Editorial Cartoons Are More Effective with Less Text

About eighty percent of newspaper readers look at the editorial cartoon while just ten percent read the opinion pieces. I read the entire op-ed section of my paper, but I, like the majority, am especially drawn to the cartoon. It refreshes my eyes after reading the facts, quotes, opinions and anecdotes from the staff and guest contributors. So why would I want to read a cartoon that acts like an editorial?

I greatly appreciate an editorial cartoonist’s ability to convey more with an illustration than with text. The purpose of an editorial cartoon is to represent an idea with an illustration, not to provide a visual backdrop for a short essay. A good cartoon juxtaposes objects, exaggerates proportion, and makes the unreal look real. Unfortunately, some cartoonists draw pieces crammed with either verbose dialogue between stock characters with fixed facial expressions, or very long or blunt captions.

Scott Bateman is a significant example of a text-happy artist. His cartoons often feature a woman talking to the reader about her dissatisfaction with the government or debating the president who is drawn like a monkey. In one cartoon, this woman lists examples of Bush’s disregard for our troops in Iraq. The cartoon ends with her saying, “Let’s all hope that those Marines all make it home safely, despite their president.”

This is not a good editorial cartoon by my standards. Bateman does not use a drawing to make his statement – he relies on quotes and facts typed out for easy consumption. He tells you in words what he feels at the simple level of “Bush is a bad president.”

King Features Syndicate Editor in Chief Jay Kennedy said of Bateman, “Scott is a talented guy. His editorial pieces expressed a lot of carefully thought-through views, but they are lengthy and are better described as illustrated editorial columns than as editorial cartoons.”

Another artist, Dwayne Booth, draws both cartoons that suffer from text overload and those that speak forcefully without text. In one piece, a couple is watching their very mopey toddler. The caption reads, “Mr. and Mrs. Kopecky telling their son, Jason, that if he continues being a low C student who hears a voice in his head that he believes is God telling him to lie and to hate fags and women and poor people and foreigners then he can be president one day.” Like Bateman’s cartoon about supporting the troops, this is as subtle as a sledgehammer. The words do the work and the illustration is just a decoration.

Unexpectedly, Booth knocked me away with a different drawing in charcoal, often used by him and few other cartoonists today. He depicts the famous Rodin statue, “The Thinker,” with an American flag wrapped tightly around his head and face. The message might not be obvious and every reader might see it differently, but the cartoon impressed me with a broad idea that I infer on my own instead of losing all control to the artist.

I really like Jim Margulies of the Bergen Record in New Jersey. He doesn’t flood his cartoons with facts or other text – instead they feature short conversations or captions that might involve a pun, another tool I like.

Margulies also uses symbolism. On March 9, 2005, he commented on the potential appointment of John Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. One U.N. representative tells another, “The new U.S. ambassador is here to present his credentials…,” and they both see Bolton ramming through the wall in a tank, which represents his supposed belligerence towards the world body.

Margulies drew an elegant cartoon in 1996 during the Montana Freemen standoff with the FBI, which occurred just after the Unabomber was found in the same state. Margulies drew the word “Montana” across the panel, and the letter “n” looked like a horseshoe magnet. Nuts and screws clung to the ends of the letter, implying that the state attracted crazy people. This cartoon focused on text, but the word served as just another object in the illustrated universe of the cartoon.

Perhaps I am like Charlie Chaplin when sound was added to movies. During that period, Chaplin was an infamous holdout of the technology. He especially insisted that his signature character, the Little Tramp, should not talk. He felt that silent films were more artistically pleasing and that “talkies” took away the magic of motion pictures. Instead, the movie-going public, and eventually Chaplin, found that sound added rather than detracted from the art.

Nevertheless, I cannot enjoy an editorial cartoon that tells as much as one that shows. I look at all kinds of cartoons by different artists, but the ones that touch me most deeply – the ones that hit me in the gut – use drawing as the main tool. That’s what “draws” 80 percent of the readers to the editorial page.

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