Covering Coronavirus: Tips, best practices and programs

Penning the pandemic: Cartoonists find humor amid panic

Self-caricature by Michael Cavna

Editorial cartoonists are known for their whip-smart ability to, in a single image, “pick a fight.” 

But, says Michael Cavna of The Washington Post, “emotional uplift” has its place in the political cartoonist’s repertoire. “In times of national or global crisis, cartoonists will break out the triumphant trumpets occasionally between their Bronx cheers — and we have countless heroes to spotlight in this current virus crisis.”

We reached out to Cavna, whose “Comic Riffs” column runs in The Post’s Arts & Style section. He covers everything from cartoons to comic culture and has been keeping up with artists and their work during the pandemic.

What about an illustration makes it click — and stick — with readers? (For example, the now well-shared illustration of nurses and doctors hoisting the US flag, playing off the iconic Iwo Jima photograph.) 

Artist: Mike Luckovich, Pulitzer Prize-winning  cartoonist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Cavna: The secret behind most effective political cartoons is rooted — as with any worthy high-proof concoction — in the distillation.

A strong image has the first benefit of sheer speed: It registers so quickly that it bypasses all those critical filters in the brain — the very filters that make straight prose get stopped and inspected by the sensitive TSA wand that is our prefrontal cortex. 

A cartoon clicks because of the deft construction of the distilled idea — built from a toolkit that can include symbology and visual metaphor, hyperbole and parody and wordplay, a mashup of disparate elements or the casting of a familiar phrase or image in a new light. 

A good cartoon sticks because its message — its clear point of view — makes us experience this synthesized idea in a new way, even if we don’t agree with it. We laugh or we wince or we gasp — the reaction of someone sitting ringside at a high-contact pie-fight.  

The Mike Luckovich cartoon you cite worked so well because it took an iconic image of triumphant flag-hoisting Marines and transferred that heroism to first responders and other crisis workers during this pandemic. The mind makes the leap — and, the cartoonist hopes, the reader feels a surge of something like uplifting recognition.

Editorial cartoons and illustrations are often seen as a critical art form, often via satire. How has that shifted in the last six weeks, based on your observations? 

Cavna: Editorial cartoons, unlike many other forms of cartooning, are usually there to pick a fight, ideologically speaking. Editorial cartoonists back to Hogarth to Gillray to Daumier to Nast have needed a target to aim their sharp nibs toward. Yet even in centuries past, cartoonists would occasionally trade in the velvet glove for a round of velvety applause. I’m thinking of such cartoons as Nast’s famed 1862 art for New York Illustrated News titled “Doctor Lincoln’s New Elixir of Life — for the Southern States,” in which Abe administers “Emancipation” to a figure embodying “Slavery.” Or the great Bill Mauldin, who championed World War II heroes fighting in the trenches. Or Herblock’s voting-rights cartoon titled “Continuations of a March” during the civil-rights movement.

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“Emotional uplift” has its place in the political cartoonist’s repertoire, and in times of national or global crisis, cartoonists will break out the triumphant trumpets occasionally between their Bronx cheers — and we have countless heroes to spotlight in this current virus crisis.

How can artists and illustrators balance humor in their work with the global uncertainty that lies ahead?

Cavna: Humor as a tool contains multitudes — from subtle to blunt, from highlighted absurdity to skewered reality — and the pandemic contains so many battle fronts. In general, though, a cartoonist can rarely go wrong by smartly punching up at anyone in power who is failing us. 

And any official who denies aspects of that “global uncertainty” — claiming to have too many of the answers too readily, or who doesn’t listen to the people who put him or her in power — is a plump beefsteak-ripe target for sharp humorous skewering. 

What advice can you share on how to remain creative when working from home? 

Cavna: This was one of the first pandemic questions I had related to my visual arts and editorial illustration beat at The Post, so I reached out to many artists I know. In their answers, I was struck by two things: The sheer range of the specific different activities they were choosing — one author likes to frequent the local cemetery to write in solitude, with his home full and his usual thinking spots temporarily shuttered — and the common aspects of all their choices. The creators sought an inspiring place where they could be in their own head for a good while — even if that meant cranking up an audiobook on their ear buds or losing themselves in creating a visual journal free of narrative or expectation. 

If you don’t have the mental energy to be creative during this dire time, you must give yourself a break. But I find that tuning in to some other art form — downloaded concert clips of the great John Prine (RIP) or an hour of NPR Tiny Desk concerts; a new documentary or a comedian’s podcast — fuels my own cartooning when I return to the drafting board and iPad.

What’s important for readers (and editors) to know about the work this community of artists and illustrators creates? 

Cavna: Political cartoonists strive daily to provide an entertaining and thought-provoking moment of illuminated truth in a fresh way — that you might generally spend fewer than 30 seconds on. Hours and hours go into this snippet of reading experience — and the best cartoonists make the result look effortless.

Also, they should know: If you’re fortunate enough to have a staff cartoonist who occasionally draws about local issues, show your support any way you can — each one represents a rare and vanishing breed. 

How are you practicing self-care during this challenging time? 

Cavna: I increased my vitamin regimen, and upped the turmeric and zinc. I’m less sleep-deprived than usual. And I found a nearby tennis backboard that allows for safe and socially distanced solo exercise. So I keep the respiratory system strong by trying to learn each of Roger Federer’s latest viral trick shots shot from his home — things I’ll still be trying to master long after I hope this pandemic has ended. 

Also vitally important to self-care for journalists: Communicate with the right people at your news outlet about whether your job expectations and goals are any different — and what precautions and personal services are available to employees — during this historically trying time.

Take care out there!