Learning Adventures in Citizenship
Episode 3Topic 6
Focus On Political Cartoons
Smart Art

Cartoon Collage
In 1871, William "Boss" Tweed, the head of New York City's Tammany Hall political "machine", was arrested and convicted of stealing millions of dollars from the public treasury. Attacked in the press and public, Tweed feared one thing most -- Thomas Nast and his cartoons. These were not your Saturday morning cartoons. They were political cartoons that made fun of Tweed and exposed his crimes. And, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. They helped put Tweed in jail.

America has a great tradition of political cartoons, going all the way back to colonial times and continuing through today. You've probably seen them in your local newspaper or a national news magazine. In this activity, you will get the chance to create some of your own.

Choose A Subject
The first thing to do is think about a subject you would like to cover in your political cartoon. It might be something of national interest or a local or school issue. It can be about someone, something, or some event. But remember, it should be about something in the public eye. A cartoon about something that happened in your own personal life is not really a political cartoon.

Read your local newspaper or a national news magazine. Is there some event or person in the news that has caught your interest? A good political cartoon comes from the heart -- it covers an issue that concerns you and expresses your opinion about it. If you don't feel strongly about something, you should probably turn to another subject.

Draw A Political Cartoon
Now, it's time to think about what your cartoon will look like. This, of course, depends on the subject. Political cartoons, like regular cartoons, come in two basic styles -- single or multiple panels. Multiple panels allow for more story-telling, but single panels often have a stronger visual impact.

There are also different visual tools you can use. Caricature is one method. A caricature is a drawing of someone or something that uses exaggeration to make a point. For example, Nast exaggerated Tweed's weight to portray the man as greedy.

Symbols can also be helpful. There are two kinds: symbols that make a point about something and symbols that stand for something. A long nose -- like Pinocchio's -- is a good way to make a point about lying. In a cartoon about political parties, elephants and donkeys are often used to stand for Republicans and Democrats. But remember, a symbol only works if others easily understand it.

Labels can help as well. For example, if you wanted to do a cartoon about high prices, you could show someone with empty pockets hanging out of their pants. A label on that person that says "American consumer" could help make things clearer for the viewer. Also, you can add a line or two at the bottom to explain the cartoon if it needs explaining. And like regular comics, you can have characters in political cartoon speak or think, using word bubbles.

Finally, there are three important things to remember about political cartoons. If you are doing a cartoon about people you know, be gentle and use caricature carefully. Nast used Tweed's fatness for a reason. Don't just make someone fat because you want to make fun of them.

Second, political cartoons don't have to be funny. In fact, they shouldn't be funny if you are portraying a sad or serious subject, like hunger or drug abuse. Some of the most effective political cartoons don't make people laugh, they make them think.

And finally, keep things simple. While cartoons from a hundred or more years ago had lots of characters in them and lots of things going on, modern cartoons do not. The best political cartoons are the simplest ones, with as few people, events, and things in them as possible.

For some ideas about effective cartoons, look in your local newspaper or a national news magazine. See how these cartoonists make their points. You might also check out the following Web sites for some examples:

Professional Cartoonists Index
Features the work of more than 60 editorial cartoonists, updated daily.

Jeff MacNelly Editorial Page
Jeff MacNelly is a Pulitzer-prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune.

Mike's Political Punches
Mike Peters's political cartoons.

Displaying A Political Cartoon
Now that you have drawn some political cartoons, you might want to show them around. With your teacher's permission, you might put them up on a class bulletin board.