Political Cartoons: Are they Comics?

Election season is rolling around, which means the country is seeing an abundance of political cartoons. These cartoons come in many forms, including small, one-panel caricatures, or multi-panel pieces. Either way, these cartoons are all forms of political satire, meant to make fun of politicians, or raise awareness of social issues. Political cartoons may have the appearance of comics, but are they actually comics? Do they fit a certain definition of comics?

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Before figuring out whether or not political cartoons are comics, it is fruitful to look at their history. They’ve been around since the early days of American politics, back in the days of the American Revolution. Many argue that Benjamin Franklin’s famous “Join or Die” drawing is America’s first political cartoon. This is because it was a cartoon that had a specific political purpose to garner support for his plan of inter-colonial association. The cartoons of today maintain the same overall goal of invoking some political message, while airing more on the comedic side. They use more caricature than anything else. For example, cartoons depicting President Obama show him with extremely over-sized ears, an obvious caricature. The cartoons indeed look like comics to the average reader, but are they actually?

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Comic theorist Scott Mcloud defines the term “comic” in his book, “Understanding Comics” as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” By Mcloud’s definition, it would seem that only the multi-panel cartoons could be considered comics. Many cartoons are single pictures, meaning they lack any juxtaposition or sequence, two large parts of Mcloud’s definition. The multi-panel pieces however, contain both these elements, making them comics by definition. Both types of political cartoon however contain the second part of Mcloud’s definition, seeing as they do in fact convey information and produce aesthetic responses. Many are meant to be funny, invoking a comedic response from the viewer, while some exist solely to bring up the important issues in the country. It is interesting to see that some political cartoons can be considered comics, and some cannot, but one can argue that they all invoke some sort of response.

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