NEW YORK – The sharpest weapon is often a pen. That could prove particularly true this political season, as editorial cartoonists (search) on the right and left wade into the fray with their ink and wit.
Cartoons’ sharp barbs, couched in thought bubbles and exaggerated caricatures, have always been a powerful voice in American politics. But in today's media-saturated society, where more young Americans get their news from late-night comedy shows than the evening anchors and when readership at newspapers is on the wane, what role do cartoons play?
“Political cartoons are very different than a Bill Maher or a Jon Stewart. Those guys go very much for humor,” said Pulitzer Prize (search)-winning editorial cartoonist Matt Davies. “Editorial cartoons can take on policy. They will go after serious nuts and bolts issues. They're more than just George Bush has pointy ears.”
This week’s plot twist in Garry Trudeau's (search) “Doonesbury” — technically a comic strip and not a political cartoon — in which a character loses a leg while fighting in Iraq, put a point on how a drawing and a few choice words can stir up controversy.
Of course, angry e-mails and letters to the editor are exactly what political cartoonists want.
"Our nature is to try to be edgy, to go as close as we can to the mark of what makes people feel nervous,” said Chuck Asay, a cartoonist for the Colorado Springs Gazette. “The role [of a cartoonist] is to inflict our opinion on as many people as we possibly can.”
But getting to those people has become more difficult. In the last decade, newspapers have suffered a 7 percent decrease in readership. Davies said that when he began penning his cartoons 11 years ago for The Journal News in New York, there were about 175 regular cartoonists at daily papers in the U.S. Today, the number is half that.
Still, political cartoonists say their role of courting controversy is still a vital part of American politics.
“I think [editorial cartoons] certainly contribute to the debate,” said Asay. “They get right to the point ...They contribute a lot in that by getting the conversation going.”
Particularly now that the election season is heating up, cartoonists say their role is even more crucial.
"The country seems more polarized than in a long time. There are intense feelings about Sept. 11 and the war. Things at stake in this country seem bigger than ever. These are really life or death issues,” said David Horsey, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “I find readers reacting more strongly than in the past.”
And while late-night political comedy is still king in terms of the number of people who tune in, Horsey doesn’t see television’s funnymen as competition.
"The advent of people like Jon Stewart maybe helped a bit," he said. "Because so much political discussion is in the comedic realm, it may give a boost to political cartoons. It shows there's an interest in politics. People don't mind talking about it, thinking about it as long as it's couched in something funny."
Unlike late-night guys who poke fun at the latest headlines and tend to be bi-partisan in their jabs, political cartoonists take a clear stance, said Mike Ritter, president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists.
“Bill Maher has a political position that fuels what he says and his commentary. Leno and Letterman, they’re comics. They have a staff of writers. They are not pushing an agenda.
“We," said Ritter, "are pushing an agenda.”
And Ritter added there’s nothing wrong with choosing a side — that’s how cartoonists engage the public.
“People clip us out and put us in their cubicles and on the fridge,” said Ritter. “Editors and publishers misinterpret all the talk [about cartoons] because a lot of the talk is angry talk. They don't understand, people are picking up the paper to see who David Horsey or Matt Davies has ticked off today.”
But cartoonists, for all their political zeal, get along surprisingly well in person even when they don’t agree on who should be running the country, according to Asay.
"My experience is that we get on like thieves," he said. Asay, a political conservative, said his friendship with left-leaning cartoonist Joel Pett is a perfect example.
“To him I’m a religious right wing fanatic, and to me he’s a pinko commie. But we get along,” said Asay.
Of course, readers are not always so lovey-dovey. But Davies said today's contentious political atmosphere is fodder for cartoonists who thrive on sticky situations.
“The last time things were this charged was when Clinton was getting impeached,” said Davies. “The political climate is very divided. From a political cartoonist standpoint, I'm a pig in slop. What's bad for the country is good for the political cartoonist.”
As for swaying voters, Horsey said that's not in a cartoonist's job description.
“In my career, I’ve only met one person who said I’ve swayed their vote. People who agree with me, I reinforce their beliefs. People who disagree, they are more committed to get rid of fools like me," he said. "My real job is to get people engaged in the debate. I’m trying to get people to keep thinking.”