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On editorial cartoons: Valuable memes under threat

Published July 5, 2019 by Mark Bodnar

I caught a segment on CBC's The Current earlier this week about editorial cartoons facing an existential threat.  

Apparently one of the forces pushing editorial cartoons toward the brink is the prevalence of online memes, but I would argue that a false dichotomy is built into that statement. Cartoons that take a fresh, critical look at current events and public figures have been around as visual memes since long before Richard Dawkins coined the term. They were memes before memes were invented!

They aren't, however, free memes... A good cartoon requires deep talent -- both artistic talent and a talent for perceiving the world critically, for seeing trends and issues below the shiny surface. That talent needs to be compensated, because an impactful cartoon takes time, skill, and experience to create and is valuable for a functioning democratic society. 

It also needs the backing of institutions with strong backbones and deep pockets, because without protection such critical perspectives can all too easily be SLAPPed away like an annoying jester in a royal court. Newspapers have long been such institutions, but as they cast about for sustainable business models, editorial cartoons are often tossed overboard.

Editorial cartoon from January, 1975 featuring a bottle of coins with the label: Doctor Dave's 3-Way Relief For Natural Gas Pains: Speeds Instant Relief To Federal, Provincial, and Municipal Revenues.

I, for one, would miss editorial cartoons. Such subversive little bits of critical humour are a great way to understand the issues, the zeitgeist, of a specific place and time -- today and in the past... and sometimes both, as you can see with the 1975 BC cartoon above. You can read long history books to try to get a sense of the political and social aspects of a period, or you could just scan a few editorial cartoons.1  

I don't have a solution to the problem. I haven't devised a new business model for newspapers or some other mechanism to reward and support editorial cartoonists. I just wanted to highlight that editorial cartoons are valuable to society, so need to be valued by society. I do hope that we find a way to continue to support such work.

Interested in browsing some cartoons that have told the BC/Canada political story over the past several decades? Start with the SFU Library's digitized editorial cartoon collection featuring thousands of original drawings by Bob Bierman, Graham Harrop, Bob Krieger, John Larter, Brent Lynch, Dan Murphy, Len Norris, Roy Peterson, Adrian Raeside, Ingrid Rice, Jim Rimmer, and Edd Uluschak.2

For instance, this 1953 cartoon helps us understand that high gas prices and pipelines aren't new news, and topics such as a housing crisisnon-polluting cars, and treatment of refugees are just as timeless. Even SFU shows up in some of the cartoons. Explore!

-- Mark

 1 Ok, I'm a librarian, so to be completely honest I think you should both read the books and scan the cartoons!

2 As with many treasures, the originals of the cartoons in this digitized collection are held in SFU's Special Collections and Rare Books Division.  Check out some of their other digitized resources

Image citation: Peterson, R. (1975, January 13). Patent Pending [Digital image]. Retrieved July 5, 2019, from https://digital.lib.sfu.ca/edcartoons-6454/patent-pending
Note: "Dave" likely refers to the former Premier of BC, Dave Barrett (1972-1975).

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Mark Bodnar
Economics & Business Librarian
mbodnar@sfu.ca