Listen to this story



Editorial Cartooning, Then and Now

And how drawing Trump is not that easy

Published in The New York Times, 2017

Ever since the election of Donald Trump, I am asked, “What is it like to draw Trump?” It seems people think that for cartoonists, drawing the current president is like being a kid in a candy store, that somehow it’s fun and easy. Over the past seven months, I have been wrestling with how to draw the new president. In a world where everyone has an opinion, how can you make a statement that has impact? Is one’s own opinion that important? And how have cartoons helped in bringing truth to power? Have they at all?

Political cartoons have been a part of my visual world for as long as I can remember. From the greats of my youth — Herbert Block, Garry Trudeau and others — my nascent passion for cartooning was shaped during a tumultuous time in our country’s history. I grew up in Washington, D.C. during the Watergate years, the civil rights era, and the women’s movement. I was drawing as a young girl, trying to understand what was going on around me; as a painfully shy child, I also drew to communicate. We are living through a similar time, and now, as a professional editorial cartoonist, I find I am still drawing to understand.

After Trump was elected, I looked around to see how my colleagues were responding to the new reality. I asked my friend and colleague Ann Telnaes, president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists and a cartoonist for the Washington Post, what her feelings are about it. I could see that her drawings are as opinionated as ever. Here’s how Telnaes sees the role of editorial cartoonists today:

“The job of an editorial cartoonist is to expose the hypocrisies and abuses of power by the politicians and powerful institutions in society. I think our role has become even more urgent with the new political reality in 2017. Political dog whistles have become red meat to be tossed out regularly by politicians without the slightest attempt to conceal racism or sexism. Except for journalists and cartoonists, there’s no one keeping a check on conflicts of interest or unethical behavior in government.

“The future is here. Because the internet opens up different mediums for cartooning, there are more cartoonists, especially younger ones, who are expressing their opinions through their art.”

There have been many different types of editorial cartoons over the course of American history. In 1754, Benjamin Franklin drew the first known political cartoon, which was published in his paper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, and distributed across the colonies.

In this simple image, Franklin sought to cajole the colonies into staying together in the face of a looming war between Britain and France. The woodcut was run along with Franklin’s editorial about the “disunited state” of the colonies and helped make his point about the importance of unity. The image was again used during the French and Indian War and also became a symbol of freedom during the Civil War. The cartoon was widely redrawn and reprinted for different purposes throughout American history. As an effective communicator, Franklin understood the power of a simple image, and since the colonies ended up staying together, one can argue that the image was very successful.

In the 1830s, cartoons appeared frequently and commented on all sorts of news items. There was a proliferation of illustrated humor magazines, but most of the drawings were used to break up the type and weren’t central to the humor. The success of the magazine Punch in England, beginning in 1841, influenced American publishers to start similar magazines, such as Puck, Judge, and the original Life.

These publications ran thousands of cartoons — some political, some not.

The cartoons usually consisted of two lines of dialogue below an elaborate drawing. These magazines were weeklies, so the artist had time to draw in detail (as was the fashion at the time). Early artists for these weeklies were not necessarily humorists, but engravers and woodcutters; comics evolved later, when color printing was developed in 1893. Political cartoons for newspapers had to convey an immediate message, so they tended to be simpler.

In the late 1800s, German immigrant Thomas Nast, known as the father of American political cartoons, gained fame drawing political cartoons for Harper’s Weekly.

Thomas Nast, self-caricature, 1876.

Nast is best remembered for his cartoons that helped bring down the corrupt New York Democratic politician Boss Tweed by persistently ridiculing him and his cronies in Tammany Hall. Tweed’s followers were mostly illiterate, and while they could not understand the scathing articles about him, they understood the cartoons.

Image: Courtesy Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Tweed is quoted as saying, “Stop them damn pictures!” He tried to bribe Nast but was unsuccessful. Ultimately, Nast’s images swayed public opinion, and Tweed ended up in jail.

