Election 2008

Thomas Nast
The Tammany Tiger Loose — "What are you going to do about it?"

Political Cartoons in America

October 23, 2008
by Christopher Coats
For as long as there have been politicians in America, there have those willing to criticize them in print. However, few have the ability to capture frustration or protest as clearly and succinctly as political cartoonists, relegated as they are to a single image or short sequence of pictures to get their point across.

A Message in a Sketch

Caricatures and mocking sketches have appeared for centuries in Europe; the first reported use of a cartoon for a political purpose in America occurred with Ben Franklin’s “Join or Die” sketch in 1754, depicting a snake cut into pieces to symbolize the fracturing of the early American colonies.

While it could hardly be called amusing, the sketch was republished across the country and marked the beginning of a new political art form in America.

In their earliest incarnations, theses cartoons were meant to capture a reader’s attention and deliver a quick, strong message, but it was not until later that they began to incorporate a bit of humor to soften the blow.

Gaining steam during the Civil War, with sketches arguing both sides of the political debate, cartoons began to be the clearest and most widespread way to editorialize an issue or call a public figure out for his or her alleged misdeeds.

One of the more famous examples of the art concerns the battle between artist Thomas Nast and Boss Tweed, the legendary New York political leader.

The last word in city politics from the Civil War until 1871, Tweed became a favorite target of Nast’s, who was featured in one of the few publications beyond the political boss’s reach, Harper’s Weekly.
The man credited with creating the Republican Party’s elephant mascot and making the Democrat’s donkey a common sight after Andrew Jackson had adopted it himself, Nast took a special interest in Tweed and his cronies.

Relentless in his criticism, Nast took to the pages of Harper’s and The New York Times, attempting to expose the corruption of Tweed’s band of insiders, rumored to have pocketed millions in city funds.

Capturing Tweed in print as a crook and providing him and his band of followers with a mascot of their own, the Tammany Tiger, Nast is credited with helping to bring Boss Tweed down.

The Political Dr. Seuss

What Nast was not known for, however, was subtlety or wit. While his art was regarded as exceptional, his message often seemed heavy handed.

One man who took a decidedly different approach was Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known to children everywhere as Dr. Seuss.

Using a style and a host of characters legions of children would eventually learn to love and remember, Geisel spent two years during World War II producing more 400 decidedly political cartoons for the New York newspaper PM.

Unequivocally pro-interventionist, the cartoons often cast Japanese and German characters as crude stereotypes, while appealing to the U.S. government to become more involved in the war effort abroad.

A Critique with a Storyline

The 1970s saw the emergence of another distinctive American cartoon voice: Garry Trudeau, creator of the comic strip Doonesbury. Skipping the single-frame approach taken by Geisel and Nast, Trudeau created a universe of drama and humor to broach often-controversial topics, such as the U.S. role in Vietnam.

More than three decades later, Trudeau continues to write and draw Doonesbury, using his characters to express his views on some of today’s most politically touchy issues, including the war in Iraq, the presidential election and gay marriage.

Nast Lives On

Meanwhile, single-frame cartoons continue to fight for both sides of the political spectrum on a daily basis.

Two of today’s most celebrated artists are Tom Toles on the left and Pat Oliphant on the right. While the two cartoonists have been reasonably consistent in their political beliefs, neither is above crossing party lines to call a spade a spade.

The two also share the characteristic of adding an extra bit of editorial comment via a small character drawn on the periphery of the frame. Toles usually adds himself, while Oliphant offers his opinion through a character named Punk.

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