The Evolution of Political Cartoons Through a Changing Media Landscape by Anne McCallum

As the ever-changing media landscape continues to evolve so does its content and in turn how that content is received. Central to the heart of American media are politics. American political ideology has been played out over the decades in conventional forms consisting of essays and written publications. Just as important to that ideology is American political opinion construed through drawings. Political cartoons have seen the scope of changing media in both content and delivery. They represent vivid, imaginative insight into politics and popular opinion. Today's political cartoons represent a fusion of pop culture and politics; and can be seen in a mired of ways. The web has become a new outlet for political cartooning. News and media today are certainly a far cry from the birth of quintessential political cartoons.

To comprehend the origin of the political cartoon, the term must be accurately defined, i.e. what is a political cartoon? According to Dan Backer's A Brief History of Cartoons website explains how a political cartoon is the melding of two elements. The first element is the caricature and the allusion. The second element is context, i.e. the subject matter is something widely known. In other words the subject matter portrayed by cartoons is something recognizable. The caricature will parody the individual and the allusion will create context. So political cartoons will exaggerate individuals' features and bring out that individuals "inner self' creating satire. Initially these caricatures and allusions were merely "curiosity" and not "viable artistic productions." The earliest would be political cartoons were not meant for public viewing (Backer).

Public viewing and "public consciousness" began to appear with the Protestant Reformation in Germany. "Visual propaganda" was used in the pursuit of religious reforms. The context of religious reform was something widely known and familiar thus these early political cartoons were an effective means to make the public aware (Backer). The success of cartoons of the eighteenth century helped to sustain cartooning as a medium. Cartoons were more than just comedy and humor; they took on an air of satire and seriousness. They presented serious issues in an acceptable manner specifically
designed to influence and affect popular opinion. As political cartooning became effective, "graphic satire" was utilized in the western culture (Backer).

Join or Die

For example, Ben Franklin's "Join or Die" is an early cartoon, which depicts a severed snake that representing the colonies. This is commonly acknowledged as America's first cartoon. The image was purely political and was understood among all classes. "Join or Die" was symbolic in American culture, everyone could relate and understand, and more importantly respond (Backer). Suddenly there was a connection between an idea and a drawing; hence the start of American political cartooning.


Thomas Nast from Harper's Weekly
Th. Nast

American history could be essentially documented by great cartoonists: cartoons became effective because all audiences could become influenced. The visual images contained simplicity and brevity, which were important. Also contributing the success of cartoons was the high illiteracy rate. With many Americans being able to read traditional print media, cartoons became a new outlet for information and new way to spark debate.

The tradition of visual satire continued into the Civil War where Thomas Nast is most notable known for his cartoons in Harper's Weekly. Nast is known for his graphic social commentary on the Civil War, which was quite often intensely clear. Political cartoonists like Nast analyzed serious and complex issues and made them humorous. Boss Tweed once blamed his decline the "damned pictures" (Iziren). Nast's work is another example of the impact of political cartoons on American society.

Following Nast's work was that of artist Joseph Keppler's who established the magazine Puck. Puck's cartoons were influence by German and Italian models. These cartoons "marked a significant moment in which the ideas of an intellectual elite could be successfully relayed to the masses." The use of "illustrated humor" allowed Puck to ridicule prominent figures of the day (Backer). This ridicule turned to commentary on politics and culture.

Keppler self-portrait

Political cartoons quickly solidified a place in American culture and politics and are now an accepted form of mainstream media. Today their place is as prevalent as ever. The longevity of cartoon as a medium for political expression then begs the question of evolution. With the changes and evolution of media has political cartooning undergone a metamorphosis? Cartoons have changed in both content and delivery.

