Cartoons constitute clear, creative social commentary

The Art Effect, a school in Poughkeepsie that offers media courses for children, hosted a cartoon workshop for Vassar students in the Thompson Memorial Library studio space on April 16. The participants illustrated moments from their college experience. Courtesy of Mary Ellen Latropoulos

As students and capitalist consumers, readers, creators and computer-owners, we consume an excess of visual media. Every glance at our phones brings an inundation of advertisements, tweets and stories (whether of the Snapchat or CNN variety). We accept this onslaught as a constant now, something as invariably there as the weather, rather than a part of our lives that can be curated. While we can choose whom we follow or block, there is no guarantee that everything we watch on YouTube will be worth our time or every news article we read will be journalistically upright.

This does not even account for traditional media like novels, sculptures and cartoons—which it shouldn’t. Such art is not complicit in the excess, but acts as a means of tempering it. Cartoons are especially legible and unwaveringly entertaining to readers young and old; they put on a facade of simplicity and lightheartedness that doesn’t make them as intimidating as, say, a 10,000-word feature, or as uninhibited as a tweet. Simultaneously, cartoons are incredibly complex, often made to represent swaths of experiences or comment upon the political milieu. They make heated issues and whole myths navigable and more beautiful. While we cannot fully control our digital media consumption as long as we have a phone or computer, cartoons, in all their eloquence, are usually only seen upon viewer’s consent. We have to reach for a magazine, flip through a bound volume or touch pen to paper.

On Monday, April 8, climate scientist and Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science at Penn State Michael E. Mann presented his lecture “Return to the Madhouse: Climate Denial in the Age of Trump” at Vassar. He opened with a drawing by Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Tom Toles, whose art is featured in Mann’s book, “The Madhouse Effect.” The piece shows Toles and Mann standing on a globe, Toles mightily wielding a pencil; Mann, a hockey stick. Toles is best known for his seething commentaries in The Washington Post; Mann authored the 1999 paper that proposed the famous hockey stick model of global warming, and has received numerous awards for his research and public engagement in science. Just this year, he and climatologist Dr. Warren M. Washington won the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, considered the “Nobel Prize for the environment” (American Association for the Advancement of Science, “Vilified climate activist & pioneering climatologist win ‘Nobel Prize for Environment’,” 02.12.2019).

“The Madhouse Effect” is a treatise about climate change, its empirical backing and climate denialism in its various forms. Mann’s editor suggested he work with Toles for the project, and the author included several of Toles’ political cartoons in the book. “The Madhouse Effect” features both cartoons already published in The Washington Post, which Mann called “the hardest-hitting social commentary in our entire print media,” and a few new pieces. Despite his background in research, he wanted to use the cartoons, rather than statistics or Politico profiles only, to reveal the holes in denialists’ arguments and the environmental dangers of denialism.
Mann structured his lecture accordingly—he brought up a number of recent weather phenomena with global warming to blame, like Hurricane Harvey and the California wildfires and the drought in Syria (the worst in at least 900 years), as well as their political consequences. For example, the drought forced rural farmers into cities, increased competition for resources, and exacerbated internal conflict that facilitated—and was worsened by—ISIS influence. At the lecture, discussion of this sort of phenomenon was punctuated by the periodic Toles cartoon, creating contrasts between the screenshots of articles about natural disasters and the cartoonist’s biting satire. The drawings were usually met by laughs, while the articles demanded a more grave air. Likewise, when Mann mentioned some prominent denialists, the audience chuckled—how could we not laugh at Congressman Mo Brooks’ claim that falling rocks are causing the sea level to rise? (This was accompanied by a Toles cartoon of two frogs in a pot of boiling water. One tells the other, “Stovetop temperatures change all the time!”)

