Politics in Graphic Detail

Exploring History through Political Cartoons

Are Political Cartoons Relevant?

by Allan Holtz

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Photograph of cartoonist George Herriman and actor Glenn Tryon seated around comic sketches

Photograph of George Herriman and actor Glenn Tryon seated around comic sketches. George Joseph Herriman (1880-1944) was an American cartoonist best known for the comic strip Krazy Kat (1913–1944), but also published cartoons in the satirical humor magazine Judge. Glenn Tryon (1898–1970) was an American film actor, screenwriter, director and producer.

I confess that I read the newspaper every day. Yes, I'm one of those outmoded humans who stumbles bleary-eyed out the front door every morning, searching for that rolled-up newspaper. Like a dinosaur bone waiting to be dug out of my flower bed, it is hopelessly outdated as a medium for news delivery. I admit that.

Still, although I am of the age when some folks get set in their ways, I can hold my head high as a technological progressive. If I could find a way to get the news online in a form with which I'm comfortable (that is, exactly like my newspaper), I would gladly stop being a wanton tree-killer. I could stay in bed a little longer every morning if I didn't have to go on those front-yard archaeological expeditions. In fact, once I've read my paper, I also scan Google News to see if anything interesting has happened overnight since the newspaper's press time.

How do I spend my time after reading the morning paper? Among other things, I am a historian specializing in newspaper cartoons. I've written an encyclopedia on the subject, and I run a daily blog about newspaper cartoons. To support all that research I have an enormous collection of yellowed old newspapers in my home. So yes, I am a nut on the subject. But I don't make a living at it (my day job is programming), so rest assured that I'm not trying to convince you of something because it's my bread and butter.

So with it established that I am of comparatively advanced age but don't cling too unreasonably to the outmoded and outdated, and that I have no financial motive for bringing you over to my way of thinking, let's move on. My task is to convince you of the value of the political cartoon.

The one characteristic I see as a defining quality of your younger generation is a short attention span. And when I say short, I mean frequently measurable only under laboratory conditions with the aid of an atomic clock. Young folks don't get bored reading the Google News headlines—they get bored waiting for the page to load. But I'm not criticizing. While we oldsters live in slow motion, your world moves at the speed of light. And here's where the editorial cartoon can fit into your life: it is concentrated knowledge. Each one is like a 5-Hour Energy shot full of the important events going on around you. Want to be well informed, but don't have the time to do a lot of intellectual heavy lifting? Editorial cartoons are your ticket!

Think about the job of a political cartoonist. What do they do all day? They sit around studying the news, thinking about it in great depth, reviewing what a lot of other smart people think about it, and discussing it with colleagues. Then they take all that knowledge and spend hours and hours creating a single drawing that encapsulates it. Then it takes you all of 15 seconds to read and digest it. How incredible is that? If you don't have the time to study the news in all the detail it deserves, and people expect you to discuss current events—not just to parrot the bare bones of the headlines, but to have something intelligent to say—check out some editorial cartoons and you're well on your way to being well informed. And yes, you can do it online—no need to touch a (yikes!) real newspaper or magazine.

The best part is that political cartoons are often really entertaining and funny. Reading them is like watching clips from The Daily Show. And once you start checking them out, you'll find that there are certain cartoonists whose work particularly resonates with you. By that I don't mean that you will agree with their views, but that you'll find their perspectives particularly interesting. I check out a variety of editorial cartoons every day from the whole spectrum of liberal to conservative. My own opinions tend toward one end of that spectrum, but it's important to me to hear what the other side has to say—if only to fume over it.

Editorial cartoons may not be a perfect substitute for reading the news, but they will teach you how to think about the news. Editorial cartoons will give you insight, and you'll find you react to the news as a knowledgeable and intelligent consumer. It will become harder for slanted opinions masquerading as news (a huge problem these days) to hoodwink you. Once you see how editorial cartoonists cut through all that static to get to the heart of the matter, you'll find that you can use the same techniques yourself.

Speaking of cutting through the baloney, if your skeptical radar is working you might be thinking to yourself right now, "If this guy's not blowing smoke, and editorial cartoons provide that quick and painless shot of knowledge concentrate that I want, why have they been around for hundreds of years? When Ben Franklin penned "Join or Die," he certainly wasn't drawing for an audience who were going to share it on Instagram."

Right you are. Folks in those days had different problems than you do. However, by happy coincidence, the solution works as well for you as it did for them. Surely you remember from history class that cartoonist Thomas Nast is given credit for bringing down the corrupt and powerful Tammany Hall political machine in the 1870s. Tammany Hall's head man Boss Tweed was asked whether he worried about Nast's cartoons. He reportedly replied, "I don't care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents don't know how to read. But they can't help seeing them damned pictures." That's right; a significant part of the population was either illiterate, or at least did not read well. But that didn't mean they weren't intelligent; furthermore, they did want to know what was going on. Editorial cartoons were an invaluable visual aid to those who couldn't manage reading a newspaper.

Editorial cartoons aren't just a great way to keep abreast of today's news, either—or, at least, about how people are thinking and feeling about the news. They also provide an amazing window into history. When you study history, you may find that you have trouble relating to the issues and events. Things seem canned, dry, and irrelevant. You'll be astonished, though, how period editorial cartoons can transport you back and put you right in the moment. They rip away the dry textbook version of events and (if you'll forgive me an overused phrase) bring history to life.

For example, here's what seems like a simple question: Why did we fight the Civil War? As you begin reading about it, you quickly realize that there is no easy answer. For every current book on the subject that says it was slavery, there's another that says it was state's rights or some other reason. Modern writers bring their agendas and biases to the table. They may find and use different evidence, or weight and interpret that evidence differently. How do you get to the bottom of it?

I suggest you look to contemporary political cartoons. They too represent opinions, but they are the opinions of people who lived it, addressing other people who were living it. And so, if you read enough editorial cartoons from different sides of the issues, I'm confident you will find an answer that makes sense to you. And as you are seeking your answers, you will be experiencing the drama of that war firsthand. The cartoonists who drew those cartoons had relatives and friends fighting and dying as they made those drawings. Their work was no mere intellectual game. They were literally fighting for the lives of their loved ones through something as seemingly trivial as a cartoon.

History as experienced by those on the spot is no dry set of facts, names, and events. It can be as thrilling and entertaining as any unfolding story, full of fascinating people, surprises, and intrigue, all with our real world as the stage. Editorial cartoons have given me a lifelong fascination with history. Start by checking out the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's collection of great cartoons and you'll be hooked, too. 

Allan Holtz is the author of American Newspaper Comics: An Encyclopedic Reference Guide (University of Michigan Press, 2012) and the editor and head writer for Stripper’s Guide (http://strippersguide.blogspot.com/), a website devoted to the history of cartooning.