15 Historic Cartoons That Changed The World

Art critics, art historians, aestheticians, and others too often tend to dismiss cartoons and caricatures as silly — not serious — trivial, and irrelevant. Yet as the following list of cartoons and caricatures that have wreaked havoc throughout history should make clear, cartoons can have a powerful psychological, emotional, and political impact.

1. James Gillray

Napoleon once said that the English caricaturist James Gillray “did more than all the armies in Europe to bring me down.” Here’s an example: “Manic ravings, or Little Boney in a Strong Fit” (1803).

2. Honore Daumier

In 1832, two years after King Louis Philippe famously abolished censorship of the press in France, Honore Daumier produced his famous pear-shaped caricature of Louis Philippe called “Gargantua.” Daumier, his publisher, Philipon, and his printer were all indicted for “arousing hatred of and contempt of the King’s government, and for offending the King’s person.” Only Daumier went to prison.

3. Thomas Nast

Nast’s depictions of Boss Tweed are justly credited with bringing him and his corrupt Tammany Hall cronies down. Tweed famously said, “I don’t care a straw for your newspaper articles. My constituents can’t read. But they can’t help seeing them damn pictures.”

4. Art Young and Robert Minor

5.

Young and Minor were two of the artists whose work appeared regularly in The Masses. In August 1917, the Post Office revoked The Masses’ mailing privileges. The Masses was brought to trial twice as the editors (including the cartoonists) were charged with “conspiring to obstruct conscription.” Although Young and Minor stayed out of prison, the lawsuits caused the magazine to suspend publication.

6. Louis Raemaekers

During World War I, no cartoonist exercised more influence than Louis Raemaekers of Holland. Charged with “endangering Dutch neutrality,” his cartoons led the Germans to offer a 12,000 guilder reward for his capture, dead or alive. A German newspaper, summarizing the terms of peace Germany would exact after it won the war, declared that indemnity would be demanded for every one of Raemaekers’ cartoons. Example shown here: “The German Tango.”

7. Philip Zec

On Jan. 8, 1942, Philip Zec’s cartoon in London’s The Daily Mirror showed an exhausted, torpedoed British sailor adrift in the Atlantic. The caption: “The price of petrol has been increased by one penny — Official.” Great Britain’s home secretary described the cartoon as “worthy of Goebbels at his best … plainly meant to tell seamen not to go to war to put money in the pockets of the petrol owners.”

Winston Churchill believed that the cartoon, which he interpreted as saying that the merchant marines’ lives were being put at risk to increase the profits of the oil barons, would undermine the morale of the merchant marines, and ordered an investigation to discover who owned The Daily Mirror. It led to “one of the stormiest debates in the wartime parliament,” when in fact all that Zec had meant to say was that gasoline shortages would put lives at risk.

8. David Low

As Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary, reported to David Low’s publisher, “You cannot imagine the frenzy that these cartoons cause. As soon as a copy of The Evening Standard arrives, it is poured over for [David] Low’s cartoon and if it is of Hitler, as it usually is, telephones buzz, tempertures rise, fevers mount, the whole governmental system of Germany is in an uproar. It has hardly subsided before the next one arrives. England can’t understand the violence of the reaction.”

Actually, Low had a theory to explain Hitler’s fits. “No dictator is inconvenienced or even displeased by cartoons showing his terrible person stalking through blood and mud. That is the kind of idea about himself that the power-seeking world-beater would want to propagate. It not only feeds his vanity but unfortuntely it shows profitable returns in an awed world. What he does not want to get around is the idea that he is an ass, which is really damaging.” For example, “Rendezvous.”

