Cartoonist Daryl Cagle Sketches Obama, McCain and the Future of His Craft

October 24, 2008 — At their best, editorial cartoons poignantly address serious issues, tap emotions and spur readers to think about things in new ways. Unfortunately, such cartoons are in shorter supply these days, according to Daryl Cagle, the daily editorial cartoonist for MSNBC.com, who discussed his craft on Wednesday at the University of Virginia.

Cagle said he likes to draw "big, simple and silly" cartoons that impact readers like "a bash in the face." At a presentation co-sponsored by U.Va.'s Center for Politics and Miller Center of Public Affairs, Cagle displayed and discussed more than a hundred cartoons of his and others, some of which are featured in his new cartoon collection, "Big Book of Campaign 2008 Cartoons."

Like poems, cartoons use words and symbols freighted with meaning in order to compress a thought-provoking message into a small space, Cagle explained. Frequent symbols include donkeys and elephants to represent Democrats and Republicans, or bulls and bears for their stock market connotations.

Sometimes the symbols of current events are so obvious that a number of editorial cartoonists end up drawing roughly the same cartoon, Cagle said. For instance, in the wake of 9/11 many cartoonists drew the Statue of Liberty weeping. Several drew police and firemen raising an American flag on the smoldering pile of World Trade Center wreckage, with a profile evoking the Iwo Jima Memorial. Another gaggle of strikingly similar cartoons depicted a policeman and a fireman standing side by side as the "real twin towers of New York City."

Cagle called such cartoons "Yahtzees," after the dice game that rewards rolling five of a kind. He first drew attention to "Yahtzees" by posting similar cartoons side by side on his Web site [Link to: http://cagle.com/], where he syndicates about 15 political and editorial cartoons a day to nearly 900 newspapers. His syndication business has helped make Cagle one of the most widely read cartoonists in the world.

The similarities of "Yahtzee" cartoons also stem from the fact that "most cartoonists are liberal, 50-year-old white males," said Cagle, noting that the newspaper industry hasn't created any new cartoonist jobs in the past 20 years.

The cadre of regularly published editorial cartoonists is small enough that it's not surprising that they clearly influence each other. When a critical mass of them choose to draw a public figure by exaggerating a certain distinguishing feature, such as Obama's ears, others must "go with the flow," said Cagle, who sketched several big-eared Obamas during the presentation.

Other artistic evolutions are the result more explicit camaraderie. Cagle and other cartoonists draw Hillary Clinton with exaggerated hips because they think it would annoy her, said Cagle. "A lot of these things don't happen by accident; they happen because we sit in a bar and all say 'Hey, let's draw Hillary with really big hips.'"

Cartoons often deal with charged issues, like politics, race and religion, and "get to speak much louder than the editorial writing" that surrounds them, said Cagle. "I think editorial cartoons have more power than words to make you think, and make you cry, and make you see an issue in a different way."

Inevitably some cartoons incur vitriol from readers. More than 10,000 angry emails rolled in after Cagle published a 2003 cartoon by Sandy Huffaker depicting a Muslim reading a "Koran for Dummies" with bookmarks labeled jihad, fatwa, revenge and suicide bomb, and a U.S. soldier asking, "Anything in there about gratitude?"

"A very large percentage of the angry e-mail on taboo cartoons comes from cartoons that are religiously offensive, without having any real religious purpose to be offensive," Cagle said. A cartoon is "worthless" when its metaphor makes people so angry that they ignore the real message of the cartoon, he said, adding that most controversies can be chalked up to a cartoonist's poor judgment and insensitivity.

In 2005, a Danish paper published cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad that spurred protests across the Muslim world, some of which escalated into violence that ultimately resulted in more than 100 deaths.

In the wake of that event, "Editors now like cartoons that really don't say anything," he said, noting that cartoons that are least offensive often get printed the most.

Controversies like Muhammad cartoons and newspapers not wanting to be controversial are killing cartooning, he said. "It is killing it fast, along with the death of the newspaper business, which is killing cartoonists' jobs."

— By Brevy Cannon