The editorial cartoon (or political cartoon) is one of the few genuine distinctives of the newspaper, a defining characteristic that, from the beginning, exerted an enormous influence on newspaper readerships, politicians, criminals and various combinations thereof.
The editorial cartoon at its best can combine trenchant political insight, genial good humor, incisive satire, a certain utopian whimsy, melancholy, and a Message with a Moral. It combines editorial research and writing with artistic social commentary. A really good one can convey more than the proverbial 1,000 words.
The study of editorial cartoons and cartoonists provides a vivid snapshot of the state of both a nation AND the publication that features those cartoons. As they wax and wane in fortune and favor, these cartoons still exert a commanding presence and influence far beyond the limited amount room accorded them in today's newspapers.
In truth, we've always been in the Golden Age of Editorial Cartoons™ we just haven't always noticed it.
The early history of editorial cartoons – William Hogarth, Francisco Goya, even Benjamin Franklin (the famed "Join or Die" cartoons) – usually bookends with Thomas Nast, the masterful cartoonist of an earlier era. While justly studied for his extraordinary skewering of powerful Tammany Hall (and its chief benefactor, "Boss" Tweed), Nast codified a uniquely American symbology, the Republican elephant, the Democratic donkey, even Uncle Sam and Santa Claus. His intricately drawn panels epitomize what have since come to be called the "nasti" style of editorial cartooning.
Beyond Nast, American cartoonists have sometimes been as famous as the publications they've drawn for, some instantly recognizable from a single name – Herblock, "Ding" Darling, Bill Mauldin, Oliphant, Doug Marlette, Mike Peters, Conrad, MacNeely, Marguiles, Stahler, even Garry Trudeau. In some cases, their work has been so persuasive that we've had trouble separating the cartoon creation from the subject of the cartoon (as in the case of Richard Nixon).
The editorial cartoonist adherent claims that the cartoon can convey more than "transitory journalism," that it can – at its best – convey something transcendent. It requires both an uncommon artistic skill with the prophetic sensibility of a seer, someone able to perceive possible truth beyond the reporting of daily events. This may be true, in part, because the editorial cartoonist is freer than his counterparts elsewhere on the editorial page to use caricature, exaggeration, bold imagery, and potent symbolism to point to (or a suggest) a greater truth.
The really good editorial cartoonists are experts at sniffing out rationalizations, false sentiment and piety, and self-justification, at the local and national (and sometimes international) level.
Why we study editorial cartoons in the history of journalism classes is the same reason we study them the ethics of journalism classes – through the use of fresh, uncomplicated (but at the same time profound) imagery, the artist journalist shines a light on the darkness. The editorial cartoonist may use pre-existing political symbolism or create new images. He or she may skewer the mighty or uplift the down-trodden. But, in a perfect world, the editorial cartoonist enables the newspaper reader to see, with a sharp, sudden shock of recognition the implications beyond the daily news.
An exhibition of the original artwork some of the best editorial cartoonists in the country, handsomely mounted and accompanied by complementary seminars and events, will provide readers a chance to reflect on this most powerful (and most often misunderstood) aspect of the newspaper journalism experience. "Them damn pictures" (as Boss Tweed once said about Nast's cartoons) are worthy of study ™ and celebration.