Political Metephor or Meme; A Cartoonists Worst Nightmare

Posted: January 30, 2013 in Randomness

I was reading over Daryl Cagle’s blog post today on the Lemmings and thinking about the recent controversy over in the editorial cartoon industry with the concept of cartoonists repurposing old cartoons and ideas, e.g. self-plagiarism. I noticed a large correlation between this journalistic conundrum of professionalism and the ability of cartoonists to stay relevant with one of the biggest competitive challenges cartoonists face in the industry; meme’s.

For decades long, cartoonists have enjoyed a rather non-competitive space as free thinking journalists who, for all their seemingly unique perspective, frequently come across the same metaphor when covering a story. Daryl Cagle, owner of the Cagle Cartoons, Inc. content syndicate refers to this as the “Yahtzee” of cartooning. Some examples of this are the now ubiquitous Steve Jobs memorial cartoons with his silhouette cut out of the Apple logo. Daryl’s recent blog highlights his own reuse of the “lemmings” running off a cliff, when the metaphor seems appropriate. It’s not all that uncommon that humorists and critics come to the same metaphorical conclusion when looking for the obvious. In political cartooning, it is that very aspect that has sparked the debate about whether or not that’s professional editorial journalism or simply a shortcut taken to save time and pump out more work.

While that debate seems to rage on among the very small group of professional cartoonists that are able to hang on to their ever shrinking staff jobs in an effort to avoid being cast back into the world of independent publishing and illustration, there is another force silently encroaching upon the debate that seemingly has gone unnoticed or at least unchallenged by these artistic elites; the Internet Meme.

For those of you who don’t know what a “Meme” is, the term was first coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 in an attempt to explain the way cultural information spreads. It is, in essence, an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. In a sense, it’s the metaphorical metaphor of a flu. To get a better idea of what a meme really is, think of some of the big ones, “Where’s the beef”, “This is your brain on drugs” were some popular meme’s around the world back before things became truly viral on the Internet. Now, thanks to social networks like Facebook and Twitter, meme’s can become nearly pandemic in their ability to spread through the blogsphere and Internet.

This gave rise to the “Internet Meme” which, possibly, the most notable of which is simply “lol”, meaning “Laughing out loud” and with it, new words began to enter our language, much to the chagrin of our college English professors. In it’s simplicity, however, these little meme’s began to change our cultural landscape, our language and our art. As this form of speech has began to increase, it was inevitable that it was picked up by the youthful rebels of the blogsphere, a memeverse among itself, with a volcanic like explosion of meme’s pouring from it’s basement keyboards from sites like cheezeburger.com and reddit.com daily with no end in site.

So what does this all have to do with political cartoonists? If you were on Facebook or Twitter any time in the past year, you probably noticed a political cartoon or two, maybe three pass by your timeline. It’s more likely that your friends however have been sharing the unending stream of image based meme’s such as the Demotivational Posters, Lol Cats, Fail Blog, Victorian Greeting Cards or, well, the list seems nearly infinite. One of the simple problems that meme’s present is that technology has now elevated those previously without a pair of dice in the Yahtzee game to not only having the dice but being able to roll them more often.

Why do I say more often? As I said when I first started, some editorial cartoonists can and do, use common metaphors when the situation arises. It’s a time saver and it’s good for appealing to a large audience without making too sophisticated an argument for the average newsprint readers. That doesn’t mean however, that they aren’t keeping up on the issues and aren’t providing some honest journalistic insight. They do tend to be a news junkie type crowd. Along with that, they actually create, draw and produce art. This is a concept that, in this argument, is beginning to get lost because in an effort to put out good cartoons, they are now competing with the Jr. High School student with access to his free online meme generator tool.

As the old saying goes, (I wonder if this is a meme?) if you have enough monkeys all typing, eventually they would type out the works of Shakespeare. While that may actually be more of a myth than reality, the reality is, if you have enough college students, eventually they are going to come up with the same basic caption. While they may not be artists, they have tools like Google Images to find an image that accompanies their idea enough to get the point across.

As political cartoonists are challenged from within to maintain journalistic standards, their audience is both continually distracted and entertained by the lowest form of political journalism, the digital street meeme, with it’s often abrasive but effective capability to not only reach an audience but to convey the same principle messages as are found in some of the best political cartoons, one has to start asking the question; are political cartoonists losing their relevance and is that part of their own journalistic standards?

Editorial cartoons have to compete for the same audience. In order for the industry to stay alive, they have to be capable of connecting with people and in today’s world, that’s a large audience to connect with. Over the past year, the term “political cartoon” was overtaken in Google’s search by “political meme” along with the rise of the Infographics as a new player in the space of visual political journalism.

Few cartoonists have ventured into even beginning to use the common structures of political Internet Meme’s and even fewer probably understand them from the artistic or production level because they simply dismiss them. However, it’s almost like the dinosaur dismissing the humanoid for being small and insignificant. One of them survived, the other went extinct. I don’t recall having seen anyone with any scales or claws lately and I have to ask myself, if my son didn’t have a father that worked with editorial cartoons every day, would he even know what they were by the time he got into high school in just three short years?

The reality of that question is that he probably wouldn’t and that over the next few years, political meme’s are going to not only grow in prominance on the Internet, that means, eventually, it’s own idioms and style will influence the editors of print papers to a large degree as they begin to recognize that the audience they are trying to reach is looking for something different than what political cartoonists are offering.

So while cartoonists debate about whether or not it’s a professional or not to repurpose your own work or whether or not reusing the same basic cartoon, redrawing the same idea is the work of a hack or just part of the job, I think they should be asking themselves the following; am I going to be replace by a kid with an image search and a website? After all…


  1. John Curtis says:

    Some very interesting points are made here.

    Memes and editorial cartoons are indeed competing for the same space, if not in newsprint, then certainly in the digital arena as well as that ever decreasing space; the readers’ attention span.

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