How to Examine a Political Cartoon:
- Let your eyes “float” over the cartoon. Artists know what will capture the mind’s attention first. Allow your mind and your eyes to naturally find the portion of the cartoon that most stands out. Most often, this will be a caricature, which is an exaggeration or distortion of a person or object with the goal of providing a comic effect.
- In this example, “Join, or Die,” the main focus is a snake:
2. Follow the cartoon’s natural flow by discovering the interaction with the primary focus (found in step 1). If it’s a person, whom are they talking to? Where are they standing? If it’s an object, what is being done to the object? What is it doing there? Most often, you can look around the immediate vicinity of the primary focus to find what is being described. This is usually an allusion, or an indirect reference to a past or current event that isn’t explicitly made clear within the cartoon.
- Following our example, the snake looks like it might be poised to attack. What would it be attacking?
- The body is disjointed, and each of the eight sections has an abbreviation. Can you recognize any of them?
3. Determine the audience. What section of the population is the publication geared towards, and in what country and locality? A political cartoon will be created with consideration to the experiences and assumptions of the intended audience. For example, a political cartoon in a publication distributed in a strictly conservative tone will convey its message in a different way than it would if the audience was a particularly liberal group.
- “Join, or Die” was first published in his Pennsylvania Gazette on May 9, 1754. The audience at the time would probably recognize the abbreviations as standing for a British American colony or region.
4. Understand the context of the cartoon. More often than not, the political cartoon will be published in context, meaning that it is associated with the main news story of the day. If you are viewing a political cartoon outside of its original publishing source, you will want to be well-read about current and historical events. For example, if Al Gore is talking to the Democratic National Convention about the Internet and how great it is, you need to understand that the press at one time misinterpreted what Al Gore said in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that he “invented” the Internet.
- “Join, or Die” was drawn by Benjamin Franklin and appeared in conjunction with an editorial by him that addressed the dissatisfaction of the colonies and encouraged colonial unity.
- The cartoon and editorial were published when the colonists were deciding whether to fight the French and their Indian allies for territory between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River.
- The phrase itself, “Join, or Die” implies that if the colonies don’t join forces to “attack” or fight opposing forces, they will “die” or fail to work towards their own interest.
- At the time, there was also a superstition that a cut snake could come alive again if it was put back together before sunset.
5.Look for widely recognized symbols. Some metaphors are commonly used by political cartoonists. For example:
- Uncle Sam or an eagle for the United States
- John Bull, Britannia or a lion for the United Kingdom
- a beaver for Canada
- a bear for Russia
- a dragon for China
6. Look at minor details in the cartoon that will contribute to the humor or the point of the cartoon. Often, words or pictorial symbols will be used to convey minor themes or ideas, but they are found in the background or on the sides of the cartoon.
Editorial Cartoons to be Examined