Analysis Of Political Cartoons In R.K.Laxman's Work
'Political cartoons are vivid primary sources that offer intriguing and entertaining insights into the public mood, the underlying cultural assumptions of an age, and attitudes toward key events or trends of the times. Since the 18th century, political cartoons have offered a highly useful window into the past. Just about every school history textbook now has its quota of political cartoons'' ' Jonathan Burack
Burack says that the simplicity of the cartoons is what makes cartoons deceptive, the more simplicity of the drawing or visual, the more complex the thought behind it. He points out that cartoons have evolved from the 1700's where they were elaborate heavy on dialogues and obscure visuals. He says cartoons in short, are visual strategies to make a point in small spaces.
Cartoon is an imprecise term applied to a multitude of graphic forms. Though being better than other terms such as caricature, it can be broadly divided into two categories: cartoons of opinion and joke cartoons. Cartoons of opinion are primarily visual mean of communicating opinions and attitudes, humour may be present but not a necessary part of it. On the other hand, joke cartoons are designed to communicate humour.
This art form dates back to at least 3300 years. The world's oldest caricature was unearthed in Egypt where the subject of mockery was none other than the Egyptian king 'Pharaoh Akhenaton'. And it happened when he tried to give his country a new religion, new government and a new capital city around 1360 BC. Caricatures were always there, they have been found on Ancient Greek pottery depictions, lampooning both political leaders and overweight Olympian gods. The Roman Empire's political discontent appeared scrawled on walls, mocking strict or incompetent military commanders as well as fringe religious movements. Ancient Indian rulers also were no less immune to caricatures that attacked political elites and their Hindu gods. What is significant in these manifestations is that these cartoons were produced independent of editorial control or profit motive and appeared on mediums other than newsprint. Political cartoons are made of two elements ' caricature, in which the subject is parodied and allusion, in which the subject is placed under the situation or context. Caricature is a western art which dates back to Leonardo da Vinci's artistic explorations of the ideal type of deformity namely grotesque that he used to explain the concept of ideal beauty. As the time goes the established principles of form by Leonardo became so ingrained into the portraiture method that several other artists rebelled against him. So in order to make satire more lighthearted caricature came as a counter art. It was a new genre which was quick, impressionistic and exaggerating prominent physical characteristics to humorous effect, bringing out the subject's inner self in a kind of physiognomic satire. Caricatures started to become popular with collectors, perceiving the fanciful exercises as curiosities rather than an artistic work, so instead of displaying it publicly they were shown in parlors and drawing rooms. The printing press invention profoundly changed the scene of political cartoons. Printing led to the emergence of the broadsheet, which circulated throughout Renaissance Europe.
During the 17th century, William Hogarth was perceived as the precursor of political cartoons. His cartoons were loaded with satire and sequential artistic scenes, aimed for social criticism. His cartoons brought out the corruption of early 18th century Britain politics. His works includes the iconic portray of the disastrous 1720's stock market crash known as the 'South Sea Bubble' leading to loss a great deal of money. His masterpiece 'A Rake's Progress' had a strong moral tone that shows how cartoons were becoming a vehicle of setting social agenda. The art of cartooning started to develop in the latter part of 18th century. James Gillray was a well-known name during this time who explored the medium of cartooning especially during French Revolution. His works ridiculed the ambitions of the revolutionary and Napoleon's motifs through lampooning and caricatures. Gillray's incomparable wit and humour, his use of knowledge of life, keen sense of the ludicrous, and beauty of execution, put him amongst the top cartoonists once. It shows how cartooning was becoming influential and gaining widespread acclaim. Magazines like 'Punch' started to publish in 1941 became a national institution due to its influential and widely acclaimed artists such as John Leech, Richard Doyle, John Tenniel and Charles Keene.
By the mid-19th century, magazines were evolved into newspaper and publishers printed their take upon day to day politics. One of them was the famous influential cartoonist Thomas Nast from New York whose cartoons attacked the criminal activities 'Boss Tweed' political machinery. By the late 19th century cartoonists started to draw inspiration from other sources such as Shakespeare, Bible, sports, mythology and other contexts.
According to Charles Press, author of Political Cartooning, in order to make a political cartoon effective it must have the four following qualities '
' Artistic quality - but the artistry must not get in the way of the message.
' Genuine sentiment - but it should not feel phony.
' Fresh, uncomplicated imagery - should be striking, forceful, and amusing.
' Lasting importance - the subject of the cartoon should be important so the cartoon can be understood by future readers.
