Lil’ Political Cartooning

Steve and Jason’s latest podcast got me thinking of the very first blog post I made on this site, way back in April, when we discussed whether the term ‘webcomic’ was still relevant today. Jason’s webcomics choice of the week – Mike Norton’s Little Donnie – echoes something of this debate: being a modern, relevant incarnation of cartooning’s oldest and most enduring ancestor – the political (editorial) cartoon.

When art first started appearing in pamphlets, newspapers and periodicals back in the late 1600’s to early 1700’s, pioneering cartoonists found that politics not only provided a source of inspiration, but also rich fodder for humorous and moral statements on the people and issues of the day. As the notion of the “free press” was still over a hundred years away, these first cartoons (or, ‘caricatures’) often had their true meanings masked by the ridiculous, (hence the modern attribution of the word ‘caricature’ with ‘things overblown or exaggerated’). In the same way, veiled criticism of politics and the ruling class gave birth to forms of art and humour like satire and ‘lampooning’, and these first cartoons directly resulted in the subsequent development of the comic ‘strip’ and even the comic ‘book’ (at that time, small pamphlets dedicated to a sequential cartoon arc, often political [or sexual] in nature).

As time went on, the ‘classic’ format for the political cartoon: single panel, with easily identifiable caricatures of individuals, the anthropomorphisation of nations or ideologies, and the labelling of ambiguous elements with text, was developed (predominantly) by famed caricaturists James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson. Once developed, this format would last the test of time, and is still the predominant model for editorial cartoons in newspapers across the globe today. In fact, although most print newspapers have cut back or entirely removed the ‘funny pages’ where cartoons once flourished, rare indeed is the newspaper which has removed the cartoon(s) from their editorial sections, so deeply are they ingrained in our culture and societies.

Mike Norton, with Little Donnie, is bringing many of the art and writing choices that are so ingrained in editorial cartooning, into the modern era and the classic 4-panel webcomic format. Norton’s Trump is predictably caricatured, with the facial skin tone of a sunburned oompa-loompa, hands modelled from a Ken doll, and a hairpiece as attractive as a damp lettuce. He also seems to be following some other familiar conventions established by the editorial cartoon’s time in print media: whilst the jokes are far from insipid, neither are they vulgar or particularly edgy, preferring to insinuate, rather than show anything controversial – the format preferred and popularised by family-friendly newspapers for centuries. Unlike the ‘traditional’ single-panel format, though, the multi-panel approach allows Norton to develop unique and in-depth narratives in his satire (and more active humour) in his political parodies. The benefit of the webcomic format also means he is not constrained by previous decisions, and already has examples where he has broken his own mould, with single-panel, three-panel, multi-panel and irregularly-shaped episodes all sharing space on the same digital ‘page.’

Of course, Mike is not alone in bringing political cartooning to the digital realm: sites such as The Nib, Scenes from a Multiverse and even more conservative cartoons such as Day by Day have a long history of political commentary… but the importance of this tradition and how it continues (and continues to develop) in the digital landscape is an exploration for another time.

Why do you think that political cartooning has endured for so long, through so many changes in the cartooning and media industries? Are you excited to see another cartoonist make the jump into political commentary, or would you rather see their focus put to other areas? Don’t hesitate to let us know in the comments below, and until next time remember: don’t eat the clickbait!

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