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Decoding Political Cartoons

by Charles Hou

Political cartoons usually appear on the editorial page of your daily newspaper. They generally deal with events or issues currently in the news and are, in essence, visual editorials. Like the writer of an editorial, the cartoonist is trying to make a point.

When you look at a political cartoon produced many years ago you are seeing it out of its original context. In order to "get it" you will likely need some background information from classroom discussion, a textbook or your own research. Once you have a general idea of the topic at hand you can start to decode the message the cartoonist is trying to convey.

Cartoon image L'IMMIGRATION
L'Immigration

Cartoonists use a variety of techniques to get a message across. To illustrate some of these techniques we will refer to two 19th-century cartoons on the topic of Canadian-American relations. Cartoon A, "Ce bon Mr. Lincoln", was published in Montréal in 1865, during the American Civil War of 1861-1865. Cartoon B, "Uncle Sam and His Boys," was published in Montréal in 1870. It deals with the threat of cross-border raids by the Fenians, a group of radical Irish Americans who sought to harm Great Britain by attacking Canada from bases in the United States.

Cartoon A

Cartoon image, CE BON MR. LINCOLN
Ce bon Mr. Lincoln

Caricature is the primary technique of the political cartoonist, who often exaggerates an individual's unique characteristics to make them easily recognizable. There is no mistaking the tall, thin, bearded figure of American president Abraham Lincoln in cartoon A or the tall, top-hatted figure of "Uncle Sam" in cartoon B. Viewers at the time would have no trouble identifying the smaller, toque-wearing figure in the upper right hand corner of cartoon A as the stereotypical French Canadian Jean-Baptiste.

Cartoon B

Cartoon image, UNCLE SAM AND HIS BOYS
Uncle Sam and His Boys

Another very important technique is the use of analogy, in which one event is represented by another. In cartoon A Lincoln (sitting on the American White House) and Jean-Baptiste (sitting on the Canadian Parliament Buildings) appear to be engaged in the childhood game "king of the castle" while Canadian soldiers stand guard on a wall separating the two countries. In cartoon B one of the marauding Fenians is tearing down a fence separating Canada and the United States as a perplexed Uncle Sam looks on.

Cartoonists sometimes use words (titles, captions, name tags, balloon comments or dialogue) to help the viewer. In cartoon A Lincoln's perch in Washington is labeled "Le Capitole" and the Canadian railway, which is important in the cartoon, is labeled "Inter Colonial Railway." The dialogue underneath the cartoon makes it clear that the Canadians do not trust the Americans' intentions. In cartoon B the cartoonist labels the two countries and the border between them, and the title and caption point out Uncle Sam's problem in controlling his "boys."

While words help to convey the message, political cartooning is a visual art and the cartoonist strives to present often complex situations in a visual form. Besides the use of caricature and analogy there are a number of other tricks of the trade.

Cartoon image, A HARD HAND TO BEAT
A Hard Hand to Beat

Facial expression and body language can be used as signs to communicate ideas. In cartoon A the Canadian Jean-Baptiste thumbs his nose at Lincoln as soldiers on the Canadian side work to fortify the border between the two countries. The Canadians are obviously determined not to fall victim to an American attack. The American White House, the Canadian Parliament Buildings, the American and Canadian flags, and the Union and Canadian hats the soldiers on the two sides are wearing are symbols that help to identify the two nations. The quill pen Lincoln is holding symbolizes his stated peaceful intentions (since he's not holding a weapon) while the telescope shows that he has his eye on Canada. Lincoln's exaggerated size suggests the much greater power of the United States. The many tents behind him represent the vast size of the American army at the end of the American Civil War.

In cartoon B the Irish American Fenians are stereotyped as drunken brawlers and the Canadians are portrayed as peaceful and industrious farmers. The large figure of Uncle Sam, and the knife in his hand, suggests the power of the American government to deal with the problem, while the rocking chair suggests their reluctance to act. In some cases a cartoonist may use shading to indicate the "good guys" (light) and the "bad guys" (dark).

Cartoon image, WRECKERS OF INDUSTRY
Wreckers of Industry

When you look at a political cartoon you should consider the biases of the cartoonist. The cartoonist, after all, is trying to make a point. When and where was the cartoon published, and in what type of publication? Who is portrayed in a favourable manner and who is not? Cartoons A and B were both published in Montréal and both display a strong national bias in favour of Canada. Cartoons can display a number of other biases as well (such as political, religious, racial or ethnic, vocational, economic or gender biases).

Once you have looked critically at a cartoon you can try to interpret it. Cartoon A shows that Canadians at the time feared American expansionist tendencies. There were plans to build an inter-colonial railway so that British troops could be brought in to defend Canada against an American invasion. Cartoon B also deals with Canadian fear of an American invasion and suggests that Uncle Sam should take action against the Fenians.

In summary, when you look at a political cartoon you should take the following steps: seek out the necessary background knowledge, determine the issue being considered, study the devices the cartoonist has used, identify any possible biases and try to interpret the cartoon. In short, what is the cartoon about, what techniques does the cartoonist use, and what does it all mean?

Cartoon image, NOW THEN, ALL TOGETHER!
Now then, all together!

You may wish to practice decoding some of the accompanying cartoons, or others that can be found in the sources listed under "Further Reading."

Further Reading

The Art of Decoding Political Cartoons: A Teacher's Guide, by Charles and Cynthia Hou. Vancouver: Moody's Lookout Press, 1998. 72 p.

Great Canadian Political Cartoons 1820 to 1914, by Charles and Cynthia Hou. Vancouver: Moody's Lookout Press, 1997. 232 p.

Great Canadian Political Cartoons 1915 to 1945, by Charles and Cynthia Hou. Vancouver: Moody's Lookout Press, 2002. 232 p.