Following are the other significant elements that goes into the making of political cartoons -
' SATIRE - Political cartoons uses satire in order to make an observation about a situation. It touches those issues that may not be suited for commentary by an editor. A cartoon is endorsed by a newspaper and is definitely a questioning and decisive piece that at times may even be biased. A good cartoon says what the editorial may try to avoid, cartoons are safe as the prevalent humour quotient brings certain balance to controversies and that is why any newspaper tries at getting out the best artwork. Cartoonists use specific devises to get their message across.
' HUMOUR ' Humour is the most prevalent subject matter in political cartoons. The effectiveness of a cartoon depends significantly upon the element of humour it contains. Through humour, absurdity and hypocrisy are exposed and when a reader laugh at those who are in power, he becomes less afraid. The element of humour act as a sugar coating upon the bitter pill. And it also brings certain balance to controversies. As satire can hurt people, cartoonist uses humour subversively as an agent of change and reflection.
' SYMBOLS ' Symbols are important, as sometimes people are not sure how they feel and unable to make a decision. Studies shows that there is a high frequency of emotional symbolism in editorial cartoons as explained by the DeMause's theory. Manipulation of shared symbols is likely to be important in directing public attention and shaping public opinion, especially in modern democracies.
' IRONY ' The use of political irony often points out the contradictions in politics in a wry way. Rhetoric is often used in text with irony, this sort of irony is often seen in political cartoons. Sometimes it is humorous, and other times it can be quite hostile. Burack says that irony makes cartoons witty and point out the flaws in the system. He says cartoons must entail irony as they can make a contradiction and argument.
' STEREOTYPING - Stereotyping is a routine in cartoons, it's in a stereotype that the cartoonist tries, explains and simplifies a largely applicable point of view. Though being offensive, it largely helps a cartoonist to convey and establish an idea, making a strong point open for discussions and debates.
' AN ARGUMENT NOT A SLOGAN - Cartoons are pointed taking a jab at issues, they are not merely slogans that state a fact. Slogans are different for ex. Adidas has 'Impossible Is Nothing' slogan. But a cartoon subverts it explaining how this is achieved. In some cases it's opinionated and blunt. So even though if it's biased, the cartoon provides one, grounds for responding and even arguing back.
' DISTORTION - Exaggeration and distortion are the primary tools employed by a cartoonist which shows someone's power or weak??ness, the importance or the insignificance, dangerousness or helplessness of a person, group, or social force. In other words, distortion and exaggeration help to emphasise extremes in personalities or actions.
R K Laxman is an Indian cartoonist, illustrator, and humorist. He is best known for his creation The Common Man, for his daily cartoon strip, "You Said It" in The Times of India, which started in 1951. He is a pioneer of political cartooning in India. He is a legendary cartoonist not because of the paper he is associated with but because of the cartoons he put on it. His cartoons were effective yet less controversial. The Times of India owes Laxman for highlighting such issues that otherwise would have lost in a country like ours.
The book written by R K Laxman, titled 'The Common Man Seeks Justice' shows the complex life of the common man, who is a silent spectator to all that goes around him. Common man is a famous caricature by Laxman as a spectator to the situation he faces. The common man is portrayed as a submissive character with deep insights who is hopeful and usually disappointed in what he receives in the end. 'The Common Man Seeks Justice'' is about the battles of this extraordinary spirit. The face of the common man is one that everybody recognises and relates to. The common man, the iconic symbol of resilience and adaptability, who is a silent spectator to all that is wrong, looking at politicians and bureaucrats and is stumped by their actions. The common man however takes it in his stride and moves on with what he has to do making peace with corruption and apathy. He is okay with congestion and overpopulation; he genuinely understands the problems of his fellow citizens and tries not to judge. This book shows how cartoons are drawn and how they influence the minds of the readers. How the common man is a meek and submissive yet jolly character. It leaves to the imagination of the reader on how to interpret the cartoon. The cartoons in the series can be seen as all accepting, highly corrupt, sometimes stupid and unreasonable. The book is more like an exercise to understand subtle hints and inclinations of political cartoons.
R K Laxman being a social cartoonist, makes a commentary upon the lives of millions of Indians who live in challenging times politically, socially, economically. Laxman is known for his artistic talent which brings to life the problems of the common man, Laxman's readers found him to be realistic, a casual reader may see it as a slapstick, and this could be because the common man witnesses absurd events that have no logical explanations. Laxman's followers understands that this is to bring to notice the problems, not merely humour.
Political cartoons are an important part in any newspaper, though the position of this piece is small, the impact is huge. It conveys a lot of information with very few words. Even if the emotions behind them is harsh it would be oftenly taken with a sense of humour and understanding the humor of people gives definition to the society, definition not readily available in traditional history. Cartoons are complex, the reason why newspaper invests in them when writing would do the job is the reason for their popularity.
