Tuesday, July 19, 2011


E.Ethelbert Miller asks, "How does one create good political cartoons without being offensive? When is one man's joke another man's curse? Does laughter bring us together as a community or does it simply reflect the lasting pain of our scars? Are cartoons visual poems?"
I absolutely love the idea that cartoons are"visual poems." In the hands of our best comic artists, a beautifully rendered, elegant drawing is just that. Even so, it's likely someone will take offense when the imagination is distilled into powerful images. Let me give you an example.

All during my undergraduate years in college, I drew every kind of assignment for my college newspaper The Daily Egyptian, and for the local paper, The Southern Illinoisan, from 1966 to 1972. I remember drawing in 1967 when I was 19-years-old what I thought was a completely innocent, even bland cartoon about campus life for the Egyptian. It was just a panel cartoon, not a political one intended for the editorial page. Just a run-of-the-mill gag involving two couples doing  something students typically do. But here's the trick: to keep myself from becoming bored with it, I let my imagination go where it would, and tried something I'd never done before. Then I dropped the drawing off at the newspaper's office, and thought no more about it. 

But a day or so later, I received a phone call in my dormitory room from the secretary of the chairman for the Department of Journalism, a seasoned old newsman who started that department. She said he wanted to talk to me, but she wouldn't say why. I was baffled. (I hate it when people do that to me---say they want to talk about something in a mysterious tone, but won't tell me why until later. It's a maddeningly rude and annoying thing to do to someone, and these days I refuse to meet with anyone until they tell me what they want to talk about.) He was a fan of my work---I knew that---and years later he would give me an award in 1977, saying he'd only known two geniuses in his life, and both were cartoonists. So what the hell, I wondered, was wrong? 

When I entered his office, he asked me to take a seat. He looked frustrated and uncomfortable, as if he was about to perform a very distasteful chore. He lifted my cartoon from his desk and said, sadly, "We can't run this. Not in this part of Illinois." 
 What was the problem? Well, it was simply this: I had drawn two integrated couples in that cartoon. A white boy dating a black girl, and a black boy dating a white girl. There were people in southern Illinois, which sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War, and where outside town there still stood an old barn from which slaves had once been sold, who would be enraged by that drawing in 1967. This experience was my introduction to media censorship. My initial reaction as an artist, my first gut response, was two-fold: I felt anger and the desire to push the envelope even farther, and if someone got offended, then so be it. Over the decades I would---both as a professional cartoonist and a writer---experience other situations like the one I just described. So where am I going with this?

It all comes down, I think, to whose ox is being gored. Today, if a young cartoonist did a variation on the one I drew in 1967 and showed a gay or lesbian couple, some readers would be outraged. I say, let them be outraged. If someone is so thin-skinned and insecure that a simple drawing---a visual poem---can send them into a tailspin, then perhaps they need that cold splash of water in the face when they're sipping their morning coffee and looking at their newspaper. 

Our nation's cartoonists, whose ancestry reaches back to the first one (Ben Franklin with his "Join, or Die" drawing in the Pennsylvania Gazette on May 9, 1745) and Thomas Nast, are protected by the First Amendment, and are always more than happy to perform that public service. At this very moment, Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard is under constant police protection because he published a drawing of the prophet Muhammad wearing a bomb in his turban. Westergaard knew what he was doing. His drawing is elegant and perfectly captures the point he wishes to make about how terrorists use religion. At the moment he probably feels a little bit like Socrates when the Athenians handed him the hemlock to drink. Whether one is a philosopher or a political cartoonist, one understands that the ire of some readers or listeners simply comes with the territory. Our job is to shake people up. Especially smug ones.

 In 1871, the very corrupt William "Boss" Tweed is accredited with saying, "Stop them damn pictures!" when he saw one of Thomas Nast's' anti-Trust cartoons. "I don't care what the papers write about me. My constituency can't read. But, damn it, they can see pictures."

          That, I believe, says all one needs to say on this subject.


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