Political Cartoons: Exploring Serious Subjects in Fun Way

16 December, 2018

Political cartoons date back to before the creation of the United States.

Today, they remain an important part of American culture. They are protected as free speech, as part of a free press, under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Matt Wuerker is a long-time political cartoonist, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his work in 2012. His cartoons appear in Politico, a media company that reports on U.S. politics.

He told VOA at his office, outside Washington, D.C., that he sees his job as quite unusual.

"We're a strange mix of things in that we are making serious commentary on serious topics, but we're doing it not so seriously."

Wuerker likes the fact that he can express opinions in the same way as television commentators and those who write opinion pieces for newspapers. The difference, he says, is that, as a cartoonist, he gets to create "silly pictures" to get his point across.

Matt Wuerker, a Pulitzer-Prize winning cartoonist at Politico, creates an average of three cartoons a week.
Matt Wuerker, a Pulitzer-Prize winning cartoonist at Politico, creates an average of three cartoons a week.

Wuerker has seen many changes in the publishing industry over the years. When he started 40 years ago, he says, political cartoons appeared as simple, black and white images in newspapers.

Today, he says, they can be full of many colorful parts - or even animated. Some cartoonists have created whole illustrated stories about political subjects. Such a collection is currently being shown at the Newseum in Washington.

The graphic story is told as a series called "Welcome to the New World." It tells of two refugee families from Syria who came to the United States. The cartoon collection, created by Michael Sloan and Jake Halpern, won a 2018 Pulitzer Prize.

Patty Rhule is vice president of exhibits at the Newseum. She said Newseum officials liked what the two award-winning cartoonists were able to create. "They did a 20-part series in The New York Times following the story of two Syrian immigrants who fled the war in Syria to come to this country and start a new life with their families."

Rhule said news-related cartoons have always been an important part of American culture. The country's first political cartoon is generally considered to be one by Benjamin Franklin, a founding father.

The cartoon, which showed a snake cut into parts, was published by Franklin's Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper in 1754. It was meant to increase support for his plan for a union of Britain's North American colonies.

Rhule says she hopes this long tradition will live on for many years to come. "It's always been a part of this country and the world's way of freely expressing ideas and debate. So I hope they never go away."

I'm Bryan Lynn.

Julie Taboh reported this story for VOA News. Bryan Lynn adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

cartoon n. picture that looks at people or objects in a funny way

topic n. a subject that is written or talked about

silly adj. making fun of something; funny

bubble n. round shaped part included in a cartoon that contains written text

animate v. make (something, such as a drawing) appear to move by creating a series of drawings, pictures, etc., and showing them quickly one after another

graphic adj. relating to visual art

exhibit n. a showing or objects, such as artwork, in a public setting

strict adj. severe or strong