In a Gary Larson cartoon from The Far Side (1980–95), a pair of archeologists wearing pith helmets and short pants discover “the mummified remains of a prehistoric cave-painter—still clutching his brush!” The artist’s skeleton lies on the cave floor with a stone-tipped spear lodged in his ribcage. On the wall is the artist’s final work, a black-line drawing of a bison in the style of Lascaux but with the face of a slack-jawed caveman protruding from the bison’s ass. Our scientists offer their expert assessment: “Seems he made an enemy, though.”

Maybe it is my own nostalgia for the twentieth century’s printed “funny pages” in which I read The Far Side as a kid, but Larson’s violent origin story of the political cartoon provides clear insights into the history of cartoons. First, it shows that the cartoon is rooted in the oldest forms of human visual representation, such as cave paintings, pictographs, and hieroglyphics. Some scholars date the origin of the political cartoon to 1360 BCE with a caricature of the pharaoh Akhenaten protesting his effort to impose monotheism over Egypt. (The archive leaves no word on the fortunes of the satirist.) Second, Larson makes light of a very serious issue—namely, that the work of representation is a comingling of the aesthetic and the political. It may seem a “cartoonish” exaggeration to insist that the stakes of political cartooning are that of life and death. Yet that is precisely the point on which I will conclude this essay. Therefore, in what follows, I consider several highlights in the political history of cartooning and its relationship to problems of political representation. In short, this is a story of how silly pictures can often produce very serious consequences.

In its modern form, the cartoon is a mass-reproduced black-line drawing or engraving, often with dialogue text or captions, that employs a caricatured, nonrealistic, or humorous style of visual storytelling. The geography of daily newspapers that once thrived on this popular art published two types of cartoons: the gag cartoons that appear at the back in the “funny pages” and the political cartoons that appear on the editorial page. Gag cartoons are supposed to be inoffensive and funny; political cartoons are supposed to be partisan but funny. As an artistic medium, the political cartoon sits at the meeting point between art and propaganda, specific political context and broad ideological abstractions, crude humor and state power. Far more than the fine arts or comic book superheroes, political cartoons have a long history of challenging and enacting political power, both for good and for ill.

Cultural theorist Stuart Hall (2002) has argued that the concept of representation takes two forms: representation enables us to depict our ideas, and it allows something to stand in for something else, to be where others cannot go. If the cartoon image can depict the fossilized remains of a murdered prehistoric artist, it can also represent more abstract concepts like political agendas, national identity, racial difference, class struggle, and ideals of gender and sexual freedom. In this light, Hall reminds us that the concept of representation is equally critical to communication and art as it is to democracy and hegemony (S. Hall 2002). This elected official or that political idea can be said to “represent” my beliefs; it stands in for me or us; or, conversely, it stands against us and represents the enemy. When I read a cartoon and agree with its editorial message, it has the power of representing my beliefs, of standing in for them and giving them a conceptual shape. In this way, cartoons are adjuncts of political power, and through this conceptual power, they have long provided American politics with its necessary and omnipresent symbolism, stereotypes, and allegories.

As the “father of American political cartooning,” nineteenth-century artist Thomas Nast invented both the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant as well as the image of the gift-giving, capitalist Santa Claus. In 1812, a cartoon by Elkanah Tilsdale attacking the reorganization of voting districts in Massachusetts by Governor Elbridge Gerry introduced “the Gerry-mander—new species of Monster.” In 1954, Washington Post cartoonist Herblock coined the phrase “McCarthyism” in a drawing of the eponymous Wisconsin senator wielding a tar bucket and brush.

By such means, American political cartoons have become both institutionalized and professionalized. Starting in 1922, Pulitzer Prizes have been handed out for editorial cartooning. White men held on to this source of political power so tightly that it took until 1992 for Signe Wilkinson to become the first woman to win. Cartoons have historically had deep ties to specific publications, linking artist to editorial politics and style, like Nast at Harper’s, Peter Arno at the New Yorker, or E. Simms Campbell at Esquire. And when publications are tied to social movements, like the Socialist cartoonists for the Masses or Emory Douglas’s Black Power drawings for Black Panther, cartoons reveal how visual styles can shape social movements.

It is when politics, publication, and artist combine to confront the powerful that these simple drawings reveal their fullest potential for causing trouble. This is, after all, how the art form earned its name.

The term cartoon first enters the arts from the Italian cartone, meaning a heavy paper used for a full-sized study for a tapestry, fresco, or stained-glass window. Europe’s grandest museums house cartoons painted by Raphael and Goya that have been woven into tapestries to hang on royal or holy walls. In the preparation of a fresco, cartoons were perforated with small holes along the lines, and when “pounced” with a bag of chalk or soot on a freshly plastered wall, they leave an outline for the artist to follow.

