COLUMN: Political cartoons are landmarks in history

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In this week’s column, History Hound Richard MacLeod highlights the role of satirical editorial cartooning as a valuable historical document

I have always been a keen observer of the various political cartoons that have graced our local newspapers and magazines. I’ve often wondered how it all started and how they evolved into the art of portraying the odd points of politics or public policy through the various characters that become the target of their satire.

I’ll share what I’ve discovered, starting by defining what a political cartoon is, then looking at the history of political cartooning with a focus on Canada.

A political cartoon is an editorial rendering that uses graphics with caricatures of public figures to express an opinion on an event, policy or trend. The artist is known as an editorial cartoonist, combining artistic skill, a touch of hyperbole and the ability to satirize or question authority to draw attention to corruption, political violence and other ills social.

Developed in England in the latter part of the 18th century, political cartooning was pioneered by James Gillray. At the time, his prints and others in the thriving English industry were often sold as individual prints at print shops. Founded in 1841, the British periodical Punch (where I first discovered the joys of political cartooning) appropriated the term “cartoon” to designate its political cartoons, which was to lead to the generalization of the term in the whole world.

John W. Bengough is credited with first perfecting the art of political cartooning as we know it in the 1870s when he began publishing his satirical magazine, Grip. In its pages, Bengough derided Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, and since then every successive prime minister has had an alter ego with a sketchbook: Sir Wilfrid Laurier had to compose with Henri Julien, Mackenzie King with Arch Dale, John Diefenbaker with Duncan Macpherson, Pierre Trudeau with Jean-Pierre Girerd, Brian Mulroney with Aislin (Terry Mosher) and Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin with Serge Chapleau.

Art is quite often ephemeral, with artists needing to create a new series of caricatures daily, a new commentary on a current event. Once the cartoons appeared, they became as relevant as yesterday’s newspaper. They are neither comics drawn to tell a story and make people laugh, nor illustrations created by graphic designers. They often overstep the bounds of fair editorial commentary and are generally drawn in to make their subjects look ridiculous.

The earliest famous example in Canada is the work of Brigadier-General George Townshend, who served with General James Wolfe at Quebec in 1759. Townshend apparently drew sketches to undermine his commanding officer’s reputation. Wolfe will soon demand an investigation, but he dies on the Plains of Abraham.

It was not until Punch’s arrival in Canada in the 1840s that editorial cartoons began to appear regularly. Punch would hatch other local publications such as Grinchuckle, Canadian Illustrated News and L’Opinion Publique.

Canada quickly produced its own style of political cartooning. Working for Quebec’s first comic strip newspaper, La Scie (the Saw), which began in 1863, cartoonist Jean-Baptiste Côté became legendary for associating his simple woodcuts with the motto Le rire correcte l’abus. He became famous for attacking the political elite and the civil service with such passion that in 1868, after portraying a civil servant “at his job”, he was arrested and thrown in prison, doing making him the first and only Canadian cartoonist to achieve this distinction.

In 1877, Le Canard was published in Montreal by pioneer caricaturist Hector Berthelot. This publication, like many before it, was supported by editors and publishers who drew the cartoons themselves.

I’m sure we all wonder, when we see a particularly biting cartoon, how did they manage to print it? Canadian cartoonists began to exercise a great deal of independence, separating from the art department and creating a separate editorial entity, becoming autonomous.

Stories abound of Duncan Macpherson not being afraid to challenge his editors, doing so repeatedly, threatening to get his way or quit. This stemmed from MacPherson’s general distaste for publishers. He had witnessed the mistreatment of his predecessor at the Toronto Star newspaper, Les Callan, who after 25 years was unceremoniously cast aside.

Prior to Macpherson, most cartoonists were part of the newspaper’s editorial team that decided what would go on the page that day. Macpherson refused to join the team or go to meetings and insisted on obtaining independent contributor status to the editorial page.

