The internet may be diminishing print newspapers, but political cartoons have found new life online – being perfect for sharing in the limited-attention-span world of social media. We explore this modern take on the medium with artists who've created cartoons for the Observer, the Independent and BuzzFeed.
Here political cartoonist from the Independent, Chris Riddell, the Observer's Dave Brown and artist and political cartoonist Rebecca Hendin talk to us about how Charlie Hebdo changed the industry, why cartooning is still a man's club and how social media has made it easier to have cartoons in the spotlight.
“Charlie Hebdo brought political cartooning into the spotlight in a big way, not just for people responding to it, but the people they killed were cartoonists,” says London-based political cartoonist and artist Rebecca Hendin.
Rebecca drew a response to the 2015 Paris shooting (in which 12 people died from the offices of the satirical weekly newspaper, Charlie Hebdo) as a way to process what happened, and off the back of that her career as a cartoonist in the US began, whilst she was living in London. She says the Charlie Hebdo attacks changed the industry.
“I know that I drew a response because I was sad, maybe it was the first time an event like that happened inspired people to make all that imagery in a time when social media had grown massively.”
Being a political cartoonist today is not how it used to be. Rather than relying on a newspaper to publish your cartoon on that week’s political happenings – and hope that it was appreciated – political cartoonists now have the option to plaster imagery over their own social media channels as well as within digital copies of the news publications.
Political cartoonist for the Observer and children’s book illustrator Chris Riddell says attracting a readership in the “online world” is very, very easy.
“The internet allows us to access to a world of images but also to make connections, creative connections,” says Chris. “So it's a golden age in many ways. It has all sorts of downsides, we hear a lot about that. What I like to talk about often, is the very positive side of these things.”
Far from dying, the art of political cartooning is reaching more people than it ever has before, with the opportunity for people to engage and relay feedback directly to the artist, but is this always a good thing?
It’s purely a numbers game, says Rebecca, who currently creates editorial illustrations for BuzzFeed and finds it terrifying to put her opinion “out there”.
“It’s scary enough putting your art out there without your opinion. I’m always worried that I’ve got it wrong,” she says.
“I’ll probably do an unnecessary amount of reading on a subject just so I make sure I haven’t accidentally stumbled across something problematic, or misunderstood the issue.”
Dave Brown has been working as a political cartoonist for The Independent for 20 years. Although his creative process remains as ink and watercolour on paper, he’s seen the publication move from pure paper to purely digital.
“Of course now, particularly a home news story, there's going to be a lot of people looking at The Independent around the world who don't get some of the nuances,” he says. “There'll be characters, some of the Ministers and Shadow Ministers in particular, and they'll have no clue who they are. So that can lead to some confusion, especially now things on the web hang around a lot longer.
“With the paper, once it was wrapping your fish and chips, it was gone.”
People comment on cartoons published to Twitter that are months old without realising, or Americans will create a huge response to one of Dave’s Trump cartoons, and Britons if it’s Theresa May.
“I think people very much pick and take their news and what they want from such a variety of sources now,” says Dave.
This picking and choosing as such – and static noise we now call fake news (officially in the Collins Dictionary) – is something Rebecca says is more of a concern than freedom of the press in Western society. Are cartoons simply being distributed to an online echo chamber?
“I think you’re preaching to your own choir and making them laugh or making them feel less alone,” she says.
Is it a 'boys club'?
Being cynical in nature – how could not be as a political cartoonist? – Rebecca doesn’t mind this, but what she does mind, is the lack of diversity among political cartoonists, especially in the UK. Out of nearly 180 cartoons featured in last year's edition of Britain's Best Political Cartoons not one was drawn by a woman, according to the BBC, who labelled the niche industry as a ‘boys club’.
“It's not a boys' club because that suggests there's a club of boys somehow excluding women from it. Which isn't the case. There are a few women – but not as many as there should be,” says Dave.
He says lack of diversity could be down to the difficulty of making a living as political cartoonist – he thinks even harder now than ever because “there are the same number of cartoonists scrabbling around for fewer jobs” – and it requires most artists to start out their career in cartooning with the security of another paid job.
“But you could also just as well say it's a very white, middle class club,” says Dave, and Rebecca echoes his words.
“I don’t think it’s just male, female, are there any people of colour working as political cartoonists in this country? None that I know of, which is just as much of an issue,” she says.
It’s hard to decipher how political cartoons would look different if created by diverse community, but it’s obvious they would.
The fact that there are the digital outlets may help, says Dave.
“If mainstream newspapers aren't employing women, there are some other outlets now, but the problem remains that for the most part, a lot of those don't really pay, not very well. So how do you build a career if you're not really earning a decent wage from it?”
Drawing something that isn't 'your issue'
And it’s not just the diverse range of artists behind political cartoons, it’s the content of their very nature, which is also up for debate.
Rather than “just a piss-take of Philip Hammond because he said something stupid one day”, Rebecca says it’s important to focus on wider racial, gender or social issues.
She says it can be difficult to draw a subject matter “that isn’t your issue”, but is still hugely important to get right.
"I remember doing a cartoon about the fact that so many black people were being shot by police in America, and more broadly about the ugly racial politics that exist to allow that to happen. I was nervous I was going to somehow get something wrong, because it’s an issue I really care about but it’s not an issue that victimises me as a white person, so I wanted to be sure I was doing those it does affect the justice deserved."