In an engraving by John Leech from 1843 for the British satirical magazine Punch, we see the preparatory cartoons of the frescoes in Westminster Hall, images of puffed-up aristocrats on display before an audience of the ragged and starving poor. Bearing the caption “Cartoon No. 1—Substance and Shadow,” this image changed the term forever by satirizing the meaninglessness of high art forms in the face of the suffering masses. In siding with the poor and disabled, represented as both a collection of haggard individuals and a class standing in subaltern relation to a buffoonish elite, the popularity of Punch’s version of the cartoon gave the new illustrated press a form for representing mass politics.

In the United States, the most heroic version of the political cartoonist is Thomas Nast. Born in Germany in 1840, Nast helped establish the detailed, cross-hatched illustration style and political allegories that elevated him from a political commentator into a feared political actor. For his contribution to the Union cause in the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln referred to Nast as “our best recruiting sergeant” whose “emblematic cartoons have never failed to arouse enthusiasm and patriotism.” But Nast’s greatest fame came after the war, when his cartoons brought down the corrupt “Boss” William M. Tweed of New York’s Tammany Hall. After refusing a bribe to abandon cartooning and study art in Paris, Nast’s attacks grew sharper until Tweed was voted out and convicted of fraud. Legend has it that when Tweed attempted to flee the country in 1875, Spanish customs officials identified the fugitive using one of Nast’s cartoons.

During Reconstruction, Nast’s cartoons taught Americans how to see race in politics. A committed Republican, Nast championed the rights of African American freedmen against the terrorism of Southern Democrats. In one of his most stirring cartoons, “This Is a White Man’s Government” published in September 1868, Nast depicts three white men standing on the back of a prostrate Black man. Each standing figure represents a faction in the reconstruction of whiteness in the wake of emancipation: the bestial Irish immigrant who led the mob during the New York City draft riots of 1863, the former Confederates represented by Nathan Bedford Forrest who readies a dagger labeled “the lost cause,” and the Northern Democratic elite in the form of August Belmont who wields the power of “Capital.” These three different types of white men find a common cause in racial supremacy, symbolized by pressing one boot firmly down onto the back of a Black Union soldier, his body along with the American flag ground into the dirt, the ballot box wrested from his hand. Nast’s image reveals how the historical fiction of whiteness grows out of a political alliance forged in violent antiblackness.

Despite Nast’s support for Reconstruction, he also drew images of shocking racism and nativism. One of his most famous images illustrates Catholic immigration in the 1870s as an invasion of papist crocodiles emerging from the “American River Ganges.” And in 1876, Nast placed the same simian Northern Irishman opposite a barefoot and smiling Southern Negro on an enormous hanging scale, weighing each as subhuman and together representing the “Ignorant Vote” (see figure A.4). Such cartoons translated visual stereotypes of racial difference and hierarchy into the very substance of partisan politics.

While Nast’s drawings focused primarily on national politics, The Forbidden Book: The Philippine-American War in Political Cartoons collects images from a new generation of cartoonists who turned the style and stereotypes of Nast into the melodrama of American imperialism (Ignacio, Emmanuel, and Toribio 2004). Between 1890 and 1910, hundreds of cartoons in Puck, Judge, and Life magazines illustrated “The White Man’s Burden” in which a stern but patient Uncle Sam attempts to bathe the infantilized people of Hawaii, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba—depicted as Kipling’s “half devil and half child”—into the cleansing waters of “Civilization.” These cartoons translated racial science and a growing American militarism into cartoon visions of Darwinian progress, global white supremacy, and American empire. Yet they also produced a powerful and talented opposition.

America’s greatest generation of political cartoonists arose to prominence in the early twentieth century, coalescing around the Greenwich Village bohemian and Socialist magazine the Masses. The magazine’s cartoon editor, Art Young, once worked under Nast, where he discovered cartooning’s power. “I have always felt,” Young wrote in 1928, “that there is more power in my talent than in the mind of the statesman” (236). Working alongside artists like Maurice Becker, William Gropper, Stuart Davis, and George Bellows, Young’s cartoons took on the global class struggle rather than the petty squabbling of party politics. Radical cartoons of this era made stock characters out of bloated plutocrats, puppet politicians, bull-necked police, the harlot “capitalist press,” the dignified yet dispossessed poor, and the heroic union organizer.

We can see Young’s gift for radical abstraction in a cartoon simply labeled “Capitalism,” published in his own magazine Good Morning in 1920 (figure A.1). Young’s drawing embodies the global capitalist system as a singular, enormously fat, bald, well-dressed white man. Tipping back on his chair over an unseen chasm, the capitalist grotesquely pours more food from gilded bowls down his insatiable gullet. The image draws upon the legal fiction of corporate personhood to transform the abstract logic of capital accumulation into a socially ruinous act of private gluttony. By personifying capitalism in this single image, Young offers a critical vision of a global economic system mired in greed and waste, using a figure that cannot imagine a shared future for all and thus unknowingly tilting toward crisis, collapse, and doom.

For his efforts, Young was censored by the US Postal Service and sued by the Associated Press, and in 1918, he and his fellow editors at the Masses, Max Eastman and John Reed, faced two criminal trials for conspiring against America’s entry into the Great War. Saved by two hung juries, Young faced decades of incarceration for drawing in a style that Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs once called “cartooning capitalism.”

