If you don't laugh, you'll cry: taking a moment for political cartoons

Life is absurd, existence is suffering, and satire is dead. I mean, Spitting Image is back, but mostly, satire is dead. Headlines from The Onion keep coming true, fake news may as well be real news, and no one has been surprised about anything in months, maybe years. Satire can’t keep up, or so we are told. In actual fact, the relentless commentary continues, even if SNL is unfunny now. In the internet age, memes are king. We’ve seen Mike Pence rotting, as well as a thousand mocking versions of ‘stay alert, control the virus, save lives’ sign, and Fatima; the ballerina who gave it all up for cyber. Satirical commentary has an essential function in democracy, it encourages critique, and through humour and creativity, engages people with current affairs. In a bygone day, it was political cartoons that held this place in the public consciousness. They were on the front covers of magazines, a new one daily in every paper. Lots of papers still have daily cartoons, but the medium is losing its relevance. The UK has held on to most of its cartoonists, but the US and other countries have seen a dramatic decline. Even here, cartoons are no longer on the front page, and as papers try to cut their printing costs, they are often tucked away, unemphasised. But if the heyday of political cartoons has already come and gone, their contribution to politics and journalism is worth some appreciation.

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Peter Brookes for The Times, 1st August 2020

Britain has a long history of political cartoons, which may explain why they have endured here more than anywhere else. Political cartoons were actually invented here, pioneered by James Gillroy, who was famous for his scathing appraisals of Napoleon and George III. Even the word ‘cartoon’ owes its place in the English language to this tradition: in the mid 1800s, the word was appropriated ironically by the periodical Punch from the Italian cartone, meaning large paper or card, on which artists would make full scale designs for their pieces. Punch was the first to publish political cartoons, and was instrumental in their propagation. Such was its influence that we still use the word today.

To a great extent, the medium hasn’t changed much since then. Political cartoons are still defined by symbolism, humour and caricature, and they are still very effective methods of communication. They are striking, but often nuanced and complex. They make use of cultural and political references, conveying the message whilst engaging the viewer, who enjoys the puzzle of piecing it all together. These references are often used to contextualise the subject, usually a caricature of someone in the public eye. Use of symbolism has given political cartoons a lease of new life in countries where censorship is a serious concern, such as North Africa and the Middle East, especially since the Arab Spring. Before the revolutions, however, it was common practice to use an unidentifiable military figure as an allegory for government in cartoons. This way, artists mostly avoided suppression. Symbolism also neutralises the issues of illiteracy and multilingualism, which could otherwise limit a message’s resonance.

Caricatures are perhaps the artistic technique most closely associated with political cartoons, and are in themselves very effective communicators. They make the subject instantly recognisable, and the emotion on their face unambiguous. Ellie Foreman-Peck, whose illustrations appear in publications like The Economist and The New Yorker, describes caricature as a way of visually displaying a person’s internal traits (quoted in Alagiah, 2020). Murrell (1938, cited in Chen et al., 2017) calls them ‘truthful misrepresentations’; an attempt to distill the traits and essence of someone into one, often grotesque, image. The inherent disrespect for the subject makes caricature an excellent medium for critique, and they question authority directly by warping reality, making no commitment to fair representation. In fact, by visually manifesting the implicit and internal, and saturating the result in contextualisation, cartoonists can claim their value is in revealing something deeper.

David Rower for Australian Financial Review, 26th February 2018

James Gillray, 26th February 1805

As we well know, political cartoons have real effects on real people. Controversy and personal attacks are in the DNA of a political cartoon, with roots going back to at least 1820, when cartoonist George Cruikshank was bribed not to caricature King George IV doing anything “immoral”. Bigi et al. (2011) talk about the effect they still have on political brands, citing the many cartoons about Berlusconi’s scandals, and their effect on the global perception of Italy. By repeatedly depicting him alongside symbols of the country and of his transgressions, an association was built between Italy and its leader’s farcical unscrupulousness, when they would probably prefer to be associated with high class, rich culture and good wine. Equally, being a cartoonist can carry the same risks as journalism in countries where free speech is limited: when political cartoons became a tool of the revolutionaries during the Arab Spring, governments cracked down. For the crime of depicting Bashar al-Asad and Muammar al-Gadafi leaving their countries together, the Syrian government kidnapped and assaulted cartoonist Ali Ferzat(). The offensiveness inherent in caricature means that political cartoons can easily cross the line, and they attract a seemingly consistent stream of accusations of racism and antisemitism. Recent examples include the Herald Sun’s depiction of Serena Williams, The New York Times image of Trump walking Netanyahu like a dog, and the Mark Zuckerberg puppet in the new season of Spitting Image. Even more seriously than that, of course, are instances like Charlie Hebdo. The extent of the problem is well known: in 2006 then-Secretary General of the UN Kofi Annan spoke at a seminar themed ‘Cartoon for Peace’, acknowledging the power of cartoons and calling for their use for good. In a depressing foreshadowing of attacks like Charlie Hebdo, ‘Cartoon for Peace’ was actually part of an initiative intended to bridge the gap between Islam and other cultures.

