The Grim Reaper got its start in English lore during the 14th century. The symbol for death is a necessary reminder that death is always lurking in the shadows and that we may be its next suctim. Perhaps this would have been a better post for October, but I have been collecting cartoons that feature the Grim Reaper, and I think it’s time that I opened the closet and pulled them out for closer examination.
While earlier, more superstitious societies may have taken this symbol of death more seriously, in our age of science, the image is outdated and quaint. That makes it a perfect vehicle for satire.
The following cartoon points the reaper’s scythe at the Republican Party and its opposition to the Affordable Care Act. On December 1, 2013, Jim Morin used the reaper to question the motivations of those opposed to the ACA. The 44,000 deaths per year due to lack of health insurance may or may not be because of the lack of affordable care. It may be because of people’s choices of how they spend their money, but the cartoonist suggests that the GOP will take the heat over this as it did for the Hurricane Katrina debacle.
The Boston Marathon bombing elicited many political cartoons using the Grim Reaper. It is the ideal symbol, because the reaper greets people after a long grueling ordeal—presumably equating a 26.2-mile-run with life itself. The following cartoon by Steve Benson ran on April 16, 2013, the day after the attack.
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.
See this post for reactions to the Supreme Court’s legalization of marriage.
The reaction to President Obama’s changed stance on gay marriage is obviously big news. While I have argued before that proponents of gay marriage have a funnier argument than opponents, when it comes Obama’s decision the focus of the humor is less on the issue of gay marriage but on the politics of the situation. In the midst of an election season, Obama’s changing (evolving or flip-flopping? depends on who is drawing) view of gay marriage was bound to become a key instance in cartooning the major issues of the campaign.
We will be running some compilations of political cartoons as the campaign continues in order to examine how the visual representations of the candidates and the issues help shape the political conversation. As M. Thomas Inge noted in his essay “Politics and the American Sense of Humor,” “the editorial or political cartoon has been a mainstay in the media of this country from its very founding.”
The first thing one notices in looking at cartoons over the past few days is the rapid change in the situation once Obama came out of the closet in support of gay marriage (to use some popular metaphors). For instance, Mike Luckovich illustrated both the possible political “grenade” of the subject and one major theme of the fallout in two cartoons.
Mike Luckovich, the next day
many more below…
Originally from 2011, but Christmas comes every year, so welcome. You might want to check out these holiday-themed pieces:
by Matt Powell
by Caroline Sposto
by Matt Powell
by David Olsen
by Steve Brykman
by Michael Giles Purgason
One of my favorite Christmas tales, from David Sedaris, on traditions of other places, including Santa in the Netherlands:
Also, hear him read from his Santaland Diaries.
And see below for some Christmas themed political cartoons (updated for 2013!):