cows. A Slovenian farmer answers no. Rather kill one of my cows but kill two cows of my neighbor.”
In this case, if Zimmerman is currently under the scrutiny in the media, Ms. Eisner would rather have us “kill two cows” and make sure that Trayvon is not only scrutinized but smeared. Why else would she call him a “colored boy” if not to recall an era in which this demeaning phrase was what white folks treated as neutrality in their regard of African-American youth and not as an actual racial slur? Like Geraldo Rivera’s absurd claim that Trayvon’s hoodie was as responsible for his death as George Zimmerman’s gun, Eisner’s cartoon presents the argument that if the media has vilified Zimmerman as a “big, bad white man” on the basis of ethnicity, then it has not fulfilled its responsibility to duly defame and blame the victim on the basis of his.
Again, I am not trying to suggest that Ms. Eisner is anything other than a college student who still has a lot to learn about the history of her country, its language, and the difference between media bias and yellow journalism. But in all honesty, she also has a hell of a lot to learn about cartooning. Many have already commented on the ovoid features of the young child as resembling that of an inflatable sex doll. (Either that, or in my opinion, what the childhood drawings of notorious porn-face-tracer/comic-book-artist Greg Land might have looked like.) Also, it is unclear if the child is supposed to be shocked by what she (?) is hearing, or if there is some other emotion or reaction involved. Also, the child’s right arm seems to suggest a short-sleeved shirt, but the left arm is either long-sleeved or, honestly, pretty much non-existent; her left hand just kind of shoots out from her hip. And really, the lettering in the speech balloon is just, like, totally all over the place. The arrows pointing to “white” and “colored” make sure that we don’t forget that these are important words, and that this cartoon – by extension – is making an important point about an important issue that we might have missed without a triad of arrows pointing to each racial signifier like it was the neon sign outside of a strip club. Also, we can see that the “o” in “innocent” is replaced by a (black) heart, which is kind of awkwardly followed up by another heart right after the word itself, which is probably just supposed to be decorative – that is, just a heart and not to be read as “innocento.” Which is just bad lettering, although I doubt that the paper will receive any angry letters about that. Finally, it is also worth pointing out that the cartoon misspells Trayvon’s name as “Treyvon” on the book cover, which is either just sheer sloppiness or further signifies a complete disregard for the victim and all that his name has come to stand for over the last few weeks.
His name is the easiest thing that Eisner could have gotten right.
The holiday season is, of course, upon us. A time when brothers and sisters come together to divvy up the sober driver duties for their many mandatory family parties. (You and your loved ones may have other traditions.) A time when the unlikeliest of music becomes unavoidable. No, I am not talking about Susan Boyle’s inspirational (?) versions of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on her Christmas album The Gift. (Although she should have called it The Re-Gift, because let’s be honest…)
I am thinking instead of the perennial “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” As I’m sure that you, too, have felt with a kind of shiver completely unrelated to winter weather, the lyrics to this holiday favorite make Santa seem almost tyrannical in his tireless vigilance. “You better watch out,” it begins. But for what?! At least the next lines – “You better not pout / You better not cry” – offer a very specific rebuke to whiners and brats, but the fact that Santa is not something to eagerly await and watch for but to “what out for” makes him less a benefactor than a dictator. Less Tomie dePaola, more Brian De Palma. I guess the implication is that you better watch out for Santa watching you, at which point we may as well be in a Pynchon novel or a Police song.
In other words, Santa is like a heftier, jollier version of a spy drone. He flies around in his sleigh undetected – um, we’ve even got NORAD working on it – and although you never see him, he sees you when you’re both sleeping and awake (i.e. always) and knows when you’ve been both bad and good (i.e. everything). In this light, getting a wood-burning kit or a Kindle Fire hardly seems to make up for another year’s worth of despotic surveillance, to say nothing of the attendant paranoia that this song all but recommends.
I’m not the first to make this connection between Santa and a spy drone, however, as the following recent cartoons attest:
Also, did you know that there’s a war on?