The powerful visual metaphors of newspaper days of yore

Illustration by David Levine.

What newspaper worth its salt publishes no comic strips, no caricatures, no political cartoons? The answer today, of course, is most of them. The innocent, daily pleasures of Beetle Bailey, Brenda Starr, Blondie, Popeye, Mary Worth, Buck Rogers, and, bless him, Marmaduke are long gone. The caricatures, Herblock of Nixon and his ski jump nose, Al Hirschfeld who made each years-ago Sunday New York Times Arts and Leisure section cover an elegant evocation of the featured characters and a fun puzzle — find the NINAs — have no equals today.

Over the years, our Times has published political cartoons from time to time. Until her untimely death, Karen McKay’s sharp, ironic take on Vineyard life, together with her light and lively pen, delighted us, and some of our readers, I hope. Her editorial page cartoons were tricky. She pricked at the conventional view of the Vineyard. The nastiest distortions and silliest disharmonies of life here, mostly regarded complacently through that “special”-colored lens of which we are so fond, attracted Karen’s interest. She made each frayed thread in the artful mosaic of Island life a sty in the reader’s eye. Certainly, some readers did not appreciate them the way we did.

We published several letters from readers who objected to what they regarded as a distortion of their perception of Island life. We’ve searched and sometimes found other cartoonists with that gimlet eye for a metaphor that might be transformed by a dexterous pen into a cartoon with some subtle punch, but it’s been a frustrating and mostly fruitless quest.

All this comes to mind with the publication of Victor S. Navasky’s examination of cartooning and the way it has influenced what we see and think of public people and events, actually what we thought we saw and thought we thought. The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2013) tours several centuries of political cartoons and caricatures, and he disassembles the illustrations to exam the ways the different artists invested their drawings with content and content’s relationship to the images they create. Then, he discusses the ways in which these efforts affect the readers who confront them.

Mr. Navasky is the former editor and publisher of The Nation, a former editor of the New York Times Magazine, founder of Monocle, a quarterly of political satire, and now director of the Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism and chairman of the Columbia Journalism Review. He is also an occasional Vineyard visitor. I met him in the early 70s, when he was staying is the sprawling Barnes house on Chappaquiddick, working on a book. Controversy, firmly leftward opinion, and a satirical inclination seemed to combine in him with good humor, straight shooting, and thoughtfulness. He was well prepared for controversy, however it arrived at his door.

The Art of Controversy, in its attempt to penetrate the way political cartoons work on their audiences, discusses disputes that arose during his leadership of The Nation over cartoons that magazine published. One, by David Levine, showed a weirdly ecstatic version of Henry Kissinger in bed, on top of the globe, in the form of a woman. Mr. Navasky thought it was a “magnificent caricature” and determined to publish it. Some of his staff objected, on grounds that the “cartoon reinforced the stereotype that sex was dirty and something that an active male on top does to a passive woman on bottom.” The cartoonist’s judgment and his image’s power were confirmed years later, Mr. Navasky writes, when Columbia University made Mr. Levine’s drawing one of 40 pieces displayed in an exhibit to celebrate The Nation’s 125th anniversary.

Mr. Navasky also examines the tumult that followed the publication in a Danish newspaper of cartoons offensive to Muslims that depicted Muhammad. One of the issues that followed on the publication was whether other newspapers and magazines ought to republish the offending images out of comradeship with the besieged Jyllands-Posten and allegiance to the principle of freedom of the press and of speech.

One has to wonder what the editor of the Danish newspaper that first published them was thinking. And, what did the editors of several continental European newspapers have in mind when they followed suit? This is not the question of whether, in covering the Muslim reaction to the cartoons, newspapers can explain the offending drawing without publishing a facsimile of it.

Mr. Navasky uses the offense taken from cartoon image, in comparison with what may have been the reaction to a similarly offensive verbal reference, to consider the galvanizing power of the image. “Since most of those who took to the streets in protest had never seen the cartoons, what took place was not a clash of civilizations, as it was portrayed at the time, but a politically orchestrated campaign, a campaign supplemented by the idea of a taboo image (unseen) and the fabrication of objectionable images (seen); and the real objection was not that Muhammad was depicted so much as that the depictions were seen as racist stereotypes. Nevertheless, I believe that a campaign against them would probably not have been possible had the offense been a verbal rather than a visual one.”

Plus, he adds, explaining why he did not republish the cartoons in the section of The Art of Controversy that discusses them, “I have looked at the cartoons and they lack distinction. There are no hidden Daumiers or Herblocks here. ”

Distinction, an arresting metaphor, a smile, and stimulus — the hallmarks of political cartooning – are in ever-diminishing supply these days.