In India, political cartoons are used to propagate ideas and change. The press and political cartoons becomes mediums to convey the change and information. Even freedom fighters used this platform to convey their thought, not just during pre-independence time but also after it as well. Artists like BalaSaheb Thackeray and R.K.Laxman comments upon various things in the independent India. The emergency of 1984 is an example from the Indian context where cartoonists played a greater role in putting out opinions when Editorials were curbed and could not present their point of view independently. The purpose of cartoons usually is to promote social welfare and social well-being. Cartoonist draws attention to some wrong in the hope of stimulating activity to correct it. Political cartoons serves social functionalism. Historic and recent examples demonstrate the continued ability of the political cartoon to draw attention, spark controversy, and trouble leaders across the globe. It is the ability of cartoons to undermine the legitimacy of rulers, leaving an indelible stain on their public image, that remains one of their most potent and feared attributes. Occasionally, both governments and elites have attempted to harness the medium's power for political ends. Reportedly French artists were encouraged by Napoleon to create cartoons that sanctioned his policies (Lester 1995, 222). Social inequalities doesn't allow the citizens to enjoy and exercise their rights as an equal citizen of a country which therefore make the common man silenced and unacknowledged, completely absent from political equation remained being an indelible fact. Cartooning is a subversive art as dictators and political leaders are scared people, they can't risk ridicule that's why the totalitarian establishment suppress it. It's the ability of cartoons to subvert the authorization of rulers, leaving an indelible stain on their public images. So as an active nature of a democratic life, it's pulsated through visual satiric political representation. So drawing in the comical aspect of a functioning democracy, draws out a democracy alive to its inherent possibilities; a democracy laughing at himself despite all of the limitations and bringing out the best potential attributes, offering a social functionalism.
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Although the name usually implies humor, cartoons don’t always have to be funny. In fact, like any other artistic medium, cartoons can –and should– express the entire range of emotions, and just maybe they can express something true about the human condition. Of course, if they are able to do so while making us laugh, that’s even better. Few cartoonists were better at walking that fine line between funny and tragic than Bill Mauldin, whose work portrayed the mundane realities of World War II, giving the readers at home a sense of what the lives of soldiers was really like while also providing a form of catharsis for the soldiers themselves. In his cartoons Star Spangled Banter and Up Front, Mauldin achieved a sort of existential humor that captured the absurdities of war and its impact on those who fight. Devoid of the propagandizing of Hollywood or the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia, Mauldin’s cartoons provide a glimpse at the true realities of the war and its human cost. They also happen –despite, or maybe because of that– to be very funny.
Mauldin began cartooning while training with the 45th Infantry Division, and his early cartoons, drawn for unit’s newspaper, were mostly lighthearted takes on the daily grind of training and the bureaucratic structure of the army. After the division was involved in the invasion of Sicily and the Italian campaign, Mauldin continued drawing his cartoons, which took on a more serious and satirical –at times grim– tone. Although humor was probably hard to find on the front lines, the cartoons Mauldin drew during the war had a sort of black comedy that captured the mundane absurdity of the soldiers’ daily lives. While fighting in the Italian campaign, Mauldin managed to draw cartoons daily and print them in the 45th Division News, which often augmented the printing ink with used motor oil or cheap red wine. They proved so popular that Stars and Stripes magazine commissioned him to do original cartoons published under the name Up Front. Despite their often bleak tone, Mauldin’s cartoons became a hit among his fellow soldiers since he was an enlisted man himself –and one unafraid to skewer the army’s bureaucracy. Of course, some commanding officers didn’t take kindly to Mauldin’s portrayal of our fighting forces. In fact, General Patton personally threatened to have Mauldin arrested due to Willie and Joe’s “insubordination” and dress code violations.
Despite the criticisms, the war reporters recognized the value of Mauldin’s work. For the enlisted men, the cartoons offered a form of catharsis since Willie and Joe suffered the same daily hardships they did with a knowing laugh. They were the “everyman” since they represented the same self-deprecating spirit of those infantry soldiers who called themselves “dogfaces”. There was also a sense of kinship with Mauldin himself since he was slogging across Europe like they were, and his cartoons expressed the true grind of the war in a way that their officers and families back home could never fully understand. Mauldin believed he was drawing cartoons for himself and his fellow soldiers, so he was surprised when a collection of them were collected and published back home. The book, Up Front, was a huge success, and offered a much more accurate portrayal of life on the front lines than the papers and newsreels could, although the parents and wives reading them knew their boys were not as slovenly and cynical as Willie and Joe, of course.
