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Review of Drawn to Extremes: The Use and Abuse of Editorial Cartoons by Chris Lamb

By Michael Mayne

Lamb, Chris. Drawn to Extremes: The Use and Abuse of Editorial Cartoons. New York: Columbia UP, 2004.

Perhaps maps fascinate us because they create an illusion of unmediated knowledge. They represent the information of geography immediately, with sections of area knitted together in scale. Maps suggest comprehension and convey ease, even beauty, in recognition. Editorial cartoons are similar in this function, which may explain their popularity. These productions have played a significant role in American social and political life. From Benjamin Franklin’s “Join or Die” visual polemic, through Thomas Nast’s crusade against Tammany Hall (“My constituents can’t read; but dammit, they can see pictures!”, Boss Tweed famously quipped), William Hearst’s campaign for the Spanish-American War, and Bill Mauldin’s World War II commentary, to the more recent splashes of patriotism that immediately followed September 11, editorial cartoons have responded to currents in the American milieu. Chris Lamb’s Drawn to Extremes: The Use and Abuse of Editorial Cartoons investigates the history and meaning of editorial cartoons in America.

Lamb’s broad narrative includes the ethics of criticizing a wartime president, the meaning of satire in ancient Greece, the dangers of McCarthyism, the relationship between editors and cartoonists, the mechanics of cartoon production, and the quantitative decline of the industry itself. Lamb charts the trajectory of this craft’s evolution adequately, but none of these moments of discussion provide a particularly insightful analysis of his subject. Drawn to Extremes’s confusing structure of meandering topics and incongruous chapter titles also complicate its possible fallback use as a reference or introduction to American editorial cartoons. For example, the middle chapter titled “McCarthyism” begins with the women’s suffrage movement, discusses the cultural significance of the Progressive Era, World War I, the New Deal, World War II, the Klu Klux Klan, and briefly mentions McCarthyism (in 2 pages out of 35) before swinging by Nixon’s Vietnam, and concluding with an odd and lengthy debate about Clarence Thomas and Bill Clinton, without any attempt to connect these themes with McCarthyism itself. This example is particularly problematic because Lamb’s apparent thesis – criticism and commentary offered by editorial cartoons play a vital role in democratic societies – resonates with the McCarthy Era specifically.

Drawn to Extremes provocatively begins with the events of September 11, which Lamb uses to examine the rhetorical disconnect between criticism and patriotism that governments (and their minions) frequently establish during moments of crisis. Lamb compares cartoons that criticized President Bush before and after the attacks, and suggests that the explanation for the acrimony the latter group elicited can be found in “theories of nationalism,” which are not to be confused with patriotism: “confusing patriotism with nationalism is like confusing faith with blind obedience. Patriotism allows for questioning; nationalism does not. Nationalism is understood as an ideology that demands absolute loyalty and, in doing so, exacts a high price” (7-8). Lamb argues, more or less, that the distinction between patriotism and nationalism collapses “when sensitivities are particularly rarefied” (i.e. moments of crisis), and that patriotism is then incorporated into the category of nationalism, with criticism situated as antithetical to the latter category.

The satire of editorial cartoons, according to Lamb, can counter the dynamics of nationalism by exposing its participants: “satire forces us to take a look at ourselves for what we are and not what we want to be. We may not always like what we see” (23). In a somewhat cumbersome development of this argument, Lamb suggests that satirists are social commentators who “usually offer a travesty of the situation, which at the same time directs attention to reality and offers an escape from it. The result is often unflattering, although satire, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder, causing hysteria for some and leaving others in hysterics” (34). Lamb argues that the significance of this social commentary can be found in satire’s representation of reality, which influences both contemporary and future readers.  For example, in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential campaign, “the election itself became a cartoon, and Florida became the banana peel we all slipped on. Generations from now, it may well be the editorial cartoonists who created the most realistic picture of the election” (57).

Lamb appropriately discusses cartoon depictions of fear-mongering, martial hubris, corruption, incompetence and injustice in the context of their real sources of inspiration and concludes that satirical depictions both reflect and affect the social reality they represent: “When editorial cartoons are at their best, they are like switchblades: simple and to the point, they cut deeply and leave an impression” (42). Moreover, cartoonists do this in unique ways: “when was the last time you read an op-ed column that torched your soul?” (237). “Therefore,” Lamb insists, “it is up to editorial cartoonist to awaken society and demand its involvement in protecting democracy” (102). However, discussing the historical context of these cartoons underscores the absence of cartoonists’ influence, which may be considered Drawn to Extremes’ valuable (though unintentional) counternarrative. Most of the progressive cartoons Lamb mentions appear impotent. It seems that regardless of all the pomp and bluster mustered by those criticized, cartoons merely let off steam of discontent; readers feel gratified to see their views articulated, and then move on to book reviews.

In addition to staid platitudes and unfortunate metaphors like those quoted above, historical gaffes (Dubya’s “axis of evil” speech came after September 11 [3] and Robert Bork was nominated by Reagan, not Bush Sr. [119]) mar Lamb’s argument, as do personal sideswipes, like his awkward rant against “the virus of political correctness” (55): “In these politically correct days, it is fashionable for those who are offended to express their indignation in the name of offended people everywhere, skin alive those who utter contrary opinions, force them to apologize, and then have them banished to the Tower of Babel” (53). Lamb’s issues with political correctness may explain the inappropriately brief mention of white men’s conspicuous dominance in this profession (92 & 227-230).

The strength of Drawn to Extremes lies in its generous inclusion of 150 cartoons, which fairly represent over 200 years of editorial cartoons in mainstream media, local papers, and specialized publications like The Masses. These images and the thorough documentation of their sources provide a valuable resource. Lamb also includes relevant quotes from practitioners, and his general history of editorial cartoons works well with his short biographies of individual cartoonists. For example, Lamb’s discussion of Clay Bennett’s career functions as a lucid exemplar of the profession’s contemporary technological and political shifts. If the focus and structure of this book had been clearer, Drawn to Extremes would have succeeded in either providing a historical sketch of American editorial cartoons or a detailed review of post-September 11 examples of these important cultural productions.

The recent violence that erupted after a Danish newspaper (Jyllands-Postenin) published cartoons of the prophet Muhammad indicate that editorial cartoons are consequential. But even these episodes (not to mention the cartoons themselves) defer rather than elucidate dynamics between “the West” and “radical Islam.” Cartoons may convey information and elicit reactions, but they rarely influence the subject of their satire. The anti-Bush cartoons Lamb lauds did not meaningfully affect the Patriot Act or the invasion of Iraq. They were only maps of contradictions, caricatures of folly and brief respites for sad liberals. The praxis these documents were supposed to generate never happened. Glancing at a map of Iraq, you know how big the province of At Ta’Mim is relative to As Sulaymaniyah, how close Kirkik is to Iran, and that Iraq and Saudi Arabia share several rivers. But this map says nothing about what Iraq is, even as you walk away with an idea of Iraq. The catastrophe that is America’s war against Iraq constitutes our most pressing concern, and there is very little that an editorial cartoon can do to affect this.

Posted in Volume 3, Issue 1