In the old days, editorial cartoons were controversial because they expressed contentious political opinions. These days, they’re controversial just for existing.
A surprisingly large amount of people possess some deep-seated need to tell the world that they hate editorial cartoons. For some folks, it’s almost as intense as their passion to tell the world they hate Family Circus, or that The Simpsons “isn’t funny anymore.”
Cracked.com published a scathing rant yesterday under the headline “Political Cartoons: The Lowest Form of Communication,” authored by someone named “Christina H.” A number of readers have asked me to respond to her essay, so I’ll do my best. It’s a bit of a challenge, because, in all honesty, there is not a great deal of substance to respond to. Christina’s piece is interesting mostly as an example of the sort of ritualistic hate frequently directed against the totemic demon of “political cartooning,” the Art Form We Can All Agree Sucks.
The single biggest problem with the contemporary bashers of editorial cartoons is that they simply don’t understand, or want to understand, that editorial cartoons are different. They serve a different function than conventional comic strips or illustrations (or written editorials, for that matter), and as such, their presentation, tactics, and techniques can be jarring and weird to those who have no understanding of the history and traditions of the art. To criticize editorial cartoons merely for possessing their component parts is on par with criticizing abstract art because “it doesn’t look like anything.” Sometimes that’s the idea.
To quote the Cracked lady:
Usually the whole point of using a cartoon is that the picture is supposed to get the message across, and you use as few words as are needed to help people understand the picture. Some cartoonists, however, seem to think their readers are literally retarded.
She goes on to show samples of political cartoons that are grossly over-labeled, the great crime editorial cartoonists are most frequently made to atone for. Her examples aren’t really that great, however, since two of the cartoons she cites come from Monte Wolverton, a cartoonist who has a whole shtick of over-labeling his cartoons in a purposely over-the-top, self-aware way, while the other toon, I would argue, needs the labels for the rhythm of the joke to work properly. But in any case, labels are part of the art form. They can certainly be minimized, and shouldn’t be garish and excessive, but they’re still an unavoidably vital part of the entire exercise. They’re like speech bubbles in a comic strip — they can be done clumsily or elegantly, and can be cluttered or economical, but in most cases, a good 50% of the message is expressed through them.
It’s an ignorant over-simplification, in other words, to say that the point of an editorial cartoon “is that the picture is supposed to get the message across.” How do you draw a picture of tax cuts? Or deficits? Or America’s long and tragic relationship with the government of Pakistan that is now more fraught with tension than ever in the wake of increasing evidence that the Zardari regime is actively aiding Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan?
You don’t; you use metaphors. And metaphors, in cartoons as in language, only make sense when you clearly state the two ideas being compared. An unlabeled drawing of a gorilla is no more a complete editorial cartoon than the phrase “…as big as a house!” is a complete simile. Granted, if cartoonists are labeling self-evident things like “children” or “blacks,” that’s clearly lazy and awkward, but it still doesn’t justify a sweeping generalization that objects in cartoons should never have words on them, period. Though that seems to be the only real philosophical principle motivating a lot of editorial cartoon-bashers.
The rest of the Cracked article, is, frankly, incoherent. Observing that some people make bad cartoons with lame, technology-derived punchlines, straw man arguments, too much text, or obnoxious child characters (?) is hardly a well-honed indictment of editorial cartoons in particular. Some editorial cartoonists are indeed bad. Some web cartoonists are bad. Some full-length, animated musicals are bad. But it’s a useless truism to declare that bad writing and bad art makes for bad cartoons. A stronger argument would postulate, with evidence, that editorial cartoons are somehow disproportionately more likely to have bad art and writing than say, newspaper strips, or web comics. But of course no one could ever make such an argument, because it’s so obviously untrue.
In conclusion, Christina H writes:
Yes, I acknowledge that there are political cartoons out there that don’t hit any of these pitfalls and get their message across clearly and intelligently. I don’t want to say you’ll have better odds of being struck by lightning, but I will anyway.
It’s a remarkable statement, considering that in order to fetch sufficiently hideous examples to illustrate her rant, Christina almost certainly had to carefully wade through an enormous amount of good editorial cartoons. They’re really not that rare. You can visit politicalcartoons.com right now, and click through page after page of clear, intelligent cartoons that commit none of the cardinal sins Ms. H presents as emblematic of the art form. Indeed, I’m fairly well-versed in the editorial cartoon universe, and I can say that I have never heard of most of the strips or artists singled out in the Cracked piece. None of them won a Pulitzer Prize, at the very least, and it’s not like that’s hard to do.
It’s very easy to sweepingly condemn the fundamental crappiness of something when you single out its most malformed representatives. Oil pantings are not worthless just because no one at the community art college down the street can figure out how to do them right. A critique is much more convincing when you’re willing to confront the purported highest quality examples, and still condemn just as harshly. That’s what Roger Ebert did with video games. He didn’t just say they were rubbish because Frogger was rubbish, he said even the very highest, most sophisticated example of video gamery would still pale in comparison to other forms of art. For someone so willing to denounce the straw man tactics of others, Christina H. is sure swift to burn through some of her own.
I realize it’s always lame when someone retorts criticism by bristling that their critics “just don’t get it,” but I can’t escape the impression that the majority of editorial cartoon-bashers just, well, don’t get it. Editorial cartoons are not about punchlines or slapstick or cute characters or witty banter or even beautifully-rendered drawings. They are about commentary and metaphor, which is indeed an entirely respectable form of communication, especially when a complex topic like politics is involved. Some individuals just seem to have a visceral dislike of commentary, metaphor, and politics, while others descend into a state of shrieking chimp-like frustration when confronted by cartoons that are not immediately “funny” in the same way, say, One Big Happy is funny. I’m not really sure such people can ever be won over, any more than people who don’t like pasta will ever like the Olive Garden.
I do wish more people would stand up for this beleaguered art form, though. When readers praise my cartoons, they often feel the simultaneous need to couch their words with assurances that liking the kind of work I produce is hugely out-of-character for them “I usually hate political cartoons,” they say, and I am to nod my head, because yes, don’t we all. But really, I think what people truly hate is some abstract idea of editorial cartoons more than any real-world examples or artists. Check out the fine work of Pat Bagley, Steve Sack, or Ed Stein, for instance. What’s to hate there?