9. Der Sturmer

Every week, Der Sturmer, the notorious anti-Semitic Nazi weekly (whose masthead slogan read: “The Jew is our misfortune”), ran vicious, ugly caricatures of Jews on its cover. A Der Sturmer Jew was easily recognized: ugly, unshaven, short, fat, drooling, hook-nosed. After the war, the Nuemberg Tribunal indicted 24 defendants, who represented a cross section of Nazi leadership, on charges of crime against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity (including an overarching conspiracy count). Der Sturmer’s Jules Streicher was the only editor among them. Primarily as a result of running weekly cartoons like “The Satanic Servant Judah” by Fips (1934), Streicher was found guilty, hanged, and cremated at Dachau.

10. David Levine

In more than 30 years at the helm of The Nation, only once (in the spring of 1984) did the staff march on my office with a petition (signed by 25 people in an office that I had thought employed only 23), demanding in advance that we not publish something — and that something was a caricature of Henry Kissinger, in David Levine’s words, “screwing the world.” The staff’s objection: “…a progressive magazine has no business using rape jokes and sexist imagery (he screws, she is screwed) to make the point that Kissinger revels in international dominance. Kissinger is a man, but the globe is not a woman.”

11. The Danish Muhammuds and Plantu

When the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten commissioned a dozen cartoonists to provide depictions of Muhammud, hundreds of thousands of Muslims took to the streets in protest, embassies were shut down, Danish goods were boycotted, and the cartoonists were forced to go into hiding with million-dollar price tags put on their heads. Worldwide, more than 100 people were killed, another 500 injured. The most powerful depiction of Muhammud, however, was by Le Monde’s cartoonist, Plantu. commenting on the episode, he showed an artist’s hand gripping a pencil, writing again and again, “I must not draw Muhammud,” as the words spiraled into a portrait of…who else?

12. Bob Grossman

When, in 2005, a book came out saying that Abe Lincoln might be gay, a line and an image popped into the head of Bob Grossman. His Babe Lincoln, which appeared in The Nation, is the result. The letters of protest are still coming in. Gay activists and others object to what they see as Grossman’s assumption that “a man who loves a man really wants to be a woman.” In one of the more polite notes, a former editor of Esquire accused The Nation of publishing “homophobic garbage.” Grossman, who humbly observed, “in the impoverished mental landscape of a cartoonist, this is what passes for true inspiration,” apologized to all he had offended.

13. Barry Blitt

“The Politics of Fear,” The New Yorker (2008)

In Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, The New Yorker featured a cover cartoon by Barry Blitt showing Barack and Michelle Obama dressed in terrorist garb (rifles on camouflage-covered shoulder and all) doing a fist-bump. Not only did thousands of agitated readers protest, cancel subscriptions, and otherwise complain, but the then-candidate for president took time out from an otherwise busy schedule to denounce the cartoon as offensive. In fact, as New Yorker editor David Remnick pointed out, “It’s not a satire about Obama, it’s a satire about the distortions and prejudices about him.”

14. Art Spiegelman

Then there was Spiegelman’s New Yorker cover cartoon of March 8, 1999, which mocked the the New York cops who had fired 41 bullets into Amadou Diallo, an unarmed (and, as it turned out, innocent) Guinean immigrant. The mayor denounced it. The governor denounced it. Two hundred and fifty police officers picketed the offices of The New Yorker, and a New York Post editorial advised the cartoonist, “If you’re burglarized or your family is menaced by thugs, you should be consistent. Call Al Sharpton, instead of 911. See what that gets you, Spiegelman, you creep!”

15. Zapiro

It was this Dec. 7, 2008, cartoon, which appeared in South Africa’s The Sunday Times, that caused South African President Jacob Zuma — at the time contending with fallout from charges against him of rape and corruption — to sue the Times Media Group for defamation by cartoon, alleging damages of 5 million rand ($600,000). Oh, yes, Zapiro started putting that showerhead on Zumas’ noggin after he mentioned in passing that the woman he had allegedly raped (his defense: it was consensual sex) was HIV positive, so he took a shower as a way of protecting himself from contracting the disease.

Navasky, former editor and publisher of The Nation, is chairman of The Columbia Journalism Review. His latest book is The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power, which is available on Amazon.

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