Cartoons, Comics and Caricatures: Evidence or Ephemera?

I recently attended the Cartoons, Comics and Caricatures: Evidence or Ephemera? symposium held on the 3rd May 2014 at the University of Auckland. I spent a fascinating day listening to a diverse array of speakers drawn from the cartoon world (Alan Moir), academia (University of Auckland and Victoria University of Wellington) and libraries/archives (Alexander Turnbull Library (ATL) including the NZ Cartoon Archive).

Ref: William Bricknell Gibbs, He's (H) all there at Rat catching, no location, c. 1880s, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 661-4 

Alan Moir's talk gave a good overview of political cartoons both within and outside of newspapers. He noted that cartoons are valuable because they reflect opinions and ideas over the course of history. Good cartoons he says, are those which feature few words but are still incredibly powerful and use metaphor to good effect. It's worth noting that many cartoons don't make sense or work outside of their country of origin because the sense of humour embodied in the cartoon is tied to that country.

Ref: Brown Stout, Colonial Beer Tax, no location, 1878, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 661-151 

Melinda Johnston, Research Librarian Cartoons, Alexander Turnbull Library explained that to read cartoons, you need to be a 'jack of all trade's, having knowledge drawn from a range of difference disciplines. Historical cartoons in particular, (even ones from your own country) can be very hard to read because of the distance of time and societal and historical changes, which have occurred since publication.

Ref: Auckland Weekly News, artist's impression of a few pictures at the Auckland Art Society's Exhibition, 1913, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19130529-13-1

Melinda emphasised that we should really look at images when considering them as evidence. Regarding aesthetic choices by the cartoonist, she noted that style is often deliberately chosen to reflect the subject matter. For example, an unpleasant subject would be mirrored by e.g. a spiky or heavily shaded style. Cartoons may also reference other commentary and political debates or images, so that this is implicitly 'read' by the viewer when they look at the cartoon.

Ref: Illustrator unknown, The Colonial Dog who is alwyas in the way, no location, c. 1870s, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 661-152 

Ian Grant, founder of the NZ Cartoon Archive ATL discussed the fact that racism barely gets a mention in general New Zealand histories until the 1980s. However, cartoons did reflect the racist views that existed in NZ's history towards for example, Māori and Chinese and Jewish immigrants. Weekly local newspapers often included more racist cartoons than the dailies, which were based in towns and tended to be more liberal in their outlook

Ref: Auckland Weekly News, The rail-sitters (from left to right: Turkey, Holland, Italy), no location, 1914, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19141008-38-3

Paul Diamond picked up on the racism topic in his lecture about Māori in cartoons from the 1930s to 1990. Māori were visually stereotyped as being fat with a huia feather and bare feet. They were also sometimes in ridiculous situations, such as the lawn tennis image below, which Paul showed during the talk. However, there are variations in their representation and Māori MPs were often drawn as recognisable individuals.

Ref: Auckland Weekly News, lawn tennis in Maoriland, no location, 1914, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19140101-49-1

Previous studies have observed that there was a decline in representation of Māori from 1915 onwards. However, Paul has not found this to be the case, Māori after 1930 weren't totally absent from cartoons. For example, Gordon Minhinnick and other cartoonists featured Māori. Māori  were also present in a lot of WW1 cartoons but to a much lesser extent in those during WW2. Cartoons from WW2 such as those by Minhinnick, feature Māori serving alongside Pakeha in bicultural camaraderie.

Ref: Auckland Weekly News, The idlers: A study in black and white, no location, c. 1913, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19130320-16-4

Paul noted that there is a real dilemma of how to represent Māori because cartoons actually rely on stereotypes. This does seem to be changing a bit  but it is still problematic.

Sondra Bacharach, from the Philosophy dept at Victoria University of Wellington presented an interesting take on cartoons from a philosophy of art perspective. She commented that comics are able to do things that paintings can't. This is due to their hybrid nature (the presence of both text and images) and the fact that they don't carry around the weight of historical cultural baggage e.g. the 'male gaze', which painting does. Comics also have subversive elements and are self reflexive - this gives different options outside of general power systems for the representation of marginalised and disenfranchised groups.

Sondra queried whether other art forms could do this. A member of the audience suggested children's literature but Sondra noted that we would have to make sure that it is the images and text that work in this way, not just the content. What do you think?

Ref: Illustrator unknown, Extremes Meet, no location, 1894, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 7-A12363

Overall, all speakers seemed to agree that cartoons were important historical documents, rather than being just ephemeral items. They offer powerful counter-narratives to the dominant historical record and cartoonists will often say things that others wouldn't dare to.

The Heritage Collections holds cartoons, caricatures and comic illustrations in its collections. An exhibition was held in 2012 showcasing this content, with illustrations from 18th to 20th century, produced by international e.g. William Hogarth, George Cruickshank from Punch magazine and New Zealand cartoonists e.g. David Low and Gordon Minhinnick. You can view the online exhibition 'Joking Aside' here and browse the library's heritage resources.

(Please note that images shown in this blog post  include cartoons which display racism, this is not to suggest that the library condones this type of behaviour. The images have been used to show the value of cartoons in revealing historical societal values and to illustrate some of the key points raised by the speakers at the symposium).

Author: Natasha Barrett