Compared to the digital forms of media that modern consumers are constantly exposed
to, cartoons are an untainted, traditional art. Recent campus visitors demonstrated how
cartoons can offer cultural critique on topics from Vassar student life to climate change. Courtesy of Mary Ellen Latropoulos

The relevance and power of cartoons is similarly explored in “The Educated Woman,” a cartoon exhibition in the Main Library curated by Temishi Onnekikami ’21 and sponsored by the Engaged Pluralism Initiative and Vassar College Libraries. When Onnekikami was working over the summer at the library, sifting through archives, she came across comic books by Anne Cleveland ’37 and Jean Anderson ’33 about life at Vassar. Cleveland and Anderson’s five illustrated accounts of Vassar studenthood confront the complexities of being a woman in academia at the time; in them, we see tired-looking ladies agonizing over exams and prospective majors, wondering if they should get a job after college or start a family. Much of the humor endures—students still understand the anxiety of picking a correlate—but the subjects of books like “Vassar: An Informal Study” and “Everything Correlates” fail to represent the current student body. The drawings are all of white, heterosexual, wealthy cisgendered women. They are girls in cardigans with tiny waists talking about their romantic exploits with Princeton boys.

Onnekikami acknowledged the incisiveness of these drawings. The humor is old school but enduring nevertheless. However, she said of the experiences represented in the books, “This is not all Vassar has to offer. [The comics] are accurate in the way that [they] capture the historical moment through a certain lens, but inaccurate because [they] only [use] that lens the cartoonists were operating through.” This is why she encouraged Vassar students to not only appreciate Cleveland and Anderson’s creations, but also illustrate their own undergraduate experiences. In addition to enduring and relatable humor, she stressed, “It’s also important to have appropriate representation and diverse perspectives.”

In collaboration with “The Educated Women,” The Art Effect hosted a cartoon workshop at the Main Library studio space on Tuesday, April 16. The Art Effect is a school in Poughkeepsie that offers a variety of visual and media arts courses to youth in the area, including a pre-college portfolio program, a summer camp for younger children and employment opportunities in public service for teenagers. Their staff displayed examples of characters from Cleveland and Anderson, then urged participants to create their own slice-of-life comics. With nothing but a paper and Sharpies, students reflected upon the little details of life at Vassar, from overheard conversations at the Deece to much distress over people wearing flip-flops and shorts in the winter.

Assistant supervisor and teaching artist at The Art Effect Manny Ofori conducted the workshop with Director of Education Mary Ellen Iatropoulos. He usually teaches people in secondary school, but spoke to the importance of artist autonomy at any age; his students are most creative when they can pick and choose their composition. Considering the “primacy of the visual image in the twenty-first century,” he and Iatropoulos sought to promote media literacy by helping make cartoons. At the end of the workshop, they collected everyone’s works for exhibition to be compiled into zines, or to simply be used for plain enjoyment. While an anecdote about the Deece might seem more niche than Toles’ critiques of climate denialism, they use the same format to reach their respective ends—they condense a variety of experiences into a searing image, making the evaluation of these experiences enjoyable and, in turn, encouraging the viewer to reflect upon the subject.

For example, towards the end of his lecture, Mann discussed some positive news. Although the Trump administration has tried to dismantle decades-old environmental regulations instituted by Republicans and Democrats alike, these efforts inspired the “We Are Still In” movement. In response to Trump’s threatening to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, citizens organized on the sub-federal level to incite change. Now there is a Northeast consortium for climate action, and states representing roughly 30 percent of the U.S. population have signed on to increase carbon prices. The House Committee on Space, Science and Technology held a hearing in February about climate science. Renewed Democratic leadership like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who proposed a “Green New Deal,” has only inflamed a broader transnational “energy” demanding the protection of the environment and new regulations for the strange weather.

Cartoons help mobilize this energy because they are so efficient in their delivery, so universally appealing by virtue of their humor. They are the language of the “everyman,” as Onnekikami said, from climate change activists to undergraduate students, and their success depends on their relatability, the degree to which they represent the viewer’s experiences. “Humor and satire is the one thing that can still cut through that…partisan divide,” Mann explained. “There’s a reason satirists and cartoonists are able to talk about things that become difficult to talk about in straight-up social commentary … You need some sort of tool to cut through that, some way to disarm people…and humor is one way to do that, to get people to lower their defenses.”

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