The first successful humor magazine in the United States was Puck, founded by Joseph Keppler and lasting from 1871 to 1917. It was more of a satirical publication; the work in it was less dogmatic than Nast’s. In 1884, however, Puck repeatedly published versions of a “tattooed man,” an image created by the British artist Bernard Gillam.

“Tattooed Man” cartoon by Bernard Gillam, 1884.

This character represented the corrupt GOP candidate James Blaine as man whose tattoos detailed all of his alleged political sins. It began as general satire and turned into a personal attack. Blaine and his followers hated the cartoons, and he ended up losing the election to Grover Cleveland.

These examples show how the power of images can successfully influence the public and those in power.

By the end of the 1880s, U.S. newspapers were employing their own political cartoonists full-time, many of whom became national celebrities. At the same time, the advent of color printing ushered in the newspaper comic strip era. Political and social commentary was not uncommon in the newspaper strips, from the conservative Little Orphan Annie to the leftist Pogo. By the turn of the 20th century, editorial or political cartoons remained relatively consistent in appearance, which often meant a single image with writing inside the picture or below it as a title.

Most dealt with traditional political subjects, but some cartoonists used the form as an activist tool. Like Thomas Nast, editorial cartoonists often used their skills to try to sway public opinion.

Cartoon by Katherine Milhous.

For example, cartoonists used the art form as activist commentary to convince others of the importance of suffrage for women before and after 1900. They used cultural stereotypes and misconceptions in their attempts to rid our society of traditions they considered wrong. It was a battle of imagery, with women’s role in society placed at the center.

Ridicule and negative imagery are two effective tools in the cartoonists’ hands. Empathy is another. During World War II, the cartoonist Bill Mauldin used empathy to share what he felt needed to be heard. During the war, he was a member of the 45th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army and drew a regular feature that ran in the Stars And Stripes called Willie and Joe.

Copyright Bill Mauldin (1944 & 1963). Courtesy Bill Mauldin Estate LLC.

Mauldin’s feature, about two archetypal servicemen, showed Americans what it was like to serve in the war without glorifying or patronizing those who did.

Cartoons can also serve to bring people together, as in this Mauldin cartoon from 1963, which depicts the nation’s sorrow at the loss of President John F. Kennedy to an assassin’s bullets.

With their ability to distill ideas — often in just a few drawn lines — cartoonists historically have been truth tellers. They use imagery that is often unkind and harsh to help to bring down corrupt politicians and leaders, and they show us ourselves. Great editorial cartoons are often beyond partisanship and serve to help viewers see what is really going on. Never was this truer than in the 1970s, as the Watergate scandal slowly emerged. Before Watergate, cartoonists poked at presidents and their decision-making, cabinet choices, and the like, but no one could have anticipated what would happen under the Nixon administration, and, by and large, the news media was slow to believe the early reports on the Watergate scandal.

Herbert Block drew scathing and nuanced cartoons for the Washington Post about Washington inside the Beltway. Known as “Herblock,” he was well known for his cartoons attacking the politics of Joe McCarthy in the 1950s—one of which introduced the term “McCarthyism.” When yet-to-be-president Richard Nixon ran for Congress in 1954, Herblock drew him with a five o’clock shadow, crawling out of an open sewer. Nixon canceled his subscription to the Post after that depiction.

Herbert Block: AP Photo

During the Watergate scandal, Herblock created numerous cartoons about the actions of the Nixon administration. Herblock and his colleagues at the Washington Post were awarded a special Pulitzer Prize in 1979. He was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 under President Bill Clinton.

A 1954 and 1974 Herblock Cartoon, copyright The Herb Block Foundation

By the 1970s, there were numerous editorial cartoonists on staff at local papers across the United States, producing daily cartoons that reflected either their independent views or the paper’s political stance, or both. Politics sometimes made its way into syndicated comic strips, but when Garry Trudeau began his strip Doonesbury in 1970, it was unlike anything we’d seen before.