In fact, the first thing you notice about Mauldin’s cartoons is the characters’ postures. Unlike the handsome, smiling GIs seen in movies or on posters for war bonds, Willie and Joe –as the two recurring characters in Mauldin’s cartoons were dubbed– were slumped over with drooping shoulders and weary looks on their unshaven mugs. These were the real faces of war that Mauldin saw as a member of the army’s 45th Infantry Division. Since he was unable to draw the truly gruesome, violent reality of war, Mauldin instead showed how it affected his fellow soldiers. Willie and Joe’s weary appearances convey the weight and exhaustion they carried with them across Europe. And yet, despite the grim reality, Mauldin was able to find humor in their situation.
Although they often poked fun at officers and army bureaucracy, Mauldin’s cartoons were rarely editorial. Instead they function as a sort of “field report” from the front lines. These are what the soldiers did to kill time and distract themselves from the monotony of daily life. Some of the best examples of Mauldin’s unique humor play with the incongruity of their “routine” and the chaos of the war. Food and equipment shortages were inevitable, so why fret about them? Instead of a “grin and bear it” attitude, Willie and Joe approach their situation across like a pair of existential thinkers. They are like Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon detached from –and musing at– the chaos around them while they wait for the inevitable, yet unpredictable, end. Whether they would have prefered the war or their lives to end first is left to interpretation. In fact, Mauldin himself had wanted the characters to be killed at the end of the war, which would have offered a cynical, sobering denouement. However, the fate that awaited Willie and Joe –as well as the real men they represented– was in some ways even bleaker.
The sort of bleak existential humor Mauldin tapped into is clearly one that would speak to his fellow soldiers, but is often too idiosyncratic for those who weren’t there. They often referred to specific events, battles, or figures that only make sense to those who were there. That said, there is also something universal about Willie and Joe continuing suffering and skewed worldview. Sure, the daily indignities and setbacks we suffer pale in comparison to those of soldiers, but there is something recognizable in these cartoons. Knowing that the most men reading them were laughing along with Mauldin makes is somewhat easier to understand and appreciate what they did. He humanizes the servicemen without sugarcoating or ignoring their struggles and shortcomings, and he celebrates their hard work and sacrifices without patronizing them.
While the history of WWII is made up of large battles, strategic planning, and geopolitics, the infantry soldiers were more concerned about dry socks and finding something strong to drink. These cartoons show those small moments that happened between the larger “historical” ones. Even the newsreels of the time used actors to stage recreations of battles and newspapers reassured those back home with promising reports. Mauldin’s pencil was offering a far more accurate catalogue of the events. (The cartoon that won Mauldin a Pulitzer prize addresses that very fact: the war “up front” looked very different from the war “back home”.) Even now, with seeming 20/20 hindsight and countless historical examinations, these cartoons have an authenticity about them. Despite being pen and ink drawings with some clever captions, Mauldin’s cartoons may just be the best account of the war we have.
Mauldin’s Pulitzer prize winning cartoon from Stars and Stripes, October 13, 1944
When the war was finished, Mauldin was recognized and celebrated for his work. At only 23 years of age he had a successful book in print and a Pulitzer prize on his shelf. More importantly though, he continued to catalogue the effects of the war on himself and his fellow soldiers. His post-war cartoons took on a far more political tone as they followed Willie and Joe struggling to acclimate to life back home. Their friends and families could never understood what they went through overseas and expected them to simply go back to their “normal” lives. After fighting across Europe, they were still battling even tougher enemies back home: PTSD, unemployment, homelessness, etc. These post-war cartoons are much more political and editorial than Mauldin’s previous work. In that way they are somewhat even more poignant and moving: Willie and Joe still look weary because, even though the war was over, they were still fighting.
His new editorial work cost Mauldin as newspapers began dropping his cartoons. Like the war itself, it was easier to understand and cheer for Willie and Joe when they were overseas. But, when they were back home, no one seemed interested anymore. Mauldin eventually left Willie and Joe and turned toward a more traditional political cartoon style, but in the political climate of the late 1940s and ‘50s, his cartoons quickly got him labelled a communist. Their “controversial” tone seemed to be just a bit too real, a bit too true.
Throughout his career, Mauldin’s keen eye for detail and his dry wit remained trained on the truth. The fact that his work managed to bring attention to the lives of soldiers both abroad and at home is a testament to his own talents and the power of cartoons. They give some credence to that old chestnut about pictures being worth a thousand words, and Mauldin’s spoke volumes.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Paul R Jaissle is a philosophy professor, collage artist, and musician who writes about film and comic book theory and blogs for destroythecyb.org. He earned his MA in philosophy and art from Stony Brook University, and currently lives in Grand Rapids, MI. You can follow him at paulrjaissle.tumblr.com and @ohhipaulie on Twitter.
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