Political Cartoon Analysis: 3 Things to Keep in Mind

Are you a bit confused about how to approach a political cartoon? A lot of these works can be slightly complicated in nature, and a bit hard to decipher!

This article will show you various elements that cartoonists use in their work, so you are better equipped to understand and interpret the artist's message.

In this article, we will be going through the 3 important things to ask yourself as you practice analysing political cartoons. These are:

  1. Why analyse them? What is the key evaluation that I am supposed to make?
  2. What are the main persuasive techniques I need to watch out for?
  3. What other questions should I answer before I conclude my analysis?

These 3 sections will give you a better understanding of how you need to think while approaching these texts - you need a technical eye! I hope you find this article helpful in aiding you through your critical skills. Let's get started:

1) Why analyse political cartoons?

British Library digitised image from page 295 of "Tableaux de Paris ... Paris qui consomme. Dessins de P. Vidal"
Photo by British Library

While studying language or literature, your teachers might introduce political and editorial cartoons in order to help you develop your language skills or communication skills. In the classroom, you are supposed to gain an understanding of how these political cartoons are created.

These cartoons are speaking about events that are recent, and gaining knowledge about the political contexts in our countries can be important. It is important to know a little bit about the current issues in today's society.

However, it is not crucial that you must know everything about what a political cartoon is speaking about. Even if you are not familiar with all the details, you will still be able to get the gist of the topic and the theme.

As an active reader, you must be able to show that you understand the message of the cartoon. The best way to do this is by analysing the techniques that the cartoonist has used in order to provide this message.

Has the cartoon successfully delivered it's message in an effective manner? Is the cartoon urging you to ponder about the cartoonist's point of view? These are two main questions you can ask yourself as you start analysing these cartoons.


2) Understanding persuasive techniques

Cartoon by Charles M. Schultz

First thing to remember - all persuasive techniques used in comics and political cartoons display the artist's style. These techniques are combined with other textual features - such as the general features that political cartoons employ. Most cartoons employ at least a handful of techniques.

Political cartoons are persuasive in nature because the artist is intentionally giving you their perspective, in order to possibly sway your opinion regarding an issue, or to encourage you to contemplate about a social commentary.

Active readers of the cartoons should thus pay attention to the persuasive methods used, since they will usually have a political slant, and sometimes can even be slightly biased towards a topic or politician. Identifying this earlier on is very essential since it allows you to be aware of it while you analyse the cartoon further.

Once you have deciphered the political slant, you can identify the actual intention behind the cartoon. The purpose of the cartoon might be nuanced, based on the variety of techniques that are employed - the more you practice analysing these texts, the more your analysis skills will get!

Types of Persuasive Techniques:

Cartoon by Frank Modell

a) The use of Hyperbole or Caricature

Cartoons tend to exaggerate the facial features of their subjects in order to highlight certain aspects of their personality. This is usually done for creating a comical effect, and kind of lets the readers know that the cartoonist's regard for that person is not too high.

Other than exagerrating facial characteristics, the cartoonist can also use hyperbole to display the clothes that the figure wears. For example, a politician could be wearing a heroic cape, which could further the comical aspect of the cartoon.

A general exaggeration in the cartoon can also provide an insight into the depth of a political issue, to show readers how a current political scenario could transform into a situation that is troublesome for society.

b) The use of Labelling

Cartoon by Bob Mankoff

Sometimes, objects in a cartoon will contain labels which specify what they are, or what they are aiming to signify. Labels are used to make the context of the cartoon clearer, making it easier for the reader to interpret why the object (or the person) was labelled so explicitly.

Cartoons can use labelling through captions as well, in order to further explain the scene to readers. The cartoonist will do this by labelling the situation with a word, phrase or a short sentence - very similar to a narrative voice-over, but in a compact format.

Labelling can also be given through dialogue, or through specific catchprases used by politicians. In many cases, you might see citizens holding placards with labels on them, in order to signify a protest or a stance regarding the political issue.

c) The use of Symbolism

Cartoon by Mischa Richter

Like in other texts, symbolism is used in political or editorial cartoons in order to signify something that is not just the symbol or the object itself. The cartoonist will be assuming that the targeted audience is capable of understanding the implicitly presented message.

Since a cartoon has a limited amount of words it can use, it usually tends to resort to symbolism, in order to address larger meanings within the context. For example, in the cartoon given above, Mischa Richter has combined two symbolic figures of the United States of America - Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty.

These symbols are very specific and might be an obstacle for general interpretation if, say, the audience is younger. So, various cartoonists resort to extremely well known symbols for presenting second-meanings. Cartoons can thus include references to pop culture to ensure that most readers can easily interpret the message.

d) The use of Analogy

Cartoon by Donald Reilly

Artists tend to love using visual analogies for their cartoons since they invite readers to actively engage with the text. If the cartoon is making a literal statement instead of presenting an analogy, it will leave no room for the reader's interpretation, and thus it will neither be too interesting nor thought-provoking.

Cartoonists can use an analogy about a past situation or even a fictional situation, in order to draw a parallel which can highlight their criticism about a current situation. The artist is doing this to give the readers an explicit, striking comparison between the two depictions.

When cartoonists create analogy, they will be taking inspiration from three main sources. They will be mostly be using one of the three analogies mentioned below:

  • references to pop culture,
  • mundane references from everyday life, or
  • literary, political or historical references.

The first two methods are easier for readers to comprehend and interpret - chances of readers identifying the analogy is higher. A cartoon only becomes truly effective when the reader is able to grasp and interpret the meaning of the work.

e) The use of Irony

Cartoon by James Stevenson

How can a political cartoon be good if its not entertaining the reader? Using humour is one of the best ways to keep the audience engaged. As I mentioned earlier, one way to achieve humour is to exaggerate things a little bit - this gives the cartoon a satirical effect.

Irony too creates a comical effect, since the cartoonist is giving their perspective in order to highlight how ridiculous a situation may seem. The use of irony shows readers how different things are from the way they could (or should) be in an ideal society or political scenario.

A good editorial cartoon will be to address the issue by presenting an ironic perspective of the current state of affairs, so readers are free to interpret all the implications that the cartoonist is making, and also decide how they feel about the whole thing.

3) A few other questions to consider:

Here are 5 questions that you can ask yourself after you have gone through your initial analysis of the cartoon. These questions will help you to analyse and structure your understanding of the text:

  • Have I properly identified the specific issue that this political cartoon is speaking about?
  • Have I pinpointed the main message of this visual text? How can I make it more specific?
  • What other interpretations can this work possibly get from a general reader?
  • Is this editorial cartoon persuading me to agree with it? Why am I finding it reasonable and logical?
  • What other techniques could have made this particular political cartoon more persuasive or effective?

Taking the next step

Make sure to keep expanding on your knowledge on global politics or global issues, so you will be able to form more sophisticated interpretations of texts.

It is now time to start writing! Or speaking - whichever you are required to do.

If you require guidance for your textual analysis, or if you are just looking to enhance your academic performance in general, take a look at our IB and Cambridge Mentorship options here at Vidyalai.com

Try a live demo session to gain an insight into the classroom experience. Request for your free demo lesson today!

Political Cartoon Analysis: 3 Things to Keep in Mind
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