Trudeau created a cast of characters for his daily who mirrored the youth of the late 1960s and 1970s and put them into storylines with U.S. politicians, elected officials, and foreign dignitaries. Trudeau in effect commented not only on Washington inside the Beltway and global issues, but also on our responses as Americans to the politics of the day via these cartoon characters.

Garry Trudeau/Andrews and McMeel, 1973

His work was often so brash and controversial that papers chose not to run a particular strip on a given day. Many newspapers moved Doonesbury to the op-ed sections and off the comics page. Trudeau was, in effect, an op-ed writer, only he used drawings and fiction to relay his opinion. His cartoons during Watergate earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1975. He attacked Nixon’s illegal behavior, but Trudeau’s work also served as a mirror to American society and culture.

There are many other cartoonists I could write about, but these are ones who were noteworthy in American history and who I believe helped change public opinion on events and people in American political life. The New Yorker — which began in 1925 as a humor magazine — ran political cartoons since its beginning. By design, they were of a particular type: black-and-white line images with one caption under a symbiotic drawing, often (but not exclusively) focused more on cultural humor. Magazines like Mad and National Lampoon were satirical publications and frequently ridiculed our elected officials and government, particularly during the antiestablishment atmosphere of the 1970s.

But what about now? On one hand, if you are a liberal cartoonist, this is a time that is ripe for visual satire. Our new president is unlike any of his predecessors in many ways, and his visage and actions make him somewhat easy to draw. My question is this: What kind of cartoons should we be drawing?

Cartoons themselves have been in the news in recent years, beginning with the Danish cartoon controversy, and then the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris. In each case, we saw how controversial cartoons can be and how their creation was sometimes followed by death and destruction. I found myself questioning what role we play as editorial cartoonists, particularly in the age of the internet. Yes, we need to continue to be truth tellers. But how do we tell that truth? What are our motivations? Who are we drawing to? Are we to prod, poke, expose, ridicule, empathize, cajole, connect, or divide?

Copyright Liza Donnelly and the New Yorker Magazine

With this new administration, all of these questions came together for me in my own work, after they had been simmering since the Charlie Hebdo deaths. My cartoons over the years had been typically pretty tame, quietly poking fun at people and politics in the New Yorker. After 9/11, I found it hard to be funny and questioned staying in cartooning. But I drew this cartoon, which the New Yorker bought and ran a month after the attack.

At that time, I vowed to do more political cartoons.

Beginning around 2010, I began to push myself to be more vocal in my work, voicing visual ideas about women’s rights globally in particular and politics generally.

When the 2016 election began, my feminist ire took hold. I began to draw Trump in short pants, because I felt he was a schoolyard bully. I called him out on his behavior toward women.

My audience appeared to love it, and frankly, I enjoyed their responses. Then Trump was elected president, and for months I found myself unable to draw him. How do I continue making fun of a person who is now the president and maintain my respect for the office?

Before Nixon was elected, Herblock drew him with a five o’clock shadow, looking rather sinister. After Nixon’s election, Herblock admitted that he removed the beard out of respect for the office, feeling he needed to give Nixon a chance.

After the Charlie Hebdo deaths, there were heated debates within the cartoon community. All believe in freedom of speech, but — and some feel there should be no “but” — are there limits to what can and cannot be drawn? I wrote an editorial for the International New York Times explaining that we have a responsibility as visual editorialists to use our craft carefully, that there are other ways to prove we have freedom of speech than simply to ridicule or satirize. It is not worth the death of innocent people.

Gary Trudeau delivered a speech in 2015 called “The Abuse of Satire,” in which he explained that the responsibility of the editorial cartoonist is to punch up, and not punch down. He admitted that “[i]t’s not easy to find the red line for satire anymore.”

