Laughter is the Best Medicine - A Brief History of Political Cartoons

Haley Grant
June 26 | 11 min read
Political Cartoons: An Analysis of the Timeless Visual Staple in Worldwide Politics

People have incorporated humor into important social or political issues for centuries now. Whether through writers, comedians, or artists, satire has made its way into the political arena both to amuse as well as persuade on controversial topics. One of the oldest and most common forms of satire is the political cartoon. These stylized illustrations are a highly effective communication tool that has stood the test of time and highlighted both public opinion and important issues over the years.

Although not as prominent as they once were, political cartoons are still alive and well, having survived the many technological advancements of the last few decades. In fact, one could argue that a bit of humor is especially needed in today’s political climate. What better way to achieve a bit light heartedness than by poking fun at political issues ranging from Trump’s presidential term to the gaggle of 2020 Democratic contenders.

With the first round of Democratic debates underway, we thought it appropriate to take an analytical approach to political cartoons over the years. We will take a look at not only the meaning of each cartoon, but the specific techniques that each artist used to really emphasize their point.

The History

Before we analyze the different illustrations of the last 20 years, let’s take a look at the history of political cartoons and where they came from. The first political cartoons date back long before Donald Trump was making daily international headlines. Political cartoons are based on caricatures, a special technique that goes as far back as Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches. One of the earliest political cartoons was William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress.

While Hogarth’s work certainly represented early developments in political illustrations, the man revered as the father of political cartooning is James Gillray (1756-1815). Gillray’s cartoons were well known for targeting the British monarchy. In addition to his sense of humor and artistic talent, Europe’s politics and the monarchy were driving forces in Gillray’s inspiration.


‘The Father of Political Cartooning’

Another cartoonist who has earned himself a seat in the political cartoon hall of fame is George Cruikshank (1792-1878). Sprung from a family of artists and caricaturists, Cruikshank quickly learned the primary techniques of cartooning. His rise to fame is credited to his series of political caricatures, The Scrounge, a Monthly Expositor of Imposture and Folly. Cruikshank had a reputation for satirizing British politics and the monarchy. In fact, he was so well known that King George IV attempted (and failed) to put an end to satirical cartoonists and their publishers through bribes.

American Cartoons

Benjamin Franklin’s iconic “Join or Die” is acknowledged to this day as America’s first official political cartoon. It depicts a severed snake whose divided parts represent the divided Colonies. This cartoon emphasized the importance of unity and sparked a sense of nationality among the Colonies that ultimately drove the fight for independence against the British.

To the Magazines

France and England launched several satirical magazines during the 19th century. The most famous was Punch, started by Henry Mayhew and Ebenezer Landells in 1841. The magazine introduced the term “cartoon” for the first time in 1843 to refer to the humorous illustrations. The chief cartoonist for Punch, John Tenniel, was the most influential cartoonist of the 1850’s and 1860’s. His iconic work was joined by that of John Leech, George du Maurier, and Charles Keene.

American newspapers and magazines also saw a rise in popularity among political cartoons during the Civil War. This era was no stranger to the artistic works of Thomas Nast (1840-1902), an illustrator at Harper’s Weekly. His cartoons and illustrations satirized relevant issues that included the Civil War, slavery, and reconstruction. Nast is most famed for his cartoons that shed light on the criminal deeds of William Marcy “Boss” Tweed, which resulted in Tweed fleeing the country. Nast is also credited with coining the donkey and elephant symbols for the Democratic and Republican parties that America still uses today.

Modern Political Cartooning

That brings us to modern times. As we’ve said, the main goal of an illustrator is not merely to amuse the audience, but to persuade them to their own point of view on current affairs. The political cartoonists of today use very specific techniques to achieve this objective and really drive their point home. Such techniques include symbolism, exaggeration, labeling, analogy, and irony.

