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Comic Riffs
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Posted at 10:50 AM ET, 05/21/2010

THE RIFF: A day after 'Draw Muhammad,' the political cartoon gets a powerful reminder

The power of the cartoon remains.

The ability of a single sketched image to provoke, prompt, incite, summon or inflame -- a virility and virality sometimes questioned in a new-media age -- is intact. Whether deemed to have been drawn nobly or irresponsibily, to enlighten or enrage, the cartoon that touches that precise nerve -- whether purposefully or accidentally -- still can quickly inflame an entire body of thought or an entire body politic.

If that sounds like an obvious, natural-born conclusion a day after "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day," the week after a Swedish cartoonist was attacked and his home was literally inflamed, the month after "South Park" animation sparked postings of Theo Van Gogh images, then perhaps you haven't been paying attention to those stretches when the political cartoonist is declared a dying profession and the newspaper cartoonist's format a relic of an inkier era.

No matter what side you come down on when it comes to Molly Norris, to Lars Vilks, to Matt Stone and Trey Parker -- whether you champion or condemn or dismiss their cartoons -- their work reminds with a nonpartisan certainty that sometimes, the shortest path to the brain is a line.

The late Pulitzer-winning political cartoonist Doug Marlette once likened editorial cartoons to rock 'n' roll in their primal power. Cartoons that have a political power are, like rock was once dubbed, the "jungle music" that, in their primal percussiveness, insist to be heard over essays and editorials and long "think-pieces" that wax orchestral.

As newspapers have rendered many political-cartoonist perches endangered or extinct in recent years, some observers have declared the modern political cartoon to be a shell of its former influential self -- the withered ex-bodybuilder who points to the glory days by pointing out pictures of previous titans. Thomas Nast flexing his cross-hatchings more than a century ago as he brought down Boss Tweed. Or Herblock depicting suspect footprints leading back to the White House within mere days after the Watergate break-in.

When the Library of Congress mounted its latest Herblock exhibit last year to mark the late Washington Post legend's 100th birthday, even some political cartoonists themselves pined for a previous era -- when being the right political cartoonist at the right paper covering the right events could perhaps mean wielding at least a whiff of the influence of a Walter Winchell or Walter Cronkite, if not an Edward R. Murrow.

That yellowed era of cartooning influence is supposedly lost to time and economic transition and shifting reading habits and broken business models. New media has changed the game. Yet some cartoonists contend that the very power and visual "portability" of the simple political cartoon make it one of journalism's most readily adapted elements for new media.

If nothing else, by responding to a cartoon show's censorship, Seattle's Molly Norris -- whether you call her reckless, feckless, courageous or an emblem of cowardice -- has inadvertently spotlighted just how tightly wired our world is. When a "one-off cartoon" (her words to Comic Riffs) posted on a personal website and forwarded to some prominent bloggers can spawn online pages that prompt an entire nation to block Facebook and YouTube (and reportedly parts of Wikipedia and Flickr) -- bans that have precedent in China and Turkey and elsewhere -- it's a white-hot reminder that new media isn't the enemy of the political cartoon. If anything, social networking is pure, 100-percent human growth hormone to the political cartoon as "withered" and "past-its-prime" bodybuilder. The dopes are the ones who don't realize that for cartoons, new media is the equivalent of legal doping.

Or "illegal" doping, as some would say of cartoons that are said to be more inflammatory than informative -- be it Norris's "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day!" cartoon or Vilks's Muhammad-as-a-dog sketches that seemed design to inflame. It's a valid argument to say that most anyone can attempt the cartoon equivalent of Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" and -- by offending someone's God or gods or religion or personal doctrine -- stoke a strong reaction. The newspaper political cartoonist must traffic, too, in Tea Parties and Obamacare and Supreme Court nominations, if not "smaller" local and regional issues that are equally worthy in their own right.

Yet doesn't the right sharp dart of a cartoon aimed at oil-spill incompetence, say, still get Digged and "liked" and "shared" and Twitpic retweeted? A political cartoon needn't cause spasms of global reaction to strike a chord in readers and make a difference by stoking dialogue.

Thanks to new media, especially, the power of the cartoon remains enhanced.

By  |  10:50 AM ET, 05/21/2010

Categories:  The Riffs, The Riffs | Tags:  Doug Marlette, Everybody Draw Muhammad Day, Herb Block, Herblock, Lars Vilks, Library of Congress, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, Molly Norris, Political Cartoons

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