Perhaps these controversies have contributed to the medium’s decline: not long after the Netanyahu dog cartoon, The New York Times fired its cartoonists. Political cartoonists are widely considered to be canaries in a coal mine, giving an early indication of the priorities of a paper: to satirise, to critique, to hold to account, or to please the stakeholders and avoid ruffling feathers. As such, they are an indicator of the health of free speech. Patrick Chappatte was one of these unfortunate ex-NTY cartoonists, and in a blog post said this: “I’m putting down my pen, with a sigh: that’s a lot of years of work undone by a single cartoon - not even mine - that should never have run in the best newspaper of the world”. Political cartoons have to make an impact, they are “a visual shortcut with an unmatched capacity to touch the mind”, and as Chappatte rightly observes, “[t]hat’s their strength, and their vulnerability” (2019).

Political cartoons may, at a distance, look quite well suited to the modern age. Cartoonists have been churning them out at obscene speed to keep up with the news cycle since the very beginning, which works well with modern attention spans, and the pace at which news develops. We love a single-panel narrative, a vodka shot of opinion, an image that sticks in your mind, even after scrolling past a million more. Some cartoonists have already adapted; artists like Patrick Blower have made the move from pen and paper to digital art, as it makes sense to create cartoons in the same medium that they are now being consumed. Maybe political cartoons could adapt? In spite of the backlash and controversy? In spite of the internet exposing them to an international audience who won’t know all our government ministers, or understand niche cultural references? In spite of the total absence of financial potential in a career making glorified internet memes? It looks bleak, nonetheless, they have been, and often still are, a valued contribution to our political and artistic world.


Alagiah, M., 2020. Caricature And Political Cartoons: Essential Satire Or Old News?. [online] Itsnicethat.com. Available at: <https://www.itsnicethat.com/features/spitting-image-the-future-of-caricature-sculpture-illustration-071020> [Accessed 1 December 2020].

Bal, A.S., Pitt, L., Berthon, P. and DesAutels, P., 2009. Caricatures, cartoons, spoofs and satires: political brands as butts. Journal of Public Affairs: An International Journal, 9(4), pp.229-237.

Benson, T., 2020. What Is The Future Of Political Cartooning?. [online] Original-political-cartoon.com. Available at: <http://www.original-political-cartoon.com/cartoon-history/what-future-is-there-for-political-cartooning/> [Accessed 1 December 2020].

Bigi, A., Plangger, K., Bonera, M. and Campbell, C.L., 2011. When satire is serious: how political cartoons impact a country's brand. Journal of Public Affairs, 11(3), pp.148-155.

Boland, T., 2012. Critical Comedy: Satire, Absurdity and Ireland's Economic Crash. Irish Political Studies, 27(3), pp.440-456.

Chappatte, P., 2019. The End Of Political Cartoons At The New York Times | Chappatte.Com. [online] Chappatte.com. Available at: <https://www.chappatte.com/en/the-end-of-political-cartoons-at-the-new-york-times/> [Accessed 1 December 2020].

Chen K.W., Phiddian R., Stewart R. (2017) Towards a Discipline of Political Cartoon Studies: Mapping the Field. In: Milner Davis J. (eds) Satire and Politics. Palgrave Studies in Comedy. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-56774-7_5

Streicher, L.H., 1967. On a theory of political caricature. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 9(4), pp.427-445.

UN News. 2006. Cartoonists Play A Large Role In Forming Public Opinion, Can Help Promote Peace: Annan. [online] Available at: <https://news.un.org/en/story/2006/10/196382-cartoonists-play-large-role-forming-public-opinion-can-help-promote-peace-annan> [Accessed 1 December 2020].

UN News. 2006. Annan Joins With Islamic, Arab And Other Leaders To Urge Restraint Over Offensive Cartoons. [online] Available at: <https://news.un.org/en/story/2006/02/170372-annan-joins-islamic-arab-and-other-leaders-urge-restraint-over-offensive> [Accessed 1 December 2020].