The political cartoon is not dead, long live the cartoon

People continue to associate with images, even if they outgrow the printed word for easier, smarter online options.

By Shahab Jafry (Centrepiece)

Published: Wed 25 Sep 2019, 9:25 PM

Last updated: Wed 25 Sep 2019, 11:27 PM

Strange, in these times of press clampdown and even talk of media tribunals in Pakistan, for the country's editorial cartoonists to come together and form a union; formally the Pakistan Union of Cartoonists (PUOC).
Organised as a 'satire fest' by local NGO Interactive Resource Centre (IRC), which works to sensitise and moblise people through art, especially theatre and documentaries, one of the main ideas was countering the popular perception that the cartoonist produces non-serious comment at best meant only to provoke laughter.
Having held oped pages for most of my career, I've always been fascinated by the political cartoon. The image can easily overcome barriers of language, even literacy, and often deliver a far more powerful punch than the 300-400 word editorial, even an 800-1,000 word column, a few inches to its side.
Napoleon once famously complained that James Gillray, considered the father of modern political cartoonists, did him more harm than any number of British army battalions. He even requested the British government, in the middle of their conflict, to just put him away one way or the other.
Little surprise, then, that cartoonists are more often in direct line of fire than even the most provocative journalists at times. Brilliant Indian cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, for example, was charged with sedition and faced a possible life sentence because his anti-corruption campaign upset the government a few years ago. Malaysian cartoonist Zulkifi Anwar Ulhaque, better known as Zunar, was facing 43 years in jail till change of government last year. Turkey's cartoonist Musa Kart is in Jail, South Africa's Zapira faced defamation suits from no less than former president Jacob Zuma, and Sri Lanka's Prageeth Ekvelygoda just disappeared in 2010; just to name a few.
There's even a Pakistani cartoonist horror story that still echoes through newsrooms; about a Pakistan Times cartoonist who didn't quite fall in line after the usual 'agency phone call'. He quickly lost his job, of course, and then could be seen parading his cartoons on a donkey cart on Lahore's famous Mall Road, before going completely mad.
But that's only one side of the pressure. There's also the financial pinch that newspapers have been facing since most of the ad money went to Big Tech. And, in most parts of the world, cartoonists are among the first people to get the axe. Even The New York Times has stopped carrying the daily cartoon on its oped pages. In short the political cartoon, as we know it, is dying. So why would Pakistani cartoonists form their union now? "We needed a platform to project Pakistani cartoonists internationally," Sabir Nazar, arguably Pakistan's most potent, and famous, editorial cartoonist and PUOC convener, told Khaleej Times. "This enables us to learn from each other, share experiences, as well as reach out to the general public and emerging cartoonists." Sabir grabbed the headlines, so to speak, when he started Pakistan's first coloured political cartoon, which has appeared on the front page of the once famous Friday Times since 1991. The problem here, just like most other parts, is that cartoonists have to self-educate. Most of Pakistan's political cartoons were, and continue to be, social activists, Sabir said while reflecting on the age-old newspaper dilemma that journalists are not artists, and cartoonists are not really journalists, and the twain hardly ever meet.
"I myself am an accidental cartoonist," he shocked me. Apparently he was asked to do a stand-in job for a roommate from university and his imagery just clicked with the FT editor, and continues to do so almost three decades later.
"I was not a humourist, so I spent a lot of time studying Khushwant Singh, and comic works like Asterix and Tintin." Clearly the great Indian cartoonist RK Laxman's landmark work, spanning four decades, also had a telling impact on Sabir. And Sabir understands that very well. "Media is changing, print is dead," he said coldly. "Cartoonists now must not only create in-depth understanding but also face online social media competition."
And there's no reason they can't adapt, he said. Visual expression should naturally complement popular media's evolving digital business model, even though he's keeping his distance from online space for the time being.
There are three reasons for that. One, people copy your work quite easily. Two, there's far more backlash than before because anyone with a smart phone can now easily get offended by your work. And three, "I'm working on a book, a chronological political history of the country reflected in cartoons."
He's looking for something on the lines of famous World War II cartoonist David Low's great work that explained the war in 40 cartoons; a far more comprehensive explanation of the tragedy, according to historians, than the tonnes of reference material that litter libraries around the world.
The future of the cartoonist isn't quite as dark as most of us would believe, according to Sabir, "but it's in books, animation, games, and online, not as much in papers." At the end of the day people continue to associate with images, even if they outgrow the printed word for easier, smarter online options, because they communicate more powerfully than words. In the words of the famous and corrupt 19th century New York politician William "Boss" Tweed, "Stop the damned pictures." He meant the work of cartoonist Thomas Nast.
"My constituents can't read, but, damn it, they can see pictures."
- The writer is a senior journalist based on Lahore

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