In this 1871 drawing for Harper’s Weekly, American cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840–1902) depicted New York’s powerful Tammany Hall political machine as a ravenous tiger preying on democracy itself.

In the nineteenth century, publisher Adolph Ochs was asked why the New York Times didn’t run editorial cartoons like the other dailies. He had a ready reply: “Because such a cartoon cannot say, ‘On the other hand . . . ’” Ochs missed the point then, and his newspaper misses it now. Editorial cartoonists have one hand that does the drawing. They don’t want another hand to balance their work. Imbalance is what they’re after. Wakeup calls. Jolts. And laughter—lots of derisive laughter.

It’s been that way since the 1700s, when William Hogarth and James Gilray drew high-born wastrels splurging on liquor and prostitutes while the poor died in the London streets. In the next century, Honoré Daumier pictured Louis Philippe as a pear—French slang for fathead. His editor was forced to pay a heavy fine, but the point had been made, and the king never quite recovered from the mockery.

Editorial cartoons didn’t always support liberal causes. Sir John Tenniel, celebrated today for his illustrations of Alice in Wonderland, was one of the principal artists of Punch, the British humor magazine. In 1857, after a failed Indian rebellion, his drawing “The British Lion’s Vengeance” showed a lion mauling a Bengal tiger—which is what His Majesty’s troops did to the outgunned colonials. Upon Tenniel’s death in 1914, the Daily Graphic obituary noted, the artist “had an influence on the political feeling of this time which is hardly measurable.”

Across the pond, an American cartoonist held even greater sway. Almost single-handedly, Thomas Nast took down William Marcy “Boss” Tweed, the corrupt head of Tammany Hall in New York. Nast’s caricatures were so fierce and funny that the public turned against the Boss, and he was forced from office. He fled to Europe to escape prosecution for theft, but officials identified the fugitive from a Nast cartoon. Tweed’s critique of his tormentor: “I don’t care so much what the papers write—my constituents can’t read . . . it’s them damn pictures.” Yet for all of Nast’s artistic achievements—he invented the GOP elephant, the Democratic donkey, and the popular image of Santa Claus—his cartoons had a dark side. Nast was violently anti-Catholic (one of his drawings shows bishops turning into crocodiles as they invade American shores), and he invariably portrayed Irish immigrants as unwashed, drunken louts.

In more recent times, editorial cartoonists not only recorded history, they made it. Bill Mauldin, who began on the U.S. Army paper Stars and Stripes, impudently parodied army brass while turning Willie and Joe, the “dogface” soldiers of World War II, into worldwide heroes. Herblock (Herbert Block) the Washington Post cartoonist, invented the word McCarthyism to describe the Cold War demagoguery of Senator Joe McCarthy. The noun is still with us. David Levine made a devastating caricature of President Lyndon Johnson after an appendix operation, lifting his shirt to show the scar—in the shape of Vietnam. Goodbye, Lyndon. To this day, Garry Trudeau bashes the Bushes and lauds Obama in his weekly work. More tellingly, conservative Glen McCoy recently showed a cartoonist in a foxhole. As the explosions detonate all around him, a spineless soldier heads for the hills. On his back is the label PC MEDIA. The man with the pen sardonically remarks, “It’s heartening to know we’re all in this together.”

Meanwhile, gadflies overseas had a noteworthy effect, as the Danish “Anti-Muhammad Cartoon Crisis” demonstrated in 2005. It was then that caricatures of the Prophet in the Jyllen-Posten triggered riots in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. These did not stop the satirists in Scandinavia, or, as the world now knows, in France.

Last week, for doing what they did best—mockery—the artists of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo paid with their lives, gunned down by Islamic fundamentalists. The news prompted immediate street demonstrations and an outpouring of righteous (and self-congratulatory) placards like “Charlie C’est Moi.” These will soon subside—at least until the next atrocity.

More meaningful replies have issued from fellow cartoonists—in drawings celebrating freedom of speech and the courage of those armed with nothing but ideas. The most memorable was David Pope’s, in the Canberra Times. It showed a body bleeding out. Hovering over it is a masked murderer, holding an AK47. The thug explains: “He drew first.”

It remains vital for the editorial cartoonists to draw first. But it is just as important for them to laugh last, and for their audience to laugh with them—raucously, uproariously, and yes, rudely. Nothing is as effective as ridicule for driving barbarians from the temple of Western civilization.


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