The editorial cartoon has power well outside its few words and images, but it is a power that is losing its place in the world at a time when it is needed most.
In recent months, artists and readers of political satire, editorial cartoons and current affairs have been dealt three very real blows: The New York Times will stop publishing editorial cartoons in its international edition after an image perceived as anti-Semitic was published earlier this year; Michael de Adder, a widely respected and influential cartoonist in Canadian newspapers, was terminated the day after a cartoon was published showing Donald Trump asking drowned asylum seekers if he could continue playing golf around their dead bodies; and MAD Magazine announced it would stop publishing new material in its iconic issues.
Any one of those announcements would be enough give people pause when considering the impact editorial and political cartoons can play. For all three to happen within weeks is astonishing.
The world’s gone MAD
MAD Magazine was created in 1952 and was the only publication of its time to survive a wave of pearl clutching self-censorship in the early days of the Cold War, when people were more worried about pulpy magazines and the images within causing irreparable damage to precious young minds than the actual horror in which they lived, being told daily that the Commies were going to bomb them out of existence. To survive, the magazine changed formats, becoming more magazine-style than its brethren, but it never wavered from biting satire and commentary that mocked just about everything and gave a generation or two of readers the inspiration to be funny, sarcastic and, most importantly critical thinkers.
The New York Times does not run editorial cartoons in its domestic edition on a regular basis, but it had run editorial cartoons, either in the traditional single-image format or a short series of images, for a number of years. When it was noticed that a cartoon was published showing Trump blind and wearing a yarmulke, being led around by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the form of a guide dog, the newspaper took what some feel is an overzealous step and decided to cease any and all cartoons altogether.
After the announcement was made, the paper said it would be open to running longer-form illustrations in the future, akin to the Pulitzer Prize-winning series depicting a Syrian family seeking asylum. That series, “Welcome to the New World,” was the first editorial cartoon to win the prestigious honour that was not direct commentary but, instead, a narrative story.
Satire is not always humour
de Adder had been a freelancer for Brunswick News Inc. for 17 years, with his work appearing in publications across Canada for nearly as long. He continues to be published nationally, but the New Brunswick job was particularly close to his heart as that’s the province in which he was raised.
He believes that the cartoon, published on June 27, was “simply the final nail in the coffin and hastened my demise,” something that kind of backs up the company’s position that it was readying to offer de Adder a severance package and had already lined up someone else to replace him.
The image that brought de Adder into the international spotlight certainly is a powerful one. But remember that cartoonists around the world have been jailed or killed for penning damning, evocative, critical and blatantly political pieces.
Remember the four cartoonists at the French satire publication Charlie Hebdo, among the dozen killed in early 2015 for daring to run an image depicting the prophet Muhammad.
At a time when their work is needed most, when the world itself is becoming a caricature of sanity and discourse and when Nazis are given more leeway than those who speak up in opposition to their hate-spewing ways, we’re seeing the fading of editorial cartoons as an art form and as a method of commentary to make people take a step back and think.
“Editorial cartoons have never been more important, and with social media, they have an increasingly broad reach,” de Adder wrote. “In a sense, they are a more powerful tool than they have ever been. Newspapers are cutting one of their best assets when they are at their most vulnerable. And in turn, democracy is losing one of its most treasured safeguards.”
Juxtaposition to prove a point
Some of the most powerful cartoons have no words at all. In a piece published last year, Pulitzer Prize-winner Adam Zyglis, cartoonist for the Buffalo News whose work is syndicated for other publications, depicted the inhumane and unthinkable enclosure of children in camps along the southern United States border by placing those children within the crown of the Statue of Liberty, an international symbol of America’s promise of a better life.
A well-written and drawn editorial cartoon is “like a visual poem that is loaded with an opinion. And it’s not just a visual opinion, but it has layers to it like a poem.”
He told the Providence Journal that, as a parent of young children, the images of young children separated from their parents and in confinement was especially haunting.
“One of the largest symbols of America is that Statue of Liberty with a new colossus. This policy is the antithesis to that,” Zyglis said. “It represents the opposite of what we stand for.”
Cartoonists won’t quit
de Adder has said the one thing he was told not to draw was anything related to Trump. The parent company for Brunswick News Inc. has ties to American corporations, especially in oil production.
“When a newspaper runs a Trump cartoon, they ensure backlash from Trump’s supporters. And in some editors’ minds, it’s apparently easier to get rid of the cartoonist than take any more chances. But that’s lazy journalism,” he wrote. “One thing is for sure, Trump makes the case for editorial cartoonists pretty much every day. He goes after every facet of news gathering which disagrees with him by calling it fake news. But for the most part, he leaves political cartoonists alone. Maybe he knows that calling a cartoon fake news will just encourage more cartoons.
The Association of Editorial Cartoonists used to boasts more than 200 attendees to its annual conference; its annual draw is now less than 50. In a time when there’s more to lampoon, criticize, question and ridicule, and more injustices to highlight, we’re losing our bests and most cutting voices, as more editorial pens fall silent.
*Featured image by 2019 Pulitzer Prize winner Darrin Bell.