Cartoons generate animated letters

A Brooklyn Park police lieutenant wrote to the Daily last week complaining about the “inaccurate representation of the police and the D.A.R.E. program,” in Pete Wagner’s Tuesday cartoon.
The cartoon depicted a police officer in front of a classroom full of children, all named Mitchell, in reference to one of the suspects in the recent Jonesboro, Ark., shooting. The caption read, “Hello, I’m your D.A.R.E. officer! Hey, kids — how would you like to see my gun?!”
The police officer defended the D.A.R.E. program in her letter and wrote that most D.A.R.E. officers do not wear their guns while in the classroom.
Another reader wrote that the cartoon was “in very poor taste,” the situation in Arkansas being nothing to joke about.
The Daily also heard from Jeff Rypka, whose letter appears in today’s letters to the editor section. He objects to Wagner’s Friday cartoon which depicted the 4-H program as representing homophobia, hypocrisy, hatred and hysteria.
These are not the first complaints the Daily has received about Wagner’s cartoons. Throughout the past year, readers have called them offensive, misleading, racially insensitive, humorless and misinformed.
Let’s talk about what an editorial cartoon is, and is not.
An editorial cartoon is, like a signed column, the opinion of its creator. Unlike an unsigned editorial, it is not the institutional voice of the newspaper, nor is it an unbiased depiction of a news event. Cartoonists and columnists have a personal identity and are accountable for the views expressed in their work.
Daily Editor in Chief R. Scott Rogers believes that most readers understand this distinction. He said when people call to complain about a cartoon they say, “Wagner screwed up,” but when they call to complain about an editorial they say, “You (meaning the Daily) screwed up.”
“An editorial cartoonist is much more like a columnist,” Rogers said. “He has a privileged space in the Daily, but so does a columnist.”
Another similarity between an editorial cartoonist and a columnist is that many reader complaints stem from differences of opinion. Wagner sees those complaints as proof that he’s doing his job.
“The role of a political cartoonist is to be a devil’s advocate,” Wagner said.
Political cartoons are something a newspaper uses to attract attention to an issue and evoke a response, Wagner said.
“The ideal effect of a cartoon is to get people to write in and express their opinion about a topic,” Wagner said.
As for complaints that his cartoons lack humor, Wagner said it’s a misconception that political cartoons are meant to be funny, like other cartoons.
“A good political cartoon should be just that — political first, cartoon second,” he said. Some of the best early political cartoonists didn’t rely on humor. They were vicious and brutal, he said, but rarely funny.
As a fan of good political cartooning, I have to agree with Wagner on this point. My favorite editorial cartoons induce a wince, a groan or even a gasp, but not laughter. A comic strip should make you laugh, but an editorial cartoon should make you think.
Edward Press, in his book “The Political Cartoonist,” didn’t mention humor in his characterization of the three elements of a political cartoon. He described these elements as the picture of reality presented as the truth, a message about what ought to be done about the situation and how the reader should feel about the situation.
As for cartoons being offensive, Wagner said there is no subject that he considers off-limits. He likes going after things about which people are complacent, such as the D.A.R.E. program and professional athletes.
Wagner compared reactions to his work to the reactions Howard Stern gets from some listeners. Although he dislikes Stern’s sexual obsessions, Wagner does admire Stern’s willingness to confront taboos. Wagner said polls have shown that Stern’s radio audience is so high because even people who dislike him tune in to hear what he’ll say next.
“That’s an argument in favor of allowing the artist to be outrageous,” Wagner said.
But being outrageous and breaking taboos is only good up to a point.
Rogers said the Daily has refused to run editorial cartoons on at least two occasions. Red flag areas for Rogers are cartoons that use unnecessary profanity or blasphemy, and cartoons that may be racially offensive.
“You want pictures that hit people, but you don’t want to hit them below the belt,” he said.
Rogers doesn’t subscribe to the theory that one shouldn’t complain unless one can do better. “I don’t think if you are going to criticize you have to provide an alternative,” he said. “It’s OK just to criticize.”
That doesn’t mean that Rogers wouldn’t like to see students submit their own editorial cartoons to the Daily. This newspaper is a forum for the community, and a submitted editorial cartoon would be just as welcome as an opinion column submitted by a University student, faculty or staff member.
If Daily readers had hoped that I would unilaterally condemn Wagner, sorry, that’s not going to happen. The Daily has run Wagner cartoons that I’ve thought were poorly executed or that I’ve disagreed with, but that’s the risk you run when you publish opinions — whether they’re in the form of an editorial cartoon or a column.
I do encourage readers to continue expressing their views about the Daily. Write to me or use the letters to the editor section to express your opinion. Wagner, like every other Daily staffer, reads the letters.
As Rogers said, “If 50 people write in and tell you that you suck, you’re going to listen.”

— Melodie Bahan’s column appears on alternate Mondays. She welcomes comments via e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 627-4070 x3282.