As we analyze the various political cartoons of the 21st century, we will look out for these techniques and how the cartoonists use them to deliver their main message. Check out the political illustrations below that have been published since 2000.

2000

Political cartoons in 2000s by Herb Block

This illustration was published during the Bush v. Gore campaign, during which personal religion had become a central issue. In this cartoon, Herb Block compares the candidates of the time with Abraham Lincoln, a man who could easily quote the Bible, but kept his religious preferences to himself.

Block certainly nailed the exaggeration, irony, and symbolism techniques in this piece, especially with his drawing of Abraham Lincoln.

Political cartoons in 2000s by Ted Rall

In this illustration, Ted Rall clearly exercised the labeling technique to help make his message clearer. The primary message is centered on top of the comic saying, “some voters are more equal than others.” Each square of the illustration is also labeled with words emphasizing the point of the illustration that independents are ‘sucked up to’ and people in swing states are ‘worshipped.’

2004

Political cartoons in 2004 by Clay Bennett

In contrast to the last cartoon, this illustration by Clay Bennett includes very little labeling to make its point. “The Home Stretch” is centered on top with Kerry and Bush on two horses, throwing jabs at each other.

The image certainly speaks for itself, depicting the two candidates as playing a bit dirty at the end of the presidential race. Bennett used analogy in this cartoon to draw a comparison between two different situations that share similar characteristics.

Political cartoons in 2004 by Dave Granlund

Dave Granlund’s illustration uses the labeling technique to clarify its meaning in an image of Kerry and Bush simultaneously prepping for the 2004 presidential debates. Granlund also incorporates exaggeration, particularly in the faces of his characters. Kerry’s nose and chin are extended and Bush’s ears, nose, and mouth are exaggerated. Kerry is depicted studying piles of paperwork and data to illustrate his bookish personality. Bush, by contrast, is sitting on a stool in cowboy boots, reading the same children’s book he was reading when he was informed of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

2008

Political cartoons in 2008 by Dave Trumble

This 2008 illustration by Dave Trumble includes no labels – only a vibrantly colored scene of Barack Obama slam-dunking the Earth. Trumble’s effective use of symbolism is found in the slam dunk that stands for Obama’s success in the 2008 presidential campaign. The use of such vibrant colors may be significant in emphasizing the fact that Obama was America’s first African-American president.

Political cartoons in 2008 by Lisa Benson

This political cartoon by Lisa Benson demonstrates the effects of symbolism, analogy, and exaggeration in satirical illustrations. There are two women sitting on a sofa, one appearing more put together and mature as she reads the newspaper. The other is holding a heart shaped box with ‘Obama’ written on the outside. She is depicted as silly and giddy compared to the woman beside her, with a rather bizarre look on her face.

The main message in this analogy is that the empty box represents Obama, while the giddy woman represents his supporters.

2012

Political cartoons in 2012 by Antonio Branco

In this 2012 illustration, Antonio Branco portrayed Obama as a sort of ‘one man juggling act.’ This came out during Obama’s second presidential election and incorporates a great deal of labeling. Branco shows that the economy under Obama’s leadership is starting to come down hard on the President, as he struggles to balance many other social and political issues.

Politican cartoons in 2012 by Bryant Arnold

In this cartoon, Bryant Arnold illustrates Obama’s presidential term with a comparison to the Titanic. The icebergs are all symbolic of different issues that the president faced during his term, including the economy, the stock market, global warming, and more. Bryant utilized labeling, symbolism, and analogy in this piece to highlight his point.

2016

Political cartoons in 2016 by David Horsey

The year 2016 said goodbye to President Barack Obama, which David Horsey depicts in this cartoon. Horsey labels this illustration, ‘Blue State Blues’ and shows a crowd of people clinging to Obama as he leaves office. The crowd is a mix of different people all pleading with the former president saying, “Don’t leave us with him!” In this situation, ‘him’ being Donald Trump.

