The trouble with most analytical books about cartoons is that they’re not very funny. Intelligent, perceptive — very possibly. But one of the first ambitions of cartoons is to make us laugh, and the audience drawn to a book about them is reasonably in the market for a massage of the funnybone.

Victor S. Navasky, the former editor and publisher of The Nation and founder of the fondly remembered quarterly of political satire Monocle, knows this as well as anyone, and he approaches the subject with a disarming breeziness in The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power. “I am not an art scholar or historian,” he protests, and he adds “as far as I can see, those who are can’t seem to agree with each other on much of anything.” But he admires the talent and the courage of the great political cartoonists, not to mention their impact. So he’s undertaken a job with a low probability of success in tickling the reader, but he gets high points for focusing honor upon the prophets of an often underrated art.

Not that the political cartoonist’s art is always meant to be funny. One thinks of the haunting cartoon that won the Pulitzer Prize for Bill Mauldin after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Mauldin’s wordless drawing showed the statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial with Lincoln’s face buried in his hands. Some things — assassinations, genocide, 9/11 — utterly defeat humor but cry out for graphic commentary, and the cartoonist must remove the barb of satire from his pen.

America’s tradition of press freedom has generally protected its political cartoonists from official retaliation, although there are plenty of instances of self-censorship from the newspapers and syndicates for which these cartoonists work. Pat Oliphant, this country’s leading practitioner of the art (unaccountably ignored in Navasky’s book) drew a hilariously scathing attack in 2002 on the sex scandal rocking the Catholic Church, “Celebration of Spring at St. Paedophilia’s — The Annual Running of the Altar Boys.” Many newspapers declined to carry it, and some of those that did apologized in print the next day. “I don’t want to be apologized for,” Oliphant grumbled.

Navasky deals at some length with internal censorship at The Nation, where a savagely funny David Levine takedown of Henry Kissinger caused a feminist revolt among staffers (the objection was to the objectification of women, not a concern for Kissinger’s sensibilities). The cartoon showed Dr. K. in bed, draped in an American flag, gleefully rutting atop a naked woman with a world globe for a head. “A petition landed on my desk, signed by twenty-five people in an office that I had thought employed only twenty-three,” Navasky writes. Navasky dismissed the censorship and ran the cartoon. He faced and rejected a similar staff revolt over a multipanel Ed Sorel cartoon poking caustic fun at Frances Lear when she used her $112 million divorce settlement to launch her magazine, Lear’s, and lectured women to show gumption similar to hers. Sorel weathered the staffers’ storm of protest without offering an apology. “To work,” he said, “a cartoon not only has to be funny, but you don’t pick on people smaller than you.” Or as Mauldin used to say, “If it’s big, hit it.”

Cartoonists in other parts of the world sometimes have a harder time of it. Navasky provides a sobering list of cartoonists who have been arrested, jailed, beaten, and even assassinated for their work. Most of them have been from totalitarian or theocratic regimes (or, like the Danish cartoonists who lampooned Mohammed, the target of fanatical religious reprisal). But Robert Edwards, a British reactionary cartoonist of modest talent, was sentenced in 1982 to two years in an English prison for his holocaust-denying anti-Semitic comic strips that were deemed “likely to incite racial hatred.” Navasky, a staunch defender of free speech, decries this reaction: “The citizen in me finds his ideas repugnant, yet the sociologist in me wonders why the authorities find his work, which itself is a caricature of conventional bigotry, sufficiently threatening to earn him imprisonment.”

Where Navasky is at his best in this book is in the section he calls the gallery, in which he devotes a few pages each to a pantheon of greats from the world of political cartooning. Names like Goya, Gillray, Daumier, Nast, Mauldin, Herblock, Sorel, Steadman, and even the sublime Al Hirschfeld (not generally thought of in terms of political or social commentary) receive, if not their due, at least a thoughtful entry to remind us of what immense contributions they have made. He includes a rogues’ gallery of distasteful but influential work: the savage hook-nosed, blood-drinking Jews of the cartoons featured in the Nazi paper Der Sturmer helped shape the minds of a generation of Germans (and ultimately sent its editor, but not its cartoonists, to the gallows from Nuremberg).

The South African cartoonist Zapiro, who has created a stir in his country with his lacerating depictions of ANC President Jacob Zuma, offers the image of the political cartoonist as “the equivalent of the old court jester ... licensed to rudely confront those in power,” Navasky writes. At its best, the political cartoonist’s art can get under the skin of the powerful enough to change history. Hitler would go into a frenzy at his ridicule by David Low in the London Evening Standard, to the point that the British foreign secretary asked the cartoonist to ease up to try to preserve peace. And Daumier’s caricatures of the pear-shaped King Louis Philippe, which got him sent to jail for “offending the king’s person,” helped lead to that regime’s downfall and paved the way for 20th century revolutions. ◀

“The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power” by Victor S. Navasky was published by Alfred A. Knopf/Random House in April.

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