Politically Cartoonish: May In Review

Hello, and welcome to the May edition of Politically Cartoonish. As with the rest of WWAC, the Politically Cartoonish column is working to include analyses of non-U.S. and non-Western issues. Readers are encouraged to send political cartoon suggestions to the author via her Twitter handle @youandyourego.

May opened up with International Workers Day on May 1st, prompting discussions of workers’ rights and issues, particularly undocumented immigrants in the United States and the fight for a livable minimum wage in many countries. Cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz combined workers rights and comicbook geekery in his International Workers Day cartoon featuring a smiling Superman raising his fist in solidarity with 2 brown men of color and a lighter-skinned woman (all three presumably Mexican) next to the text “UNDOCUMENTED WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNITE! HAPPY MAY DAY.” That Alcaraz made such a political cartoon is hardly surprising; his comic strip is named “La Cucaracha,” most likely in reference to the Mexican folk song of the same name that has been adapted many times over to include contemporary political statements. No, the unexpected twist of the cartoon is to include Superman, a quintessentially American icon, under the label of “UNDOCUMENTED WORKER.” The tone is very tongue-in-cheek, but the message is serious; undocumented workers are just as American as Superman is. Heck, one of them even wears a t-shirt sporting an American flag (a cartooning technique not dissimilar to depicting a child wearing an “I Love America” shirt). Superman, after all, didn’t exactly fill out immigration papers when his space rocket crashed down in Kansas. In connecting Superman to the other undocumented workers in the cartoon, Alcaraz also points out the racism and xenophobia that is part of the immigration debate, inferring that race or color, like immigration papers, are not perquisites to being American. While Superman has always been depicted as white (the closest we’ve ever come to a Superman of color is “Lois and Clark” actor Dean Cain who is three-eighths Japanese), he is even more “foreign” than any undocumented workers from Mexico. Superman didn’t just come from another country; he came from a whole other galaxy. If an alien with superhuman powers can be American, Alcaraz says, so can undocumented workers.

"If They Could Pay Us Less They Would," Sam Wallman. Orig. posted on The Nib
“If They Could Pay Us Less They Would,” Sam Wallman. Orig. posted on The Nib

Sam Wallman’s political cartoon “If They Could Pay Us Less, They Would” originally posted on The Nib also referenced International Workers Day. However, where Lalo Alcraz focused on undocumented American immigrants in a succinct, 1-panel cartoon, Wallman chose to depict a more thorough explanation of workers’ issues, specifically the international fight for a higher minimum wage. It’s a complicated, widespread issue to tackle and at times the cartoon feels a little wordy, but Wallman uses workers’ vignettes and martyrs and quotes from actual politicians and business people to make the topic easier for the audience to understand and connect to. “If They Could Pay Us Less” is also a great example of how political cartoonists and comic artists have adapted to having their work showcased online such as having a comic read top to bottom rather than the standard newspaper format left to right. It might make it more difficult for me to post the whole cartoon here (you can read the whole thing at the link above), but Wallman’s choice to draw his cartoon in a vertical rather than a horizontal rectangle allows him to be able to write a longer narrative while also highlighting the economic hierarchy that is so integral to his discussion about economic inequality (such as when he illustrates a businessman sitting at the head of a table or sitting on the edge of a cliff with minimum wage workers far below him). A vertical political cartoon also allows Wallman to include more nontraditional transitions between panels. In one instance, a factory seems to dissolve into or even leak liquid that flows into a storm drain before spilling back out to deliver dripping cash into a businesswoman’s waiting hand. Wallman doesn’t identify what exactly the liquid is – is it water? oil? polluting chemicals? blood? – but it doesn’t matter; the audience understands that it’s the company owners who reap the benefits of business.

Speaking of business people, Pat Bagley’s “Beat the Press”  is probably one of the better political cartoons on Montana Republican Greg Gianforte’s physical attack on Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs. Instead of  simply focusing on the attack, Bagley makes a bold statement that the anti-press President of the Electoral College of the United States (thank you former Mexican president Vicente Quesada for the phrase) is not too different from authoritarian leaders Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Vladimir Putin of Russia. It’s a big issue to depict in one cartoon and though the visual flow of the cartoon may not be ideal (the viewers eye wants to move directly from the U.S. president to Erdoğan instead of down to Gianforte) and it feels like a disservice to Jacobs to identify him only by a press pass tucked into a fallen hat of the style journalists wore in the 1940’s, the cartoon is still an eye-catching and electrifying piece. Bagley does a particularly good job with giving all the figures in the cartoon specific body language that speaks volumes – the three American figures on the left of the cartoon, for instance, are all in motion either in anger (the Mangerine and Gianforte) or in confused reaction (Jacobs) while Erdoğan and Putin on the right side of the cartoon are calm, even relaxed.

