The Cartoonist's License

by Bill Watterson

From Target magazine, Issue no.2, Winter 1982, pg.18

Bob Gorrell calls on editorial cartoonists to tone down their imagery in his essay, "A Responsibility to Fairness" (Target Autumn 1981). He maintains that cartoonists, looking for devastation more than accuracy, visually overstate their arguments to the point that they obscure the truth. Gorrell laments the prevalence of "shock imagery" and inaccurate characterization that he says "perpetuate the shallowness in public dialogue which we aim to counteract." Cartoonists, he suggests, abuse their license to exaggerate, and end up reinforcing common stereotypes, rather than enlightening the public. While I agree with Mr. Gorrell that too many cartoons perpetuate shallow public dialogue, I think his assault on exaggerated imagery is misguided.

Gorrell is critical of distortion because of two assumptions he makes about political cartooning, neither of which I find convincing. The first is that the editorial cartoon is analogous to the prehistoric cave painting, in that both of them indelibly etch their wish-fulfilling images in their respective viewers' brains, and persuade them of their truth. Gorrell argues that the editorial cartoon is so convincing in its irreverent depictions of besieged political bison, that its visual arsenal must be limited. The daily barrage of gross simplifications and exaggerations conditions the reader to see issues in one-dimensional terms, and to lose his appreciation for the complexity of events. Indeed, Gorrell goes further, saying, "For the reader, there is, very often, little discrimination between our renderings and actual fact." In short, cartoonists abuse their power to influence, and leave the reader with an altered and inaccurate view of the political scene.

This, I think, is bunk. Obviously, if the reader's brain is such sludge that he cannot distinguish the distortion of a cartoon from reality, then the cartoonist's responsibility not to mislead him is indeed awesome. Fortunately, I doubt the general public is as naive and impressionable as Gorrell suggests.

Gorrell glorifies cartoonists as "the heavy artillery of journalism," adding that, "given the daily saturation of his brain with our images, the reader's perception of issues will invariably be colored by the characterizations we offer." I dispute this. Despite what some magazine articles and book introductions say, cartoonists are not popularly regarded as the sages of our time. The characterizations that remain with us (Nixon as the gray-faced, beady-eyed hunchback; Ford as the bland-looking klutz; Carter as the diminutive, scared-looking twit, etc.) do so not because they molded the putty of our political thought, but because they rang genuine; they captured some truth with an unusual visual articulateness. People do not turn to cartoonists to learn what to think. Rather, they turn to cartoonists to be confronted with an opinion -- one that could just as easily be unpalatable as palatable. The cartoonist need not worry that he might, with a careless flip of his brush, "demolish the world view" of his trusting, Truth-seeking reader.

The second thrust of Gorrell's attack on exaggerated imagery is based on his premise that the purpose of the editorial cartoon is to enlighten the public. Gorrell concludes that the simplicity and shocking visual misrepresentation in most cartoons does not promote intelligent discussion of current issues. He therefore again asks for moderation on the part of cartoonists.

I do not deny that a cartoon can and should occasionally educate the public, but I question whether that is really the cartoon's major function. The cartoon is certainly ill-equipped to to do it well, at any rate. One picture and a handful of words do not lend themselves to the subtlety, accuracy, and fairness that Gorrell yearns for. It seems to me that the role of educating and intelligent arguing is more properly left to the columnists, who have hundreds of words at their disposal every day. The editorial cartoon is a blunt instrument. It has power, but little finesse. The cartoon hits the reader with a take-it-or-leave-it, point-blank opinion and doesn't stick around to argue. This is its proper function.

A good cartoonist will use levity, gravity, symbols, and caricature with enough unpredictability and variety to catch the reader by surprise. Take away the cartoonist's license to exaggerate, simplify, distort, and shock, and you take away his ability to say anything forcefully. This forcefulness is vital, for this is what compels the reader to think. It is the visual surprise and shock value of the editorial cartoon, whether somber, funny, subtle, or bold, that takes the place of (and sometimes surpasses) the columnist's ability to argue at length. Herblock's famous cartoon of Nixon crawling out of a sewer was unfair, distorted, and didn't include one reason why Nixon was portrayed so viciously. Instead, it confronted the reader with a bald opinion that, by virtue of its exaggeration, was impossible to ignore. The cartoonist's role is not so much to instruct his audience, or illuminate the Truth, as it is to simply take an honest stand and present it vehemently enough so that it must be confronted. This constitutes the power of the cartoon to stimulate discussion and debate. And this is the cartoon's positive function in society.

The shallowness that Gorrell points to is not, then, a result of overstated imagery, but rather, in my opinion, virtually the opposite. Far from abusing our license to be outrageous, cartoonists aren't taking advantage of it. If cartoons need not, as I have argued, actually instruct, they should at least provoke. Although a cartoonist is justified in occasionally climbing down from the pulpit and humorously remarking on some aspect of everyday life, editorial cartoons should be more than simply amusing. No cartoon that merely makes a pun or silly word play is going to elevate the level of discussion on any issue. Too many cartoons nowadays are chuckled at and easily forgotten, because they have not taken a position any more intriguing than "Med-flies are funny." Considering the opportunity the cartoonist has, to surprise or anger people enough to make them think and argue, presenting a comic strip-calibre joke is quite a waste of weaponry in the so-called "heavy artillery of journalism."