Obviously we do not tackle the same issues of Thomas Nast's generation or Joseph Keppler's or even Benjamin Franklin's. We are a society riddled with terrorism, technological catch-22s, political scandals and injustice. Issues addressed in political cartoons today are not the same as those in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. Content and issues are drastically different and it would only make sense that delivery would change as well. Initially, cartoons did not make it out of a parlor or sitting room: they would be merely sketches in a notebook. As cartoons became mainstream, they found their place in pamphlets, brochures, newspapers and weekly digests. Today cartoons are a mainstay on websites, blogs, and internet magazines, in addition to traditional print media.

Few forms of art could sustain such a length of influence on society. Political cartoons are unique and are more distinct as a form of media. In Political Cartoons from The 1988 Presidential Campaign, Janis L. Edwards notes political cartoons are an "idea sustained by observation," they are "visual metaphors." Perhaps political cartoons sustain themselves because they bridge the apparent gap between fact and fiction (Edwards xi). Political cartoons have become a very effective medium for political expressions and thus a change in subject matter is apparent.


The first cartoons of the colonial era tackled debates among colonies, cartoons soon took on the Civil War and with World War II the government used political cartoons as propaganda.
Today cartoons cover issues on terrorism and dot coms.

.com cartoon
terrorist cartoon
osama bin laden cartoon


Cartoons today are changing not only in content but also in the manner in which they are received and the direction in which they are going. The future of cartoons and perhaps the most power catalyst for their evolution is the World Wide Web. For example organizations like PETA, Amnesty International, and Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence are taking political cartooning to the next level using the web. These organizations are using short online movies to get their points across. These movies contain parody and satire and have an almost caricature like sense to them. In "See Our Film, Join Our Cause" by Jenn Shreve this new movement is chronicled and compared with the more traditional political cartoons. Joseph Sachs, co-founder of Free Range Graphics says, "We think of these really in the tradition of political cartoons. It's a tried and true method of getting ideas out to people."
gun cartoon


In the spirit of evolution and metamorphosis, Jenn Shreve begins to explore the effect of computer programs and their manipulation of images and how, in a sense, it's becoming a political statement where the digital age meets political cartoons. Images doctored on a computer now have a place alongside political cartoons. One of the most notable examples of manipulated images includes an image of a tourist, edited to appear atop the World Trade Center before the jetliner headed into it (see right).

manipulated image
In "Photoshop: It's All the Rage," Shreve writes "Photoshopping, as its practitioners call it, is a booming online pastime for hobbyists and graphic designers whose altered documents have taken up residence in the popular imagination alongside political cartoons and satirical text." Shreve cites a growing number of website dedicated to "visual puns, satirical commentary and political expression" (Shreve). Evolution of political cartoons is obvious and the future uncertain.

Media has changed over each century, from the printing press to the World Wide Web;
change has been inevitable and dramatic. It is no surprise that media's content also
evolves and political cartoons are no different. Although they are an entity unto
themselves there are sharply contrasting differences with the turn of each century.
Political cartoons in America have changed dramatically in content and presentation,
and it's impossible to predict the changes in the future. The only definitive statement to be
made is that they will continue to impact popular culture and opinion.

Works Cited
Backer, Dan. A Brief History of Political Cartoons. 22 Jul 2004 <>
Cagle, Daryl. Today's Best Cartoons. 22 jul 2004 <>.
Edwards, Janis L. Political Cartoons in the 1988 Presidential Campaign. New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1997.
lziren, Adeline. "Competition: Drawing a line under trade injustice." The Guardian 07 2004 Lexis Nexis . 22 Jul 2004
<http://80-web.lexis- 457&wchp=dGLbVzz-zSkVA&-md5--94dfOa332a236bf6Of562fddf38e8ff3>.
Shreve, Jenn. "Wired News." 11 2001. Photoshop It's All the Rage. 22 Jul 2004 <http:/,1284,48342,00.htnii>.
Shreve, Jenn. "Wired News." 08 2001. See Our Film, Join Our Cause. 22 Jul 2004 <,1412,45628,00.html>.
Tourist of Death. 22 Jul 2004 <>.

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