For many years it was quite common for an editorial cartoon to contradict the stated editorial position of his newspaper. However, in the early 2000s, the position of personal cartoonist would come under increasing attack, with newspaper chains beginning to eliminate staff positions, opting to employ the cheapest freelancers instead, or using labor unions. This way the cartoon could be “cherry picked” to coincide with the newspaper’s position, a huge step backwards.

The growth of the Internet has led to the rise of independent cartoons now marketed worldwide by huge publishing syndicates. These sites serve as web portals where a publisher or business can upload new political cartoons, cartoons, caricatures, illustrations, and illustrations from various cartoonists.

The best press cartoonists are members of a select club. There are no more than two dozen employees at any one time in Canada. My personal favorites were Duncan Macpherson with the Toronto Star and Andy Donato with the Toronto Sun. As I do a lot of research for these items in the old days of Newmarket, I have come to appreciate the cartoons of Cargill and Stanley, who I believe were union cartoonists of the time.

By 1949 cartoons had become so persuasive that the Canadian National Newspaper Awards decided to honor those who “embodied an idea made plainly apparent, good drawing and striking pictorial effect.”

There are important institutions that house and glorify this art form around the world, institutions like the Center for the Study of Political Graphics in the United States and the British Cartoon Archive in the United Kingdom.

What about modern political cartoons today? Political cartoons can usually be found on the editorial page of many newspapers, although a few (such as Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury) are sometimes mixed in with the usual comic book page.

I love political cartoons because they contribute to political discourse by enhancing political understanding and laying bare events. From my travels, I have discovered that there are no fundamental differences in how Canadian political cartoonists and foreign political cartoonists assess politics and public life.

A political cartoon works by putting two unrelated events together and bizarrely bringing them together for humorous effect. Humor can reduce people’s political anger and thus serve a useful purpose.

There can be controversies associated with political cartoons. We certainly remember the controversy over the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons and the Charlie Hebdo shootings (resulting from the publication of cartoons linked to Islam).

And finally, I thought you might enjoy this primer on how to interpret and appreciate a political cartoon from an elementary school lesson plan I found.

Students are first asked to examine the cartoon and use the included questions to help them decode the cartoon’s message. They are asked to be as specific as possible and to include as much detail as possible. They are asked to reference aspects of the cartoon when answering questions.

They are first asked to take a look at the cartoon and explain their first instinctive response. They are asked to consider their background knowledge such as what they already know about the context of the cartoon as to time, place, situation, etc. How do image techniques help present the message?

They are then asked to review the text. How words, numbers, etc. of the drawing express ideas or identify people or objects? What message do labels send to readers?

They are asked to go back to the characters and notice the people in the picture. How do their facial expressions (exaggerated, oversimplified emotional characteristics of the characters) add to the effect of the image? What message does this send to the reader? They are asked to identify the symbols (clothing, religious, cultural, etc.). What do these signs or images represent? Is there a lack of symbols in the image, why? How does this add to the message of the image?

Finally, they are asked to draw some conclusions: What general impression can you draw from this? Can they identify possible biases and decide which perspective or point of view is being expressed in the cartoon? They are asked to explain the general message of the cartoon.

The political cartoon is considered a valuable historical document, an indicator of what was important at that particular time and of prevailing attitudes.

I suggest the next time you come across a political cartoon, try following this exercise above and see what effect the cartoon has on you. A well-crafted cartoon will move you in some way, regardless of your personal feelings about the content.

Sources: The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power by Victor S. Navasky; Political cartoon from Charles Press; Toons Mag political cartoon story; The Power of Cartoons, a TED Talk; Political Cartoons – Complete Guide to Political Cartoons on the Web from About.com; The Hecklers: A History of Canadian Political Cartooning by Peter Desbarats and Terry Mosher; Grade 9 social studies exercise – Political cartoons by M. Dufresne.

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for over 40 years. He writes a weekly feature on our town’s history in partnership with NewmarketToday, organizes heritage talks and local interest walking tours, and conducts local oral history talks.

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