Tag Archives: statue of liberty

Power of the Cartoon Cover

On Monday, December 7, 2015, Bill Bramhall, editorial cartoonist for the New York Daily News published the following image of presidential candidate Donald J. Trump, in response to Trump’s announced policy of denying Muslim immigration to the U.S.

The image was placed on the cover of the daily paper, overlaid by an updated and paraphrased version of Martin Niemöller’s iconic and poignant quote from 1963 about his inaction regarding Adolf Hitler:


The image shows the Statue of Liberty as a victim of Trump’s political terrorism. Lady Liberty, the beloved symbol of American values and immigration, is beheaded.  A bloated Trump raises his weapon of choice, a scimitar,  historically associated with Eastern and Ottoman cultures. In effect, Trump balances his own scales of justice with her head in his other hand. The remainder of her majestic body lies prostrate, her torch has tumbled away — her welcoming beacon of light extinguished.

Bramhall’s image brings to mind Thomas Nast’s 1871 double-paged cartoon,”The Tammany Tiger on the Loose – “What are you going to do about it?””

The Tammany Tiger Loose
“The Tammany Tiger on the Loose – What are you going to do about it?” by Thomas Nast, 11 November, 1871. Source: The Ohio State University

Though not a cover, (many of Nast’s cartoons were featured as covers), this cartoon received an equally coveted center, double-page spread in Harper’s Weekly, the premiere illustrated weekly of its era. A portly Tweed, whom Nast dresses as a Roman emperor, sits in his imperial reviewing box and gloats upon his weapon of choice, the Tammany Tiger as it fells Columbia, Nast’s preferred personification of American values.  Drawn 15 years before the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in 1886, Nast favored Columbia as the maternal symbol to represent the American nation.  Her cousins, Lady Liberty and Lady Justice, distinguished by a crested helmet and the scales of justice respectively, appeared less often as substitutions for Columbia, but frequently as sisterly companions.

Tweed’s tiger looks straight into its audience and bears its teeth, poised to tear into Columbia’s carotid artery. Columbia often carried a sword, symbolizing the strength of her resolve to protect American values of tolerance, fairness and compassion. Her weapon has left her grip, broken apart by the force of the beast’s pounce. Like Tweed, the tiger arrogantly asks, “What are you going to do about it?”

Thomas Nast, known as the “Father of American Caricature” or alternately as the “Father of the American Political Cartoon” rose to worldwide attention and wielded significant political power by the deft and powerful strokes of his pen — the ire in Nast’s ink often appeared on the cover of the illustrated weekly magazine, Harper’s Weekly. To get his message across Nast and other great cartoonists of the time employed the ego-cutting tools of caricature: ridicule, physical exaggeration, and careful placement of  symbols, to elicit emotions from his readers and viewers. Nast is best known for excoriating and bringing down New York politician William M. “Boss” Tweed through these techniques.

Few escaped seeing the images. Apocryphally, Tweed is famously quoted as saying, “Stop them damned pictures. I don’t care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures!”

According to Nast’s biographer Alfred Bigelow Paine, Tweed representatives enticed Nast with bribes to tempt the artist to stop maligning the city boss. Intrigued, Nast strung the agent along, seeing how high he could negotiate the bribe. It reached $500,000, a tremendous amount for its time. Nast refused. The visibility and power of Nast images continued for two decades as undeniable weapons against corruption.

This New Yorker cover from 2008 elicited a great deal of conversation and controversy.
This The New Yorker cover from 2008 elicited a great deal of conversation and controversy.

The American editorial or political cartoon in the twenty-first century grasps an uncertain future. The genre thrived in Nast’s era, a time in which photographs could not easily be mass reproduced for the print media.  In the century that followed, modern political cartoons traditionally found their stage off the front page, yet, placed in a venerated position in the editorial sections of daily and weekly newspapers. The photograph took over on covers. There were exceptions of course, the New Yorker magazine being the most notable, today giving prominence to the cartoon cover with provoking results.

The tradition of home delivery or buying a paper at a newsstand and enjoying that publication at the kitchen table or office desk— physically leafing the pages for content and sharing sections among family and friends, assured these editorial cartoons would be seen.

