A picture is worth a thousand memes

Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Matt Wuerker responds to Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo thinks political cartoons are stale, stupid, and unfunny—or so he argued in Slate last week, saying that, instead of honoring cartoons, the Pulitzer committee should consider including “biting infographics, hilarious image macros, irresistible Tumblrs … clever Web comics, and even poignant listicles.”

But political cartoons are neither homogeneous nor passé. They come in every shape and medium and are found all over news sites, blogs, and social media.

There are plenty of great single-panel cartoons, Manjoo’s least favorite, but there is also a lot of excellent animated commentary. Ann Telnaes has been doing strictly animated work for The Washington Post for a number of years now. Two years ago, Mark Fiore won the Pulitzer for his brilliant, self-syndicated animations. And Steve Brodner does amazing hybrid animation-live drawing commentary, which can be found on several online platforms, including the Washington Spectator. Since the launch of Politico, I’ve done animations, as well as a number of interactive political cartoon games.

The people who run websites know that cartoons have broad appeal. That‘s why you find cartoons on the homepages of so many sites, including Slate. (I’m told by Daryl Cagle, who used to draw and edit political cartoons for Slate, that in its early days, political cartoons often accounted for half the site’s traffic.) And The New York Times, for the first time in its history, has a regular political cartoon, Brian Macfadden’s “Big Fat Whale,” which appears in its Sunday Review section.

Cartoons are not infographics. They employ art, humor, metaphors, and, yes, even stupid puns. They engage the reader in ways that literally light up the brain more than plain factual information.

Don’t get me wrong. I like infographics, am a big fan of pie charts and graphs, and really love seeing the memes and macros spreading out there online. But a pie chart or other infographic has never provoked a riot or resulted in a fatwa on its author. Just this year, the Syrian regime went after Ali Ferzat, a Syrian cartoonist, whose drawings mocked President Bashar al-Assad. They were so infuriated by his cartoons they broke his hands trying to shut him up. Cartoons have a special way of getting under the skin.

Cartoonists were creating memes before anyone had a clue what a meme was. They were the original tweeters, long accustomed to boiling a thought down to 140 characters. We’ve been around a long time and, like the rest of journalism, we’re adapting to all the current changes.

That said, we’re happy to share the space with the new kids on the block. Let a thousand listicles and photoshopped memes bloom. Just treat us with a little respect, will ya?

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Matt Wuerker has been drawing political cartoons for dailies, magazines, and websites for 30 years. He has been the staff cartoonist/illustrator at Politico since its launch. In 2012, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning. Tags: , , , , , ,