But Dave, perhaps slightly more provocative, says not to worry about your audience, but rather on what you think is interesting.
“I think if you start trying to tailor what you've got to say to what you think the audience is, you're getting yourself into trouble,” he says.
“You've got to draw what your response is, and not try dumb it down to make it acceptable to a wider audience. You've just got to do your thing and hope that people plug into what you're saying. And if they don't, I think that is the nature of this digital world.
“Some people pick up on it and take it. Other people will look, not get it, pass by and go onto something else, and you've got to accept that. If you go down to a level where you make such a simple statement that everybody could understand it, I think you end up saying nothing.”
Chris says with both children’s books it’s about creating empathy with his characters, drawing the reader into a space they can enjoy, but this often turns quite ugly when the subject is politics.
“With a newspaper cartoon, you're dissecting someone's opinion or political position, and so you will emphasise that aspect of them to make your point. So in that sense, it can become darker, certainly, than anything I would do in the children's books.”
Animation versus watercolour
Coupled with a political cartoonists interpretation of the news is their style. With the profession now in the digital realm, some are eager to transform the nature of traditional watercolour and scratchy line drawing to animated GIFs and purely digital artworks, and others are not.
More modern, experimental works can be seen at The Nib (curated by Matt Bors), and by Ben Jennings, Tom Tomorrow and The Washington Post – even CNN has a television slot ‘State of the Cartoonion’ with animated political cartoons – as Rebecca points out. She herself purely draws digitally, however Dave says nothing compares to a traditional watercolour image.
“I think it's harder to make it sharp and snappy in animation. I think lengthening the time you look at something actually can reduce the punch. A good political cartoon, you get the gag in sort of seconds,” he says.
I wanted to know exactly how much time and effort goes into each political cartoon, so I asked Chris, Rebecca and Dave to explain their creative processes.
Rebecca reads the news religiously during the week, and then creates her cartoon directly into Photoshop using her Wacom Cintiq, 13HD plugged into her computer.
“I follow the news to see what’s interesting, or what’s fucked up about the world, and if there’s a funny angle to take on that,” she says.
“After following the news obsessively earlier in the week, and having an idea I would write it down in a notebook, and then would end up with half a dozen cartoon ideas for that week, and when I sit down to start I would pick from that to see what would be the most funny, or the most interesting, or the best visual.”
Dave’s isn’t too dissimilar, but he prefers sticking to his traditional watercolour style, saying digital artwork can be “flat and soulless”.
“I like spatter, I like the accidents where the ink splashes, where things are a bit scratchy. It's got a more visceral quality to it, which I think the political cartoon needs. It doesn't want to look too neat and clean and tidy, because then it loses a bit of edginess. That just might be me because of the techniques I use and I've always used,” he says.
For him, the day begins by sitting down at the drawing board with a blank sheet of paper and pencil, and “staring into the middle distance, pondering”.
“That could take half an hour if you're lucky, or it could take most of the day,” he says.
Chris seems to have bridged the two worlds – coming from a traditional watercolour background, he’s now learning to sketch with an iPad within the last few weeks, embracing a digital creative process.
With the “soap opera” narratives of Brexit and Donald Trump, Chris is never short of work. Gearing up on a Friday morning, Chris will listen to the radio and then sketch a notion or idea. He often starts by drawing little doodles and then he’ll have an idea and sketch it out in “the roughest possible terms”.
“I do quite enjoy saying subversive things very delicately in crosshatching. So yes, drawing Theresa May as two feet sticking out of a dustbin, you know, it's very rude of me to do that, but I think it's an accurate image of her political situation, but also, it means I can draw it very delicately and carefully,” says Chris.
In his studio, Chris will stretch watercolour paper on a drawing board, sketch his cartoon out in pencil, then ink the pencil lines with a thin ink paint brush.
“I’ll use both concentrated and traditional watercolours and lay watercolour wash over my ink drawing, dry the paint with a hair dryer, and scan it and send it to The Observer to be printed.”
Is there room to be positive?
In a media environment that’s constantly criticised for being too negative, political cartoons are no exception. You’ll never see an uplifting or supportive cartoon. But the job of a political cartoonist is to be skeptical, Dave says, otherwise they’re not doing their job.
“You're usually drawing because something has made you angry, you know? There's something going on which has made you angry and it has got to have that power behind it. You don't really cartoon good news,” he says.
But is there room for change in a digital world? With society constantly awash with anxiety over the future of politics and social fragmentation, should political cartoons convey hope, just like they did following Charlie Hebdo?
“It’s different people, same stories. I think it’s a little depressing, but also humanity can be really good. But it’s not your job to focus on that as a cartoonist,” says Rebecca.
“I remember someone asking me why aren’t my cartoons more positive? I was like, I feel like you’ve missed the point of what this is about. It’s about criticising power and trying to hold them to account. I think that’s important.”
She says political cartoonists can also celebrate when politicians get it right.
“There is a place for those things to be celebrated. Every once in awhile if a really good politician wins an election, or a really great policy gets through, it’s okay to draw a cartoon in celebration of that. But that’s like a one-in-50 thing.
"I’m sure if you looked up the cartoons from the day Obama won the election, it will be a huge smattering of really happy joyful cartoons for one day only.”