Cartoons can be simply described as humorous drawings, separated into political or editorial, which use caricature, humor, and satire to comment on current affairs and influence public opinion, and social or gag, which poke fun at daily life and its problems or merely illustrate jokes. Although political cartoons normally are found in daily newspapers, where they often support editorial views, they have also appeared in magazines, on television, and as broadsheets and posters. Gag cartoons typically are in general interest magazines, some of which (e.g., Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Esquire, and New Yorker in the US) were famous for them, and in cartoon/humor periodicals (most notably, the long-lived Punch of the UK and Mad in the US).
The lineage of cartoons is long. Some early examples include Bishop Toba’s humorous scrolls kidding Japanese religious and government leaders a millennium ago; the satirical prints of England’s William Hogarth, James Gillray, George Cruikshank, and Thomas Rowlandson; France’s Honoré Daumier and others who published in Caricature and Charivari in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; and the colonial unity drawings of Benjamin Franklin in the 1740s –1750s. Because of its often loose definition, the cartoon can include some of Pablo Picasso’s abstract works, Francisco Goya’s drawings entitled “Disasters of War,” or Käthe Kollwitz’s war and poverty paintings.
Besides amusing, cartoons serve multiple purposes worldwide, including social consciousness raising (notable examples being AIDS awareness cartoons, existing especially in Africa), education, instruction, and propaganda, the latter particularly evident during wartime. In late 1930s China, a roving band of 10 or 11 cartoonists drew anti-Japanese cartoons on banners, posters, and elsewhere, warning the Chinese of the invaders. During World War II, the Japanese military dropped cartoon leaflets on Allied soldiers in an effort to demoralize them. During the same period, the US had a cartoon bureau within the War Department for similar propaganda purposes.
Politically, the cartoon has been universally effective and, at the same time, vilified. In the US, the drawings of Thomas Nast in the 1870s were credited with helping to bring down the corrupt New York City government, while more recently, Herb Block’s caricatures of Richard Nixon were so devastating that Nixon felt he had to “erase” them before proceeding with his political ambitions. Elsewhere, officialdom, extremely wary of the potential impact of cartoons, have killed cartoonists (as in Vietnam, Argentina, Algeria, and other parts of Africa), threatened them with death (Ríus in Mexico, Alberto Breccia in Argentina), arrested them (Kim Song Hwan in South Korea, Zapiro in South Africa, Gado in Kenya), forced them into exile (as in Burma and parts of Africa), and imprisoned or otherwise stopped them from drawing for decades (Ding Cong, Liao Bingxiong, Wang Fuyang in China, Sibarani in Indonesia). In authoritarian states, such as Nazi Germany, the former Soviet Union, formerly Kuomintang-controlled Taiwan, and Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, cartoonists were pigeonholed to serve the state. In the USSR, for example, two types of cartoons were permitted – druzherskii sharzh (celebratory of the state) and karikature (negative toward the west).
Home to both political and gag cartoons, the humor and cartoon magazines have also been around for a long time and have flourished under all types of regimes. In the Soviet Union, Krokodil was one of the highest-circulated periodicals, and Dedeté and Palante in Cuba were also favorites until economic woes destroyed them. China still has Humor and Satire. While the US has had venerable humor/cartoon magazines in the past (Puck, Judge, and Life in the latter nineteenth century; National Lampoon and Mad in more recent times), this is not the situation today. The UK’s long-lived Punch, itself an institution, is also deceased. On the other hand, Malaysia, Turkey, and Tanzania each nurtures between 6 and 15 such periodicals at any given time, and other successful humor/cartoon magazines publish in France (Le Canard Enchaine), Francophone Africa, Iran, Mexico, and elsewhere in Latin America.
Cartoons, especially political, face a number of challenges, even in the US, where they have had a fruitful stay. At the beginning of the twentieth century, US newspapers and magazines employed 2,000 fulltime cartoonists; the number is under 140 now. Fewer than 90 dailies have their own cartoonists, and papers such as the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Baltimore Sun have either dropped or not replaced their cartoonists. Increasingly, US dailies, and newspapers elsewhere, depend upon syndicated cartoons, thus depriving readers of visual commentary on local issues. Also, publishers worried about possible litigation have steered their cartoonists to draw gag rather than serious cartoons. Other problems plaguing cartooning are competition from other media for the readers and the demise or merging of dailies, which deprive artists of outlets. Furthermore, cartoonists are confronted by heightened levels of self-censorship on the parts of editors, who are fearful of stepping on the corporate interests of publishers or alienating minorities in an age when political correctness has run rampant. Widespread use of the Internet is another problem cartoonists face because it necessitates the rethinking of how cartoons are created and distributed.
Like comics, the cartoon has reinvented itself in recent years, adapting to new technology and new norms. Many aspiring cartoonists have entered the field through Internet websites. Alternative cartoon periodicals, either printed or online, have appeared at an unprecedented pace and in unexpected places, and more explicit content has become usual where hitherto it was highly frowned upon. These are all indications that the cartoon will endure and continue to amuse, inform, and persuade.
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