If Young specialized in anticapitalist cartoons, Lou Rogers became the nation’s first professional female cartoonist by drawing for the cause of woman’s suffrage, birth control access, and radical feminism. To break into the all-male world of newspaper cartooning, Annie Lucastia Rogers began mailing out cartoons as “Lou,” and in 1908, she published her first cartoon in Judge magazine. By 1913, Cartoons Magazine proclaimed, “Her pen is destined to win battles for the Woman’s Movement and her name will be recorded when the history of the early days of the fight for equal rights is written.” Committed equally to the causes of feminism and socialism, Rogers became art director for Margaret Sanger’s Birth Control Review in 1917. And in the pages of Judge, she illustrated a weekly column entitled “The Modern Woman” in which she famously depicted Columbia as a young woman chained and bound by the bonds of sexism and law.

Not content to merely illustrate politics, as activist artists, Rogers and Young sought to participate in it directly. Young ran for office as a Socialist Party candidate in New York City. Ralph Chaplin drew hundreds of class war cartoons for the Industrial Workers of the World, wrote the labor anthem “Solidarity Forever,” and eventually faced twenty years in federal prison for his revolutionary activism. Robert Minor was a successful mainstream cartoonist before his political convictions turned to the left, leading him to quit the capitalist press and draw cartoons for the Masses and the Blast before giving up art altogether to become a leader in the newly formed US Communist Party.

These were not the first nor the last cartoonists to face censorship and repression. In 1832, the French artist Honoré Daumier was sentenced to six months in prison for a caricature of King Louis Philippe. When the offended king lifted press censorship two years later, he preserved restriction on cartoons, arguing, “Whereas a pamphlet is no more than a violation of opinion, a caricature amounts to an act of violence.”

While many celebrate artists who push the boundaries of free speech, we dismiss the notion of cartoons as an “act of violence” at our own peril. The cartoons published in Julius Streicher’s newspaper Der Stürmer helped educate interwar Germans in the crudest forms of Nazi anti-Semitism, a crime for which Streicher was executed after the Nuremberg trials. More recently, an Islamophobic stunt by a Danish satirical journal published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, not only violating Islam’s prohibitions against graven images but provocatively depicting the prophet as a terrorist and a pedophile. These cartoons led to weeks of riots in 2006 and several hundred deaths across the Muslim world. Incensed by similar images in 2015, Islamic fundamentalists massacred twelve employees of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Writing on these controversies, Art Spiegelman defended cartoonists’ right to free speech while insisting upon their political and aesthetic responsibilities. “It’s just that cartoons are most aesthetically pleasing,” wrote Spiegelman, “when they manage to speak truth to power, not when they afflict the afflicted” (2006, 45).

Perhaps the most stirring example of the political stakes of cartooning is the Palestinian artist Naji al-Ali. Born in 1936 in the Palestinian village of al-Shajara, al-Ali and his family were uprooted in 1948 by the Israeli ethnic cleansing known as the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”). Like hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians, al-Ali’s family became refugees in southern Lebanon. In 1961, al-Ali’s drawings began appearing in Arab-language newspapers around the world, and in 1969, he first drew his most celebrated creation, the character Hanthala (figure A.2). A refugee child of ten years old, Hanthala is shoeless, dressed in patched rags, and stands with his back permanently turned to the reader. As a symbol of the Palestinian people, Hanthala refused to grow up in exile, impatiently awaiting the right of his people to return to their homeland. “His hands are clasped behind his back,” explained al-Ali, “as a sign of rejection at a time when solutions are presented to us the American way” (2009, viii). While living in Kuwait in 1980, Naji al-Ali criticized the US policy of selling weapons to both Iran and Iraq in their war against each other, leaving two Islamic societies destroyed while the US alone grew stronger. After being expelled from Kuwait, al-Ali returned to Lebanon where he illustrated Israel’s invasion in 1982 and the start of the first Palestinian intifada in 1987.

Giving voice to the “Arab street,” al-Ali’s cartoons protested the crime of occupation, condemned the corruption of Arab regimes, and ridiculed the hypocrisy of American imperialism. Fiercely independent and repeatedly censored and jailed by his many powerful enemies, Naji moved to London in 1985, where he continued to publish cartoons until July 22, 1987, when he was shot outside the Chelsea offices of the al-Qabas newspaper. His murder remains the source of much controversy, leading to a major international row in which Margaret Thatcher expelled three Israeli diplomats and closed Mossad’s office in England. Today, in the West Bank, Hanthala remains an icon of Palestinian self-determination and identity; his image is found on T-shirts, tattooed on bodies, minted into souvenirs, and graffitied on the apartheid wall. Naji al-Ali’s forty thousand cartoons represent a record of popular art that shaped the consciousness of a people and created an icon for a nation in exile and under occupation, and for his talents and commitments, he paid with his life.

All of which is to say, Gary Larson’s cartoon isn’t as funny as we wish it were.

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