Such reactions, though, suggest that some defenders of the cartoon misunderstand the criticism. Knight has been accused on multiple occasions of depicting black people in troubling ways visually, but his Serena Williams cartoon bore a clear graphic resemblance to dehumanizing and painful Jim Crow imagery. And artists cannot work in a historical vacuum.
So the issue is not whether a cartoonist can caricature a public figure like Williams or Osaka and criticize their behavior, but rather the artfulness of the intent.
To help illuminate how editorial artists approach such visual satire, The Washington Post asked several award-winning cartoonists to offer a peek behind their thought process.
DARRIN BELL (King Features):
“It’s not hard to caricature a black person. Just don’t do it like they did it 100 years ago,” says Bell, an RFK Award-winning cartoonist.
“If you’re tempted to make their lips look like airbags, or to make their nose take up half their faces, you’re being lazy. Especially when, as in the case of Serena, her lips and her nose aren’t especially large.
“. . . Caricature always exaggerates features that stand out. But that doesn’t mean ‘features that stand out when compared to white people.’ If you look at Serena and you’re inclined to exaggerate her nose and her lips, odds are that is why they stand out to you. And if you’re not purposely trying to tap into those 100-year-old stereotypes, then as a professional, you’re supposed to be aware of that impulse and put it in check. I go through that thought process when I draw anyone.
“When I drew President Obama, I always focused on his eyebrows, his chin, his ears and his mole. If I’d drawn Serena Williams, I’d have focused on her only really distinctive features: her eyebrows and her outfit, as well as her cheekbones, which, together with her strong chin and jawline, give her a diamond-shaped head. If I’d drawn her yelling, I’d have exaggerated her open mouth and not the lips surrounding it.
“But then, that’s me. Others can do whatever they want. But they should expect a backlash if what they want to do is both reminiscent of well-known racist stereotypes and inaccurate in that it exaggerates features that are not distinctive in real life when compared with others of the same ethnicity.”
NATE BEELER (Columbus Dispatch):
“When I first saw the headlines about Serena Williams’s outburst at the U.S. Open, my initial reaction was that it was probably just another millionaire athlete throwing a tantrum. Ho-hum, no big deal,” says Beeler, a right-leaning cartoonist who has won the Sigma Delta Chi and Berryman awards. “But after I watched the actual video of her behavior and read more to get context, I started to sympathize with her complaints. I don’t like to use the label ‘sexism’ lightly, but I couldn’t arrive at a different logical endpoint.
“I began sketching riffs off of the phrase ‘double standard,’ knocking out three or four ideas relatively quickly. After a couple more detours, I landed on one with the ‘male’ symbol as a tennis racket labeled ‘sexism’ that Serena was breaking. I liked it, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to be that direct. Nevertheless, it just felt right.
“I didn’t want the cartoon to be funny, so I avoided trying to caricature Serena. The message required portraying her as strong, not silly or foolish — that would detract from the commentary. It’s a rare instance when my editorial cartoon commends rather than criticizes.”
LALO ALCARAZ (Andrews McMeel Syndication):
“I try to never put down a fellow cartoonist’s work. But I do try to draw a better cartoon,” says Alcaraz, a Latino Spirit Award-winning cartoonist who is also the creator of the syndicated political strip “La Cucaracha.”
“I’m not sure if my cartoon is superior to anyone else’s, but people should know that my intent was to honestly caricature Serena Williams, and capture her athletic strength and also to depict her taking the racket of sexism and smashing it — a clearly labeled ‘male symbol’ — with her righteous anger.
“Cartoonists need to be as thoughtful about the message of their cartoons just as much as they are about their depictions, current and historical. We do not draw in a bubble.”
DREW LITTON (Andrews McMeel Syndication):
“Editorial cartooning is an incredibly powerful visual medium. So you have to be vigilant and careful in the process that the caricature you draw is an accurate yet exaggerated rendering of the subject matter — not one born of stereotypical imagery from another era.
“I felt Mark Knight’s cartoon was too reminiscent of images drawn from the 1920s and ’30s. I found it distasteful and a somewhat lazy portrayal of the subject matter. And yes, unfortunately, a racial stereotypical caricature and cartoon.”