"Beat the Press," Sam Bagley. Syndicated by Cagle.com
“Beat the Press,” Sam Bagley. Syndicated by Cagle.com

And why wouldn’t they be? Erdoğan has jailed his journalist critics, seen peering out behind bars at the base of the wall he leans against, and Putin, sporting a trench and gun outfitted with a silencer in a call-back to his time in the KGB, has shot his own critics. (The anonymous, presumably Russian reporter that Putin so casually executes isn’t easily identifiable. With the long blonde hair and purple shirt she could be Anna Politkovskaya, a reporter and professor who was shot in her apartment in 2006, or any one of the many journalists who have been killed under Putin’s rule). It should worry all Americans that the sitting U.S. president has spoken positively about Erdoğan and Putin. As Bagley, through Putin, implies, Gianforte’s body-slamming and punching of Ben Jacobs, egged on by the president, is only the start. Gianforte may have apologized, donated money to an organization dedicated to freedom of the press, and be attending his sentencing… but still won his local election.

"Pig Latin King," Kim Warp. The New Yorker.
“Pig Latin King,” Kim Warp. The New Yorker.

This is the world of the “Pig Latin King,” a seriously steamed medieval leader depicted by Kim Warp for The New Yorker. Both the title and the caption of the cartoon (“Ix-nay on the independent-way investigation-way”) refer to pig Latin, an English wordplay game that many American children learn in elementary school. Warp’s caption, however, doesn’t strictly follow the rules of pig Latin – it’s easy for the reader to understand that mentioning an independent investigation, presumably led by a special prosecutor, of the king will be sure to set him off. That, plus the fact that the speaker (a diplomat or cabinet member, perhaps?) is well within hearing distance of the king means that the reader can surmise that neither the politicians nor Warp herself have any sort of confidence in the king’s intelligence. It’s also important to note that since the thirteen American colonies broke from Britain, Americans have historically distrusted any president that has too much power (with the notable exception of the United States’ first president George Washington); in other words, leaders who are too kinglike. So Warp’s king is ignorant, disliked, and, since his throne room resembles more a dungeon or torture chamber than any room in Washington D.C., archaic and violent. The king isn’t labeled as, or indeed, even resembles any particular member of the current U.S. administration, but he doesn’t need to be – the reader understands that the king is a stand-in for the sitting U.S. president. (Sharp-eyed readers who notice that the king’s scepter is topped by a shouting head might guess that the king could alternatively be political advisor Steve Bannon, but Bannon hasn’t grown out his perma-scruff into a raggedy beard or been connected to Russia in any way… yet.)

“Open Season,” A.F. Branco

But perhaps we’ve got it all wrong. Perhaps the actual bad guys are the Democrats and the press who are opposing the U.S. administration! That seems to be A.F. Branco’s view, anyway, as evidenced by his cartoon “Open Season” depicting Democratic leaders Senator Chuck Schumer and minority leader Nancy Pelosi leading the media on a “Trump Hunt” (former President President Barack Obama also makes an appearance as a looming silhouette with his oft-depicted, exaggeratedly large ears… and this despite the fact that Obama has been nothing but cordial to the sitting president). Although the cartoon was originally published in March to little fanfare, it’s popularity increased among the president’s supporters after he claimed that he was the victim of “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history.” Both the statement and the cartoon are quite inaccurate, especially since “witch hunt” originally meant targeting suspected witches (in reality societal outcasts) and now describes political scape-goating fueled by fear-mongering. The President, of course, is neither vulnerable nor being blamed for something he didn’t do. In fact, he had fired the director of the very organization conducting the investigation just nine days prior to his tweet. From Branco’s cartoon and Pat Bagley’s cartoon “Beat the Press” (see above), you might assume that the president was eviscerated by the press for this action. Unfortunately some members of the media have been kissing-up and paying homage (see above cartoon “Pig Latin King) to him instead. All in all, Branco’s cartoon is completely in line with the rhetoric Americans have come to expect from our president: nothing but lies.

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Stephanie Tran

Stephanie Tran

Queer, 20-something intersectional feminist, Vietnamese-American, and born fangirl. Writes about anything geeky and thinks about food too much. You can find Stephanie's Twitter rants at @YouAndYourEgo.