Welcome to WWAC’s newest monthly column “Politically Cartoonish” where we’ll be analyzing the art and message of five political cartoons every month. It’s been a little over a month since the new U.S. administration came into power, so it’s no surprise that many political cartoons focused on this. Considering the harmful myth of American exceptionalism, as well as WWAC’s international audience, however, we believed that it would be irresponsible to focus solely on American politics. Instead, we tried to choose cartoons and comics that effectively captured the apprehension that many people are feeling all over the world, not just the U.S., due to rising nationalism and xenophobia.
First we have “Victims” by Petar Pismestrovic which was originally published February 2nd, 2017 in the Austrian newspaper Klein Zeitung. Pismestrovic pulls absolutely no punches with his stark black-and-white art and cutting comparison between the bloody and dusty Syrian boy from Aleppo and an American-Latino boy detained by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Each child is clearly depicted as an innocent victim of his circumstances in order to elicit sympathy in the viewer, but Pismestrovic’s decision to contrast an American child with a victim of the Syrian civil war forces the viewer to ask themselves who or what is victimizing the little Latino boy. You could say that he’s a victim of ICE or even the Trump administration just as the Aleppo boy is a victim of Syria’s Assad administration, but Pismestrovic goes further and taps into the secondary connotation of the image of the boy from Aleppo as a victim not only of the Syrian civil war, but of the many Western nations who have not interceded in the conflict. The United States, of course, is one such nation. An actual civil war may not be brewing in the United States, but the country still has its victims as personified in the second little boy. Nothing, not his light skin (which could potentially be white) or even his sweatshirt with the unambiguous message “I [Love] America,” protects him from being treated as a criminal and handcuffed. Ultimately, both children are “othered” and remain unaided by the privileged.
American Kendra Wells’s “The Frog and the Scorpion: When They Go Low, We Go Die” may center on political issues within the United States, but her usage of an internationally-known fable can still resonate with non-American audiences. Originally published on political comics and cartoons website “The Nib” on February 7th, 2017, a mere 18 days after Trump’s impeachment, “The Frog and the Scorpion” is a reference to both Michelle Obama’s now-famous line “when they go low, we go high” from her Democratic National Congress (DNC) speech and to the parable “The Scorpion and the Frog.” At first glance Ms. Obama’s speech seems to have little to do with the parable; her line addresses moral superiority while “The Scorpion and the Frog” warns that venomous animals (and people) never change. Wells, however, manages to combine the two to convey her cautionary message about ideals and complicity. The scorpion, with its distinctively pale lips and eyelids, blonde swoop of “hair,” and way of speaking, is clearly identifiable as Trump. The frogs, however, are a bit trickier to interpret. Although a reader may assume that the frogs represent the Pepe-obsessed alt-right, in this case, the frogs are two types of liberal Americans: those who are realistic and caution against trusting the harmful and destructive Scorpion!Trump and those who are idealistic and risk their safety for the sake of peaceful appearances and ideals. Morals are all very well and good, Wells maintains, but not at the expense of survival. Unfortunately, so long as the latter frogs remain foolish their aiding and abetting will cause all of us, including the scorpion, to perish.
Jen Sorensen‘s political cartoon “2017: The Year of Doublespeak” for “The Nib” tackles several American issues under an overarching theme of doublespeak, language that is deliberately euphemistic and ambiguous in order obscure truth and political aims. It’s also an uncomfortable reference to George Orwell’s book 1984 about a dystopia in the not-so-distant future. Although 1984 took place in what used to be Great Britain, Sorensen is clearly commenting on the bizarre, topsy-turviness of modern America where white Americans cast themselves as victims. They fuel and are in turn fueled by white supremacist figureheads such as English Milo Yiannopoulos, the blonde man in panel 2, and American Richard Spencer, who is seen giving the Nazi salute in panel 3. It is no coincidence that 5 out of the 6 white men depicted in this cartoon, Yiannopoulos and Spencer included, are instigators of this particular brand of hatred. And yes, I include “liberal” Bill Maher in this group because of his long history of racism, xenophobia, and Islamaphobia and his featuring Yiannopoulos on his show. Out of all of these, however, Trump is clearly the biggest influencer of this group, which is particularly ironic considering his infantile and oft-tweeted temper tantrums as referenced in panel 4. Although the cartoon is satirical, having Trump demanding the firing of critical reporters in the final panel leaves the viewer unsettled; you can’t help but feel that Sorensen is telling us that the story of our current dystopia is “to be continued.”
Lebanese-Swiss political cartoonist Patrick Chappatte focuses on the international repercussions of Trump’s election by depicting Vice President Pence being questioned by European leaders in “On Pence’s Trip to Europe” for The New York Times. Although in reality Pence had some tidy words for the European Union, Chappatte features Pence as voiceless, hands out-spread in a “what can you do?” gesture that clearly does not reassure. Instead, the clearly nervous Generic European Leader informs Pence, “We’d be reassured if you could explain the U.S. position to the U.S. president,” a reference to the contradicting positions Trump and various members of his administration have taken, including an accusation by Trump that the European Union was essentially “a vehicle for Germany.” It’s no surprise that Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, looks distinctly annoyed in Chappatte’s cartoon. Although the American flag is placed side-by-side with the NATO and European Union flag in the background, Chappatte’s choice to have Merkel and Generic European Leader face Pence instead of standing next to him says more about the unease of the United States’ European allies. And who can blame them? Despite the U.S.’s traditional international ties, the current administration seems determined to make some major changes.
The current U.S. administration, however, isn’t the only thing European leaders are worried about. Paresh Nath’s cartoon “European Populist plans” for India’s “National Herald” and syndicated by Cagle Cartoons depicts the desperation of the European Union (EU) in light of the growing populist movements in France and the Netherlands. The United Kingdom, as you probably know, voted via referendum to leave the EU in a process commonly known as “Brexit.” Like the U.K., France and the Netherlands are dealing with newly-emboldened nationalist political parties, the National Front and the Party for Freedom respectively, that are pushing for their respective countries to exit the EU. Nath illustrates this issue by drawing the EU as a blue train and France and Netherlands as individual cars about to plummet into a hole dug by nationalist leaders and risking dragging the EU with them. Nath’s decision to depict the EU as a determined (or maybe desperate) blue train could be a reference to the American children’s book “The Little Engine That Could,” but even if it isn’t or the reference is missed by some audiences, the image is enough to get Nath’s message across. The withdrawal of both France and the Netherlands from the EU would prove disastrous for the organization.
Unfortunately, by leaving out the U.K., the cartoon isn’t indicative of the whole issue. Including a U.K. “car,” say, leading the France and Netherlands cars while passing over a gorge, would better illustrate the influence Brexit has had on the other EU member countries. It’s also a bit inaccurate of Nath to depict French National Front leader Marine le Pen (the female figure underneath the France “car”) and Dutch Party for Freedom leader Geert Wilders (the male figure beneath the Netherlands “car”) as purposefully chipping away ground below the EU. Pushing their respective countries to withdraw from the EU is certainly on both leaders’ agendas, but ultimately their focus is on internal issues within their respective countries, not attacking the EU. After all, be they French, Dutch, or American, they aren’t called nationalists for nothing. Though this may be overly optimistic, France and the Netherlands’ potential exit from the E.U. might not necessarily destroy the organization.