My Word's

a weekly column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 3 #24,
December 15, 1997


There are a few select people in our society who are lucky enough to make a living without having to quite grow up. Dave Barry is one of them, of course, and so are many of our comedians. But the ones I really envy are the political cartoonists. So few people have both the artistic talent and the political insight to be a professional snot.

Unlike other political commentators, political cartoonists don't even have to pretend to be fair-minded, and it's one of the few jobs where good taste is an actual career impediment. Nobody who saw the classic Herblock cartoon of Nixon crawling out of a sewer could ever look at Nixon with complete reverence again. Good political cartoons are, as Doug Marlette says, "visual rock and roll. They hit you primitively and emotionally...". Like Mike Peters' cartoon of the little boy explaining his filthy junky room to his mother: "But I DID clean my least by Exxon standards."

Cartoonists do their magic by drawing on our stockpile of shared cultural images. When James Watt, Reagan's Secretary of the Interior, seemed more interested in stripping the environment than protecting it, Marlette drew Watt in his office with Bambi's head mounted on the wall. Cartoonists exaggerate broadly to reveal the truths we kind of suspected, as in Mike Luckovich's cartoon of a baseball stadium with a huge banner draped over it saying, "Stupid suckers who keep coming back in spite of the way we treat them APPRECIATION NIGHT."

They are good at making that mental leap between abstract ideas, like political corruption, and wildly dissimilar but vivid pictures, as when Mike Luckovich drew a female elephant in skimpy black panties and fishnet stockings, whispering "Polluted lakes and rivers! Toxic waste dumps! Despoiled wetlands!" to an industrial lobbyist with a bag of cash, who sighs "Gawd, I love it when you talk dirty to me." Doug Marlette has a wonderful cartoon of little Ronnie Reagan in an arcade playing a game called Star Wars, saying to the grownup (labeled Taxpayer) "Quick--gimme a hundred twenty billion quarters."

Of course politicians are the first and best target. Tom Toles drew us all as a man whose chest is inscribed "My elected representatives went to Washington and all I lost was my shirt." But cartoonists are like sharks--they'll attack anything that bleeds (meat is meat, after all). They'll even attack journalists, as when all news media were fixated on Paula Jones, and Mike Luckovich drew an adviser saying to Bill Clinton: "If you want to get the subject back on health care, you're going to have to proposition a nurse." Ann Telnaes drew a news anchor saying, "And now for some late-breaking speculation." (Too true to be a thigh-slapper, isn't it?)

They need not always be in attack-dog mode. Sometimes they just make a gently amused comment, as in the cartoon that came out shortly after the Iowa septuplets were born, showing a bunch of dalmatians sprawled on the floor of the living room, watching "101 Iowans" on TV. One June, Mike Peters drew a guru on a mountain top, with a follower prostrate before him asking, "Master, how can I experience eternity?" And the guru replies: "Follow the NBA playoffs."

Political cartoons appeal to the children inside us who keep pointing out that the king isn't wearing any clothes (until they're finally shushed into good manners and blindness). Because cartoonists aim directly for the gut, and so often hit it, they can't be argued with. What are you going to do? Draw back at them? They attract us and irritate us far more than any of our good gray editorials with their careful evidence and cautious hedging. Political cartoonists who don't get big stacks of hate mail are just not doing their job.

And for all that, they can draw us together in a moment of bereavement. When Kennedy was assassinated, Bill Mauldin drew an unforgettable cartoon of the Lincoln memorial, Lincoln leaning over, head bowed in grief. Marlette gave us the bald eagle staring up into the sky from which the Challenger had plummeted, a tear trickling down its face. I still remember, when Jim Henson died, the cartoon of Ernie telling Bert it was okay to cry.

There's a lot of artistic talent in my family, and I didn't get so much as an ounce of it. The only palette I have is blank pages to splash words on top of, which means I'm forced to speak to your mind, not your gut. Not that I don't enjoy that, mind you. But the closet anarchist inside of me is wildly jealous of the cartoonists, our professional noticers of naked kings. And terribly glad that they exist.

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