MAXWELL:  Cartoonist’s satire lost on some readers

6/28/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


I used to think that opinion columnists, those natural-born curmudgeons, are the loneliest souls at newspapers. I now believe that editorial cartoonists are the ultimate outsiders. They are the most misunderstood of all journalists because their craft _ alternately making us laugh, curse and think _ is finicky and strange to us.

Unlike columnists, who have the luxury of using logically arranged words, metaphor, simile, dialogue and other literary devices to make their point, editorial cartoonists rely on simple drawings and a handful of words _ or no words _ to make their statements.

While the column is more or less discursive, the editorial cartoon never is. The cartoonist’s message, if it hits the mark, is delivered wittily. It is a rapier cutting into the conscience, a lethal harpoon piercing the psyche. Therein, of course, lies the mystery of the craft, the very reason that so many readers misinterpret the meaning of editorial cartoons.

And when their work is misinterpreted, many cartoonists wonder if they and their readers are on the same planet.

Take my colleague and pal Don Addis here at the St. Petersburg Times, who is regularly misinterpreted, drawing the wrath of readers. His cartoon of June 3, for example, has brought a surprising number of hateful complaints from blacks.

It is a one-panel sketch of a highway patrolman stealthily parked alongside a road as he monitors traffic. Three signs mark the opposite side of the road, alerting the reader to a gross racial injustice that occurs each day on American highways.

The first sign reads, “All Traffic Must Stop For School Buses”; the second, “Right Lane Must Turn Right”; the third, “All Black Male Drivers Must Be Up to Something.”

Obviously, the message of the last sign is different from that of the other two, and any right-thinking person should know that the cartoonist is trying to make an important moral statement. Why else is the message in question shockingly different?

Don, who is white and a member of the Times’ editorial board, drew the cartoon to protest law enforcement’s practice of stopping black male drivers far more frequently than they do drivers of other groups. A veteran black U.S. congressman calls this infraction DWB: driving while black.

Don openly condemns all acts of racism. Two days before the cartoon was published, the board had discussed law enforcement’s opposition to a proposed congressional bill that would have required officers to collect racial and ethnic data on people during traffic stops. Don told us that he was going to satirize cops for their unjust treatment of black males.

Critics of the cartoon should have informed themselves and should have been aware of the DWB issue and should have understood that the cartoonist empathizes with black males.

Don’s only sin was employing satire, the cartoonist’s sharpest knife. Unfortunately, satire _ the art of diminishing an object by making it ridiculous and the butt of amusement, contempt, indignity or scorn _ apparently escapes the intellectual reach of far too many of today’s readers.

“It’s disheartening to realize there are so many readers who can miss the point so totally,” Don said. “They view the drawing through their own agenda-colored glasses and read into it _ imagine into it _ what they want or expect to find. There are those sourpusses out there whose only joy in life is finding something to be offended by, especially now, under the crush of political correctness. Other cartoonists also will tell you it’s harder to do humor nowadays.

“In the case of this particular cartoon, I had angry calls from African-Americans accusing me of racism. Other African-Americans praised the cartoon and thanked me for it. That shows it’s not just my fault for failing to present the idea clearly. Some people do get it. There are those who never will grasp the subtleties of satire or irony or the different levels of humor. No amount of explanation will ever get through to them. These are people we politely refer to as “unsophisticated.”‘

Don, like his colleagues, such as Mike Peters, Pat Oliphant, Mike Luckovich and Garry Trudeau, rarely unloads a cheap shot. His best work offers painful but useful insights into the human condition. The reader can feel his righteous anger. He never kicks a man while he is down. He champions the rights of the underdog and the less fortunate. And, like most good editorial cartoonist, he routinely pokes us in the eye.

Why so much misinterpretation of his work and that of other editorial cartoonists nationwide?

I agree with Don that PC prevents understanding, and I believe also that many readers are too obsessed with ethnicity, gender and religion to appreciate the ancient art of satire. They fail to see that, unlike the comic, which evokes laughter for its own sake, satire derides, using laughter to lampoon an object existing outside the work itself.

In Don’s DWB cartoon, institutionalized racism in law enforcement is under attack. We do not see a cop actually stopping a black male. But the sign _ “All Black Males Must Be Up To Something” _ takes its ugly resonance from the real world outside the drawing.

Do we laugh? Yes, but uneasily. We look at ourselves, questioning our own attitudes toward black males. Don’s wit has disarmed us.

For African-Americans and other minorities, misinterpreting such editorial cartoons can have serious consequences. “It’s discouraging to find some folks can be so combative that they even attack their own allies,” Don said. “They’re so quick to take offense, they don’t even know I’m on their side.”