With the demise of many print editions of newspapers and magazines, new generations of readers cherry pick their news from online sources. Some fear that these hand-drawn visual commentaries, and appreciation for what Donald Dewey has called The Art of Ill Will, might lose their historic influence, or get lost among the many clickable headlines, losing ground to the altered digital photograph — satire by Photoshop.

Bramhall’s cartoon offers hope that the art form is still beloved and packs a powerful punch. The image rose above the fray, and was instantly picked up across media outlets and shared prolifically on social media.

The New York Daily News use of Bramhall’s cartoon as its cover, therefore, is in the best tradition of an excellent and scathingly successful take down of a public figure by an editorial or political cartoon, drawn and delivered, much like Trump’s sword, a blunt yet an effective courier of raw truth. In the best New York City media tradition, the cartoon exposes both the disturbing and the ridiculous.

In our saturated and specialized markets, editorial cartoons must compete for broad attention. But when they are timely and deftly drawn, these black and white lines of editorial expression expose stark realities through exaggeration. Ah! To dish out the glorious tool of ridicule, a technique Trump wields with expertise and lately, to great effect.

Like Nast and Bramhall’s cartoons, the crème de crème of caricature will always rise to the top — viral worthy, the artists and their images serve the public good by striking a tender national nerve.

If Nast were around today, he’d be proud, and perhaps, a little envious.

“A Statue for Our Harbor” 1881

Cartoon of Chinese man as a mockery of the statue of liberty
“A Statue for Our Harbor” 11 November 1881 by George Frederick Keller for the San Francisco Illustrated Wasp
San Francisco artist George F. Keller struck again, aided by The Wasp’s increased investment in color lithography, with A Statue For Our Harbor, November 11, 1881. Although the Statue of Liberty and its base had yet to make a physical appearance in New York’s harbor, discussions about the statue and controversies in fundraising and artists’renditions, were broadly covered in East Coast media and beyond. Keller’s image serves as a reminder that he and or The Wasp kept their attention on their eastern counterparts and applied regional topics to switch focus on West Coast concerns. The image is a cry for attention to examine West Coast immigration issues.

The image was preceded by a popular book, The Last Days of the Republic (1880) written by newspaper editor Pierton Dooner who “described immigration as a “vicious conspiracy” against the U.S. by the Chinese, and illustrated his point with Keller’s drawings” (Tchen/Yeats, 231).

No warm welcome from a copper French Lady Liberty here, immigrants to San Francisco’s harbor are welcomed by a menacing Chinese effigy. His clothes in tatters, this slimy figure, with his long queue wafting with the breeze, illuminates the American way for Asian immigrants. A few steam boats rest in the harbor, but a larger number arrive via antiquated Asian sail boats or “junks.”

The implication is clear. Modern European immigration has acquiesced in deference to an infiltration of backward, invading forces from Asia.  A full moon with a Chinese likeness sneeringly supervises the scene. His celestial light bathes the night sky. Six beams of light emanate from the statue’s unseen torch or lamp.They illuminate the harbor with “Filth,” “Immorality,” “Diseases,” and requiring three beams,“Ruin to White Labor.”  In the statue’s other hand is an opium pipe. The Chinese man‘s foot is triumphantly perched upon a human skull, presumably that of a white human, and behind the skull is a rat’s tail. The rat has picked the skull clean.

The Wasp’s readers knew all too well that the Chinese ate rodents. Western press delighted in repeating the disgusting stereotype. In Keller’s illustration, the Chinese have ascended to the top of the food chain. A position that is complicit with the cannibalism of white humanity.  Rodents thriving along the embankment collect at the base of the star-shaped pedestal, which is also strewn with trash.  

While labor issues were one of the six categories that predominated The Wasp’s view of the Chinese, the overarching theme in this image is one of disease and immorality. The Wasp suggests there can be no question that the Chinese are to blame for dark and dismal polluted condition of San Francisco’s harbor.

Light and dark divides the image. As a “celestial” the Chinese figure is awash in light as he extends his arm and face toward the source of his “otherness” the celestial sky.  The clouds part in his presence.  The colors darken as the figure connects with the earth and his roots and foundation into his new San Francisco home.