Libby Who?

By | Tuesday, March 21, 2023 Leave a Comment
I stumbled across this old post of mine from 2007 in which I talk about how context is important in the reading of editorial cartoons. The example I used was an 1871 political cartoon that makes no sense at all to contemporary audiences who likely have never even heard of the subject (William Gladstone) much less recognize what he looked like or what his politics were. And that was the crux of my point -- to understand the cartoon, you need the context of 1870s England.

More interesting, though, in seeing that post now, was my counter-example, a comparatively recent cartoon...
That cartoon is fifteen years old now. When posted it on June 11, 2007, I argued at the time that most Americans would immediately recognize what the cartoon was about and could probably even pinpoint the day it ran (June 8) because the particular confluence of stories it refers to overlapped essentially for only a single day.

How many people today understand that cartoon? While I think Paris Hilton's star has faded somewhat since 2007, I expect she's still well-known enough folks would recognize her name on the newspaper, but would they recall more that? "Released? Released from what? Jail? She was in jail?" She served, like, two days of a 45 days sentence -- I wouldn't be surprised is she didn't even remember that at this point. And the person being shown in jail in this cartoon? Even with the name tag, how many people would know who that was? To be fair, it's not exactly a great caricature of him, but Scooter Libby has (smartly) kept a pretty low profile for at least the past decade; I suspect anyone under 25 or 30 has literally never heard of him and almost certainly doesn't know why he was sentenced. (Or why he served almost none of his sentence either -- but that occurred after this cartoon first ran, so it doesn't exactly apply to the context here.)

It's not a bad cartoon by any means. Perhaps not the absolute best one Mike Keefe ever did, but it's solid, both in the joke and the execution. But honestly, if I hadn't myself posted and discussed this cartoon back in 2007, I sincerely doubt that I'd recall enough of the details to make sense of it today. And I think that further reinforces the point I was first trying to make fifteen years ago: without context, even the best editorial cartoons can seem random and meaningless.
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