Horsey utilized the technique of exaggeration in this cartoon, with members of the crowd dragging on the floor in hysterics over Obama leaving.

Political cartoons in 2016 by Damien Glez

Damien Glez’s use of exaggeration and analogy in this piece support the image of Trump popping out of a birthday cake mockingly for ‘President Hillary.’ Hillary, Bill Clinton, and Obama stand as the onlookers, all with different exaggerated expressions on their faces. Hillary appears to be very annoyed, while Bill looks perplexed and Obama appalled.

Glez utilized exaggeration for the characters’ physical features as well as for the entire image of Trump emerging from the cake.

Political cartoons in 2016 by Gary Markstein

This cartoon by Gary Markstein shows President Trump holding a bomb labeled ‘Trump Agenda’ that stands for the ‘6’ in the 2016 elections. Markstein uses labeling to clarify that this takes place after the 2016 election, with Trump deviously holding a bomb labeled as his own agenda that is bound to explode.

Markstein’s use of analogy, symbolism, and labeling certainly helps emphasize his opinion that Trump is pushing his own dangerous agenda as president.

Political Cartoons 2017 - 2019

Trump’s controversial, boisterous personality and controversial policies have provided satirists with more material than they could have possibly hoped for. Famous satirist, Andy Borowitz, even recently complained that he has a hard time competing with actual headlines.

This cartoon uses exaggeration and labelling to illustrate the effect Trump’s lack of filter and penchant for playground insults has on the standards of the office.

This cartoon uses another approach entirely. The cartoonist relies almost entirely on imagery and symbolism to make his point about the current administration’s position on climate change.

This piece uses a lot of elements to make it point. The artist has incorporated labelling into the scene itself. It also brings in a religious element, clearly accusing Sessions and the Trump administration of hypocrisy as Jeff Sessions is seen holding a Bible while clearly missing the literal figure and teachings of Jesus Christ standing right in front of him.

2020

Political cartoons for 2020 election by Michael Ramirez

This cartoon by Michael Ramirez brings us to the 2020 Presidential election. The two characters in the cartoon are looking over their balcony, while the woman asks if the crowd below is another immigration caravan. The man, presumably her husband, responds by saying it is in fact the hoard of Democrats running for president.

Ramirez highlights a current political issue – immigration – while commenting on the many candidates who are running for president against Donald Trump.

The crowded Democratic Primary field has been fodder for many satirists. This piece depicts the fear of many Democrats. The fireworks crowding the box are each labelled with one of the Democratic candidates’ names, from Biden, Beto, Buttigieg, and Booker, to Harris,Sanders, Yang, and Warren. The illustration makes it very clear that many Democrats are concerned that the 2019 Presidential Debates will weaken the party rather than strengthening it. At a time when the Democratic party needs unity more than ever, a contentious Primary season with so many candidates could blow up in their faces like so many fireworks in a box.

The Future of Political Cartooning

Political cartoons continue to compete with technology, including the internet and television, as they have over the last decades. Additionally, advertisers and publishers have more of an influence over the news today than in the past. This makes it easier to drop cartoonists who may be viewed as too controversial in their craft.

In fact, The New York Times announced its decision this month to stop publishing political cartoons, as a result of some heavy backlash over their recent controversial cartoons. Specifically, a cartoon that featured a blind Donald Trump being let by a seeing-eye PM Benjamin Netanyahu. Since this announcement, a few cartoonists and subscribers have expressed extreme disappointment in the newspaper, claiming that people need humor now more than ever.

As print newspaper circulation continues to dwindle and people work to establish the line between innocent humor and insult, the future of political cartooning remains unknown. But what we do know is that these cartoons have stood as symbolic pillars for centuries in not only American politics, but the worldwide political arena.

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Written by
Haley Grant
Haley Grant is an American writer based in Madrid, Spain. A world traveler, Haley is also a huge fan of “Sex and the City,” spin classes and chugging iced coffee.

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