It's probably no surprise that at Cartoon Movement we talk a lot about editorial cartoons. Although the editors agree on the importance of cartoons, they have different outlooks on what he role of a cartoon should be, and what constitutes a good cartoon. The death of Steve Jobs renewed the discussion, and sparked the idea to use the occasion to write opposing columns about the role of tribute cartoons. Matt Bors wrote a critique of tribute cartoons, titled 'Pay No Tribute'. The following is in defense of tribute cartoons.
By Tjeerd Royaards
As one commenter of Matt's column 'Pay No Tribute' noted, it is quite a mountain for me to climb coming up with a defense for tribute cartoons, especially in light of Matt's superb critique. I've been thinking on this 'tribute' to tribute cartoons for some time, the more so since I agree with many of the concerns raised by Matt. Initially I planned to show the value of tribute cartoons by showing some of my favorites that have been done over the years. However, this approach would rely on the reader sharing my taste in cartoons, and taste is rather subjective. Instead, I've chosen for a slightly more objective line of reasoning, exploring the role of tribute cartoons within the field of editorial cartooning.
Let me start by stating the obvious: I agree with Matt that cartoons should be original; I also agree that the main role of cartoons is to be check on power, and to bring to light the wrong-doings in society. I'd rather see cartoons poke fun at those in power than commemorate celebrities. The added value of the editorial cartoon (at least, in my opinion) is to be a striking visual that makes you look at an issue in a new way, not a visual that has been done a thousand times before.
That said, I also believe that if you want to avoid clichés, you should avoid becoming an editorial cartoonist. Clichés are an indispensable part of editorial cartoons. Before I start talking about tribute cartoons, let me explain why I think clichés play such an important role in cartoons. To do this we need to take a look at the very essence of cartoons.
At the core of cartoons is the idea of shared concepts. The beauty and power of visuals is that they have the ability to transcend the language barrier. A language is an shared concept in itself, an agreement about attaching meaning to certain groups of letters, or even more basic, attaching meaning to certain signs. Cartoons, instead of using language, use symbols. These symbols make up a common language, one that is not bound to a certain territory, but which is understood throughout the world. Cartoonists expertly use this common language to offer visual commentary on what's happening in the world.
Here are some examples of this common language. In cartoons, characters wearing suit and tie (often combined with a top hat) are almost always representations of corrupt politicians or evil capitalists. Chimney stacks always represent pollution, and any person wearing an oversized military cap or a military outfit with lots of medals is most likely a tyrant. In the case of tribute cartoons, Pearly Gates and clouds are the universal depiction of Heaven.
The list of visual elements that make up this language of universal symbols is extensive, and it consists, for all intents and purposes, entirely of clichés. Yet these clichés are essential to any cartoonist trying to get a message across with visuals. Although cartoonists in some parts of the world (notably the US) rely more heavily on text than others, I think all cartoonists agree that some of the best (if not the best) cartoons are those that don't need text. And whether you use text in a cartoon or not, at the heart of every cartoon is the premise that the visuals are understood by the reader. It's not a matter of not using clichés in cartoons, but in what way they are employed by the artist.
Tribute cartoons are always full of clichés. So what is their added value? The answer lies in the relation between editorial cartoons and the news, and more importantly, the complex relationship between cartoons and public opinion. Cartoons cannot ignore the important events of the world, or they run the risk of becoming irrelevant. They are tied to the news, and also to the public opinion they are trying to shape. Although the most important role of a cartoon is to offer critique, they have the unique ability to underline the importance of an event, whether it be the death of an important person, or an occasion of historic significance. This ability is demonstrated by how strongly tribute cartoons resonate with the public. In the case of Steve Jobs, the number of cartoons shared on Facebook was overwhelming. Cartoons shouldn't be about popularity, but all cartoonists realize they need an audience for their work to have any worth.
Tribute cartoons demonstrate the power of the visual, and as powerful visuals they are a necessary part of editorial cartooning. They illustrate what's important. In doing so, tribute cartoons set the agenda and pave the way for cartoons that do what they undoubtedly do best: expose arrogance, ignorance, corruption and abuse while making you laugh, think, or both.
What events are worth tribute cartoons is a separate discussion, as is the tendency of many cartoonists to come up with the same concept when doing tribute cartoons. Being original, thinking outside the box, and coming up with new and inventive visual solutions should be at the creative core of any cartoonist, whether he or she is doing a tribute cartoon or commenting on any other news event. Every cartoonists is free to decide whether to do a tribute cartoon or not, but not doing tribute cartoons because you think they are are unoriginal is the same as not doing cartoons about politicians, corruption or power abuse anymore because you fear all the ideas have been exhausted. If you do, it's probably a good time to switch careers.