Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Dirty pool

Following on from my extravagant claim of responsibility for toppling a taoiseach, let’s turn to the tale of cartoonist Thomas Nast and the downfall of 19th century New York politician William Tweed, a piece of history treasured by political cartoonists everywhere. I first read of it in a book by Jerry Robinson, The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art, from 1974. He tells the story as follows:
Thomas Nast, still in his early twenties, gained his reputation as a cartoonist in Harper’s Weekly during the Civil War. His later series, which destroyed the Tammany Ring and Boss Tweed, included the most powerful political cartoons ever executed. “Stop them damn pictures!” Tweed cried upon seeing Nast’s latest “I don’t care so much what papers write about me. My constituents can’t read. But, damn it, they can see pictures!” Nast turned down Tweed’s offer of one-half million dollars “study art in Europe” and continued his scathing ridicule. Ultimately, it was Tweed who fled to Europe, and in an ironic twist of fate, a Spanish official recognized Tweed from Nast’s caricature in Harper’s Weekly and Tweed was arrested and extradited. Tweed’s baggage was found to contain a complete set of Nast’s cartoons, except for the one which sent him to jail.
However now it seems that some are casting doubt on this account. I’m just another fool with internet access and a few books on the shelf, and not in a position to divine the truth of it. I’d like the legend to be true, but as a past practitioner of political cartooning, I will admit that it is not a form of journalism heavily dependent on truth, nor one always rich in nuance. It’s not usually, if ever, about comprehending complex detail. It’s about conflict, and is regularly every bit as low down dirty as political attack advertising or tabloid headline writing.

To return to the example of my Haughey cartoon, there the choice of target was wholly justified. However the line of attack by the cartoon was not necessarily in line with reality. Be warned, a cartoonist will use not any, but every weapon to hand.

An old drawing from In Dublin magazine, late 1980s.

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