How to Decode a Political Cartoon

How to Decode a
Political Cartoon
• "political": that which is concerned with public affairs or
• "cartoon": a sketch or drawing that interests or amuses
by portraying persons, things, political events or
situations etc. in an exaggerated way
• SATIRE - uses humor to lower something or someone in
the reader’s or viewer’s estimation. It is not meanspirited and its point is not to harm. It exposes human
folly to make room for improvement.
What are Political Cartoons?
• Political cartoons usually appear on the editorial page of
your daily newspaper.
• They generally deal with events or issues currently in the
news and are, in essence, visual editorials.
• Like the writer of an editorial, the cartoonist is trying to
make a point.
• They are a primary source of information.
What are Political Cartoons?
• When you look at a political cartoon produced many years ago you
are seeing it out of its original context.
• In order to "get it" you will likely need some background information
from classroom discussion, a textbook or your own research.
• Once you have a general idea of the topic at hand you can start to
decode the message the cartoonist is trying to convey.
Tools Used By Cartoonist
– "Ce bon Mr. Lincoln", was published in
Montréal in 1865, during the American Civil
War of 1861-1865.
• Caricature is the primary technique of the political cartoonist,
who often exaggerates an individual's unique characteristics to
make them easily recognizable.
• There is no mistaking the tall, thin, bearded figure of American
president Abraham Lincoln
• Viewers at the time would have no trouble identifying the
smaller, toque-wearing figure in the upper right hand corner of
cartoon A as the stereotypical French Canadian Jean-Baptiste.
• Another very important technique is the use of analogy, in which one
event is represented by another.
• Lincoln (sitting on the American White House) and Jean-Baptiste
(sitting on the Canadian Parliament Buildings) appear to be
engaged in the childhood game "king of the castle" while Canadian
soldiers stand guard on a wall separating the two countries.
• Exaggerates one or
more features of a
person or thing. It
attempts to say
something about the
character, beliefs,
actions or
• Makes them easily
• Made Obama’s ears
• Facial expression and • Jimi Hendrix
body language can be
used as signs to
communicate ideas.
• In some cases a
cartoonist may use
shading to indicate
the "good guys" (light)
and the "bad guys"
• Represents something else. It is a often a
material object that represents something
abstract or invisible (for example, the Statue of
Liberty to represent freedom;
• Uses an object to
note a similarity to
something else.
John Bull (England) as an octopus of imperialism
• Expresses an idea through a contradiction between something’s
literal meaning and the intended meaning. For example, picturing a
U.S. president with a crown on his head.
• SARCASM- is a form of irony. The element that turns irony into
sarcasm is the appearance of mockery, or bitterness.
• Works by taking a real or imagined trait of an individual
to be true of the group to which the individual belongs.
They express bias and can be unfair and harmful.
Analogy & Allusions
• Another very important technique is the use of
analogy, in which one event is represented by
• An allusion is understandable only to those with
prior knowledge of the reference in question
(which the writer assumes to be so).
• A one-sentence or one-phrase (or image)
reference to another event, character, etc. in the
Bible, mythology, or current event
Three kings follow star to Barack
Obama, savior of the Democrats.
Darth Harper
• Cartoonists sometimes use words (titles,
captions, name tags, balloon comments or
dialogue) to help the viewer.
• When you look at a political cartoon you should
consider the biases of the cartoonist. The
cartoonist, after all, is trying to make a point.
When and where was the cartoon published,
and in what type of publication? Who is
portrayed in a favourable manner and who is
• Cartoons can display a number of other biases
as well (such as political, religious, racial or
ethnic, vocational, economic or gender biases).
Decode the message by using the following
Scrutinize the characters. Can you name them by drawing on your knowledge of
local and world events?
Examine the characters' attire and other visual clues.
For example:
facial expressions: does the character's face convey anger, fear, intrigue etc.?
complexion: describe the character's facial appearance (clean-cut and shaven,
scruffy etc.)
body expression and appearance: describe the character's physical appearance
(slouched, arms waving frantically, small stature, broad and bold body etc.)
attire: what is the character wearing? (suit and tie, underwear, hats etc.)
exaggeration of facial or physical characteristics: compared to a photograph
(e.g., chins, mouths, bulging eyes, long noses etc.)
Identify objects you see in the cartoon (buildings, fences, something the character is
holding). Notice words on the objects and background features (sky, walls, water).
Discuss the main ideas expressed in the cartoon's text. Is there a common theme?
Once you have looked critically at a
cartoon you can try to interpret it.
In summary, when you look at a political cartoon you
should take the following steps:
• seek out the necessary background knowledge
• determine the issue being considered
• study the devices the cartoonist has used
• identify any possible biases and try to interpret the
• In short, what is the cartoon about, what techniques
does the cartoonist use, and what does it all mean?
• Once you have looked critically at a cartoon you can try
to interpret it.
The Rebellions of 1837
Political Cartoons
Create a political cartoon on the Rebellions of 1837
You must invent an appropriate slogan and have captions.
You must use at least TWO devices in your cartoon: Exaggeration,
Allusion, Analogy, Symbolism, Metaphor, Caricature, Stereotype,
Humor (satire), Personification
Your cartoon must include at least ONE Historical Figure (or
reference to) from the Rebellions of 1837.
You need to illustrate your cartoon with fully coloured, hand-drawn
On the back, explain the background of your cartoon, and all
devices that you used to create the cartoon.
Checklist for Creating Cartoons :
– Decide what aspect of the Rebellions of 1837 that you wish to convey
your message with. Give reasons for your decision.
– Identify your topic: Event, person etc..
– Express your point of view and the message you want to convey
– Determine what symbols are appropriate and historically accurate
– Choose the words to convey your message.
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