It’s an election year and political cartoons online and in newspapers are in full swing. But what makes these kinds of cartoons so popular and effective?
Eric Langstedt, associate professor of Communications at Mount Saint Mary College, examined this in his recent presentation, “The Power to Persuade with Political Cartoons.” For hundreds of years, he said, American political cartoons have been used to garner support towards beliefs and causes.
Langstedt has been interested in comics (as seen in newspapers and magazines) since his teens. He has amassed an extensive collection of books on the history of this art form.
In some ways, newspaper comics like “Garfield” and “Family Circus” have more in common with advertisements than comic books like “The Amazing Spider-Man” or “Archie.” For both ads and newspaper comics, there’s not a lot of time to get to the punchline.
Newspaper comics are “a little bit like a tweet, in a sense,” Langstedt noted. “You aren’t getting the full arc of a comic book. If you talk to people who like comic books, they talk about liking story arcs…You don’t have that liberty in newspapers. You have to get to the point quickly.”
Thus, newspaper comics and, by extension, political cartoons, must both rely on well-known imagery to get their messages across quickly. In the case of American political cartoons, artists can use established characters like Lady Liberty, Uncle Sam, the donkey, and the elephant to great effect. They can also rely on symbols engrained in our culture, such as a ring representing marriage or a dove representing peace.
Not only do these established characters and symbols make it easy for artists to create such comics, but it also helps them to be persuasive, said Langstedt: the reader can be invested with just a glance. The human mind is able to process images quickly, and comics take advantage of this, especially when there’s only a single panel.
Together, these techniques create easy to understand messages that, thanks to their political stances and their use of established symbols, evoke an immediate emotional response in the reader. Herein lies the ability to persuade in a matter of seconds, Langstedt explained.
Teaching an introduction to mass media course, which addresses comics in colonial era and progressive era newspapers, was pivotal in Langstedt’s selection of this research topic. The study of political cartoons is closely related to Langstedt’s other area of research, namely, prime-time animated cartoon enthusiasts. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, he had been scheduled to present his work at the Popular Culture Association Conference in April.
Langstedt holds degrees from Cornell University, University of St. Andrews (Scotland), and the University of Connecticut. He is a member of the Popular Culture Association, the Society for Animation Studies, and is on the review board for the Journal of Social Media in Society. Most of his published research has studied media preferences for users of television, social media, and mobile devices.
The talk was part of the Mount’s Investigating Research on Campus (iROC) program.The goal of the college’s iROC is to provide a forum for Mount faculty, staff, and students to showcase their research endeavors with the college and local communities. Presentations include research proposals, initial data collection, and completed research projects.
All iROC presentations this semester will take place virtually via Zoom. They are free and open to the public, but you must register to attend. To see what talks are coming up and register for them, visit www.msmc.edu/iROC