Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Political cartoons on natural disasters

Jan Trembley's picture

In the 1980s, I drew weekly political cartoons and editorial illustrations for a newspaper in Pennsylvania. My predecessor there had been Signe Wilkinson, one of the few women publishing then in this area. She went on to national recognition. I did not. Some of my cartoons were quite good; most were so juvenile that I threw them away long ago.

    I had trouble sticking to a single gag, which makes the successful cartoon, or so it is argued. What also made me uncomfortable about political cartoons was their reduction of a complicated situation to a simple, usually funny image. How often do these make readers think? Does they only reinforce polarization, intensifying what is often dichotomous (“black and white”) thinking about political candidates? Does they provoke only a reaction of anger or of agreement? (I’ve read arguments that many people affiliate with a political party because of family tradition, not because they actually understand and agree with particulars of the party or candidate’s platform.)

    I'm all for clarity, but not every issue can be immediately simplified and some can be understood for simplification only through complicated thinking. I was more comfortable with editorial illustrations, which admit ambiguity and subtle allusions.

   After the tsunami hit Japan, I wondered what kind of cartoons were being published and how many referred to Hokusai’s "The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” a wood block print from the early 1800s, not depicting a tsunami, but a large okinami (“wave of the open sea”). I found at least six at Daryl Cagle’s Political Cartoonists index.

    Here is another discussion about whether these cartoons showed insensitivity or “the facts in a different format.”

    What is the point of using Hokusai's image? The wave's beauty as a piece of art versus the destructiveness of an actual wave? That we can completely control nature not through technology, but through art, rendering it as static images? In the early nineties The Computer Museum and a magazine called The High Tech Times sold a derivative print of Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa called The Wave of the Future. "The image begins at the left with the original Great Wave, and is color pixellated through the center, and another wave in wireframe is added to the right." ( If I were to do an editorial illustration today, I might develop Hokusai's image in a similar way, but staying with the wave rather than introducing another image. (One cartoon on Cagle's pages contrasts nature with art/technology by showing a popular Japanese cartoon hero with robot-like features running to escape the wave.)

Wave of the futureWave of the future


Below is an editorial illustration of mine about Chernobyl and two cartoons about President Ronald Reagan. What do you think about them?


Reelection of Ronald ReaganReelection of Ronald Reagan




Reelection of Ronald ReaganReagan on blood banks ("Did you bring your own?")


(President Reagan had argued that people should save their own blood for surgeries instead of donating so that they would not risk contracting AIDS from transfusions.)