So, with this in mind, “punching up” at President Trump is what should be done if one disagrees with his actions and policies. As we see more and more of him, my thinking is shifting, but I am still unsure for my own work how to proceed. I asked Trudeau for his thoughts on Trump and received this response:

“Donald Trump is obviously sui generis in every way — not least for me because I actually draw him. I used to let the reader do the work, depicting public figures as off-stage voices, then icons, but from the beginning, Trump was an exception. I’ve been drawing him in traditional caricature for 30 years, mostly because I wanted him as an actual cast member — a foil for Duke and the other characters. Also, his face, with piggy eyes and curling, contemptuous lip, was irresistible. I never settled into just one look for him. I started each caricature from scratch, and as his brown hair turned into lacquered panels of gold and his jowls melted over his collar, there was new fun to be had with every passing year.

“So representing Trump isn’t easier or harder for me than Nixon or other presidents, just different. But what has really mesmerized me over the years was not the visual wreck he presented, but the chaos he created wherever he turned. A born salesman with a working vocabulary of 600 words, most of them insulting, Trump used language for selfish, often evil, ends more effectively than any public figure in our lifetimes. He represented everything reprehensible about the broader culture, the dark side of the American Dream. Which, of course, put him right in the wheelhouse of Big Comedy! We’ll be forever in his debt.”

I have begun drawing Trump again in recent weeks, but as president, he is in a suit, and his hair, while yellowy orange, is less big. My audience has asked me to return to drawing Trump in short pants.

I try to create cartoons that say something; I have to walk that fine line between entertainment and substance, humor and meaning. To offend, not to offend, and how do I know whom I am offending, and does it even matter? Do I just put my feelings out there and throw care to the wind? Or do I have a responsibility to do otherwise?

In a recent on-air commentary on Face the Nation, journalist John Dickerson spoke to this concern, saying, in part, “If we don’t like what the president says, should we respond in the same manner?” In other words, should we match hate with hate? Drawing Trump in short pants would be an easy way for me to entertain. I have to find more ways to express myself, because we are in the middle of a complicated presidency. Our job, as Ann Telnaes says, is urgent.

America has fewer editorial cartoonists, in part because there are fewer newspapers. Newspapers (often run by large corporations) are perhaps nervous about the power of the cartoonist’s pen and the speed with which a cartoon can travel the world on the web and risk being misinterpreted. In this case, freedom of speech is perhaps curtailed by fear of financial loss.

The internet is now full of web comix and cartoonists — some creating long-form political cartoons. The New Yorker is publishing more political cartoons online, and web magazines such as Fusion, Daily Kos, and Politico feature regular political cartoonists. But editorial cartoonists struggle for a public that is distracted by so much. What once was the role of the editorial cartoonist in our society is now relegated to late-night political humor shows such as the Daily Show, from which video clips are shared online, as one used to share cartoons.

This was drawn while watching candidate Trump at a presidential debate. I took some of his words but also made some up. Published in Medium, 2016.

In the past three years, I have taken cartooning in a new direction by live-drawing events digitally and sharing in real time on the web. Partnering with CBS, I am exploring a type of visual journalism — I am not “embedded” as other cartoonists have been, nor am I like a court reporter. My live drawings are my editorial selection of what I experience, no matter where it is. I have traveled to Washington to cover the White House press corps, the Democratic National Convention and debates during the 2016 election, the Oscars, and more. We are combining cartooning with audio and animation to respond to the world; I believe it is a combination of what many of my predecessors have done, updated to the needs of our world now. I am communicating visuals and ideas with my audience in real time at the pace to which we are accustomed.

There are no answers. I will continue to draw our president — and the next and the next — and those around him. I will draw what I see and feel, as it happens. And I won’t forget to bring along my conscience as I do.

“The political cartoon is not a news story and not an oil portrait. It’s essentially a means of poking fun, for puncturing pomposity. Cartoons…serve the [same] purpose of helping readers understand situations. In opposing corruption, suppression of rights and abuse of government office, the political cartoon has always served as a special prod — a reminder to public servants that they ARE public servants.” — Herbert Block , 1977

Visual journalist/writer for New Yorker, New York Times, CBS News, CNN. TED, SXSW speaker. Looking to change world w humor.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store