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Throughout world history, political cartoons have illustrated the age-old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. Since the sixteenth century, illustrated caricatures have been used as satire, drawing attention to important political and social events of the day. But in 1843, the practice gained a new name when England’s Punch magazine published a drawing parodying preliminary sketches of paintings commissioned for the houses of Parliament. “Cartoon No. 1,” as the illustration was called, was the first use of the word cartoon to describe humorous, satirical, or witty drawings or caricatures. It used simple imagery to communicate a message aimed at influencing public debate and the political process.
A surprising forefather of the political cartoon is Martin Luther, the sixteenth-century religious reformer, who used illustrated booklets and posters in a campaign to reform the Catholic Church. In Passional Christi und Antichristi (1521), illustrated by the printmaker Lucas Cranach, Luther contrasted easily recognizable scenes from the Bible with scathing caricatures of the Catholic Church. One set of illustrations juxtaposed Christ driving the moneylenders out of the Temple with the Pope selling indulgences. The practice of using satirical drawings to make political commentary caught on in Europe, and the practice eventually spread around the world.
Political cartoons were very influential in early American political culture. In 1754, Benjamin Franklin became the first to publish a cartoon in an American newspaper. Franklin, a supporter of unifying the colonies for protective purposes, used a common superstition to get his message across. It was believed that a snake that had been severed would come to life again if its pieces were put back together before nightfall. Franklin drew a picture of a snake cut into eight pieces, with the caption “Join, or Die.” Using easily recognizable symbols as shorthand for commentary remains a staple of modern political cartoons.
Even in the eighteenth century, political cartoons traveled around the world, crossing language and cultural barriers. One famous example is that of William “Boss” Tweed, the head of the political machine that had run New York City since 1789. Tweed was caricatured as a crook in a series of political cartoons by Thomas Nast in the American publication Harper’s Weekly. “Stop them Damn Pictures,” demanded Tweed, “I don’t care so much what the papers write about me. My constituents can’t read. But damn it, they can see pictures.” When Tweed fled an American jail for Spain, a Spanish official recognized him from his cartoon likeness, leading to his arrest and return to America.
In the twenty-first century, cartoons are often used as a vehicle for disseminating political commentary around the world. Political cartoons now come in many forms, from the one-frame cartoons found on the editorial pages of newspapers to multipaneled cartoons commonly referred to as comic strips. Political content can also be found in other popular cartoon forms, such as comic books, graphic novels, and Japanese anime, and in different media venues, such as television, movie theaters, and the Internet. Recurring politically charged comic strips, or “funnies,” are particularly well suited to using humor to deal with significant issues. Comic strips are able to address social and political issues by weaving them into the day-to-day lives of their characters. In America, the syndicated comic strips Doonesbury and The Boondocks are examples of daily comic strips that provide biting social commentary and critiques of the government.
- Hess, Stephen, and Sandy Northrup. 1996. Drawn and Quartered: The History of American Political Cartoons. Montgomery, AL: Elliott and Clark.
- Luther, Martin. 1521. Passional Christi und Antichristi. Wittenberg, Germany: Johann Rhau Grunenberg. http://www.kb.dk/luther/passion/index.htm.
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