In the broadest sense, an editorial cartoon is described as consisting of two principal elements, namely graphic art, and commentary. This definition is, however, too broad and encompasses other forms of graphic art, such as comics, and illustrations for advertisements.
An editorial cartoon differs from other forms of graphic art because its commentary conveys a distinct editorial message portrayed in a clever or witty manner.
Although the above explanation appears to distinguish the editorial cartoon from all other forms of graphic art, it is not without its shortcomings.
Some works of comic art have embraced political subjects, blurring the distinction between comic art and editorial cartooning.
Some Western scholars agree that there are three characteristics of the editorial cartoon that differentiate it from other forms of graphic art.
Firstly, the editorial cartoon has the savage ability to depict a person in unflattering caricature. Secondly, it has the ability to crystallise complex issues into a simple metaphor, and lastly the cartoon is immediately comprehensible, even to those who may not be especially literate or politically aware.
There are other definitions of the editorial cartoon that give a clearer description of their elements and, by implication, their role in society.
It may be defined as a type of visual shorthand designed to provoke, through exaggeration, some sort of response or recognition mixed with amusement, at the very least, although social or political comment is often implied too.
The cartoonist’s objective, then, is to present a visual image to newspaper readers that asks the tacit question “What do you think?”. Readers are therefore encouraged to judge cartoons. A cartoon can also be described as a shorthand by which humorous ideas can be absorbed by the reader with minimum effort. An editorial cartoon can be described as single-panel graphic that comments on events and policy as they define and record topical political or social issues at a particular period in time. A cartoon can be seen as any graphic representation done as a one-panel, non-continuing format that expresses an independent view or observation on political happenings or social policy.
An editorial cartoon can therefore pass as social commentary.
From the first time the editorial cartoon became part of the public domain, debate has ensued on whether its role in society is positive or not.
Critics of the editorial cartoon argue that the generalisation that often accompanies stereotyping in editorial cartoons blurs the distinction between “good” and “bad”.
The argument against the editorial cartoon goes further by stating that the very nature of editorial cartooning, where only humorous, critical and popular subjects are explored, undermines the system because even the best politicians or public figures can make small mistakes but when depicted in an editorial cartoon, they would be made to look just as bad as the generally unlikeable fellows.
The unintended consequence of the demands of the editorial cartooning genre is that the images are overwhelmingly negative and surely contribute to increasing popular cynicism, primarily about politics and politicians, but consequently about the whole democratic system, declares the argument.
Other scholars identify cartoonists’ willingness to work hand in hand with politicians as a factor that militates against the legitimacy of their art. Throughout history, there are a number of instances where cartoonists have been used by politicians purely for political ends.
Napoleon reportedly encouraged French artists to create cartoons that sanctioned his policies while the Central and Allied forces in World War I commissioned cartoonists to demonise the enemy and glorify the struggle in order to boost public support on the home front.
And as recently as 2006, the Israeli military intelligence department created political cartoons depicting Hezbollah as a snake that threatened the existence of Lebanon to accompany leaflet drops over southern Lebanon. The cartoonists’ actions here, it may be argued, compromised the quality of their work and altered the general function of the editorial cartoon by being overtly propagandistic and stereotyping one side as being “all bad” and another side as being “all good”.
Extremists against editorial cartooning go even further, dismissing editorial cartooning as a vicious one-sided attack likened to a frontal assault, a slam dunk, or a cluster bomb.
Claims have been made that cartooning is offensive and is a form of destructive art that can never treat anyone justly.
A famous quote by one editorial cartoon critic says, “many cartoonists would be hired assassins if they couldn’t draw”.
The argument implies that editorial cartoons highlight the negative in an exaggerated way, thus a fair representation of subjects is not possible, or, at the very least, not the norm.
Yet not everyone feels the editorial cartoon is a negative influence to society. A prominent scholar of editorial cartooning, Charles Press, states that because of the ruling elite’s varying stronghold on the Press across the world, the role and nature of editorial cartoons is now society-based. Press believes that cartooning depends on the political system under which the product is created and disseminated. In a totalitarian regime, cartoons must praise the system and denounce its enemies.
In a Western democracy during peacetime, cartoonists are watchdogs, keeping power-holders honest and accountable.
Objectively though, an editorial cartoon should not be viewed as either positive or negative.
It may be conformist or subversive, politically correct or totally prejudiced, but the editorial cartoon does not have any pretensions to being neutral and objective, like for instance, the news media does. Editorial cartoons are misfits in the print media landscape, unable to conform to norms and set standards in journalism. It is by no means a coincidence that whatever emotion they evoke, it is normally extreme.