The Disappearing Craft of Political Cartooning

On the sixth anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy
Jack Reilly takes a look at the state of editorial cartooning.

But in truth, political cartooning is in decline—and not simply because of the dramatic (and very real) threats posed by religious fanatics. Many nominally democratic political regimes practice de facto censorship in regard to material criticizing their populist rulers. Then there’s the collapse of print media, the rise of new codes of political correctness, social-media mobs, and the greater competition for audience presented by Netflix and other online media. My craft has a glorious history, and has shaped the fates of empires. Yet many young people won’t be mourning the slow death of editorial cartooning because they are no longer aware that the medium even exists.

Jack gives a brief look at the 600 year history of the art selecting some shining examples,
and then looks at the loss of influence in the current environment.

For a 19th-century newspaper reader, this might have been the only superstimuli the media could provide them. But we are now living in an era of mass overstimulation, especially through video, a medium with which old-school cartoonists never had to compete. A well-liked cartoon on the cover of a newspaper might have once been a source of discussion for days. But that effect is impossible to duplicate in the current age of social media. Sharing even the best cartoon on social media is akin to throwing a chicken into an alligator pit: It will be instantly consumed, digested, and forgotten.

The only exceptions occur when cartoonists get negative publicity…

© Tom Stiglich (left); Michael de Adder (right)

Jack takes syndicates and newspapers to task for their part:

These syndicates act as sales agents for cartoonists, and are eager to sell the same pieces to as many publications as possible. And the more broad and generic the cartoon, the better the sales. This keeps the art form focused on the national or international scene, endlessly sending up the same stale left-vs-right dynamic, with little commentary on local issues. The majority are facile and forgettable—a perfect fit for the corporate owners of the last newspapers standing.

Considering that cartoons and cartoonists are often the first to go when fascists gain power, it is sad that we here in the West—where we remain free to publish what we want—seem determined to watch them go extinct through a combination of cancel culture, indifference, and economic factors.

Read Jack’s essay at Quillette.