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What a cartoon can do

What a cartoon can do

Words: Tjeerd Royaards

Illustrations: Various

“Every joke resembles a tiny revolution”, George Orwell said. That’s why the dictators of the world are so wary when the joke is on them − especially in the form of a well-crafted caricature. Here, political cartoonist Tjeerd Royaards explores the amazing ability of cartoons to hold those in power to account, sparking change from the ground up.


  • Cartoons can be the first step towards removing an autocratic regime.
  • They show that those in power are not above criticism.
  • Dictators have always cracked down hard on those mocking them, and still do.
  • In some countries cartoonists still receive death threats or risk imprisonment.

When King Louis-Philippe of France took a publisher to court over an unflattering cartoon, he hadn’t counted on the trial spawning another cartoon – which would go on to have an even bigger impact than the first one.

Charles Philipon, publisher of satirical newspaper La Caricature, was put on trial in 1831 for a cartoon in which the corpulent king was portrayed as a mason, symbolically erasing the traces of the July Revolution.

Sure to be condemned for insulting the king, Philipon argued it wasn’t the king that was portrayed in the cartoon, but the abstract concept of the king. And as such, anything could represent the king – and if anything could represent the king, how could it be considered insulting? To illustrate this, he made a sketch in which the portrait of the king slowly transforms into a pear. The sketch was later reworked by cartoonist Honoré Daumier and published in La Caricature, becoming one of the most famous cartoons of its day.

The Pears: left the sketch by Philipon, right the later cartoon by Daumier.

Then and now

The king kept a vigilant eye on La Caricature and took the publication to court again later that same year. This time it was over a cartoon by Honoré Daumier called Gargantua. This cartoon is a great illustration of two aspects of visual satire. Firstly, while political cartooning may not be the oldest profession in the world, it’s certainly one of the ones that has changed the least. Aside from having modern design software and shiny screens to work with, what cartoonists do today is exactly the same as what they did 200 years ago. They mock those in power and their policies, usually in a single image.

Gargantua by Honoré Daumier.

In Gargantua, we see Louis-Philippe again, with his iconic pear-shaped head. On the right, we see his subjects, the poor and miserable citizens of France, paying taxes. The money is carried into the king’s mouth and comes out underneath the throne – which doubles as a toilet – where it goes to political allies and cronies instead of public services. It’s a scathing commentary on the king’s abuse of power.

Secondly, the way cartoons are perceived, feared and responded to by leaders, especially those less well inclined towards democracy, hasn’t changed either. Daumier spent six months in prison after the publication of Gargantua, and La Caricature was fined and forced to shut down. One need only look at Russia, Turkey or China today to see similar responses when cartoonists dare to mock those in power.

“What makes simple lines on paper so powerful?”

From court jester to cartoonist

So why is it that cartoons and satire are so feared by autocratic leaders? What makes simple lines on paper (or a computer screen) so powerful that they put the artists that draw them at risk of harassment, imprisonment or worse? First of all, visuals are very powerful. If you read a newspaper, you can decide not to read a particular editorial or article, but you cannot decide not to read a cartoon. Once you’ve seen it, the damage is done. And cartoons can spread very fast, becoming iconic. King Louis-Philippe learned this the hard way with the pear cartoon. In 19th-century France, many people might have been illiterate, but everybody recognised a portrait of the king, and everyone knew what a pear looked like.

In medieval times, it was the court jester who was allowed to make fun of the king, but only him, and only within the confines of the court. The cartoonist took the role of jester, but with a far wider audience, and with graver consequences for the king. Where the jester was seen as the exception to the rule, the cartoonist became a trailblazer, showing we should voice our criticism of those in power, and that making fun of them is an effective way to do so.

Taking on Hitler

If we fast forward to the Second World War, we come across another shining example of the power of satire, whose legacy can still be seen in cartoons today. David Low worked for British newspaper the Evening Standard from 1927 to 1950 and drew many, many cartoons about Adolf Hitler. He certainly wasn’t the only cartoonist to do this, but his work is special because of the way he drew Hitler.

Tjeerd Royaards is an award-winning Dutch editorial cartoonist with a Master’s degree in political science. His work has appeared in acclaimed national and international publications including The New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel and Le Monde. He is also editor-in-chief of Cartoon Movement, a global platform for editorial cartoons and comics journalism.

“Good satirists take the fear away”

His mockery of the Führer was so effective that the Evening Standard was banned from publication in Germany as early as 1933. Supposedly, Hitler fumed every time he saw one of Low’s depictions of him. Low’s name even ended up in The Black Book, a list made by the SS of prominent people who would be executed once Germany had invaded Britain. In 1937, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels told British foreign secretary Lord Halifax that Low’s cartoons were damaging diplomatic relations. Lord Halifax visited Low not long after, to ask him if he could please tone down his work in the interests of peace. Low did this until Hitler occupied Austria a few months later.

What makes Low so special is that he truly mocked Hitler. If you look at the majority of cartoons from that era, most of them reflect the grim outlook of the time. Hitler is shown as a monster, a force to be feared, spreading death and destruction. For instance, in this cartoon by Georges published in The Nation in 1933, Hitler is shown as the Grim Reaper personified:

Cartoon by Georges from 1940.

Low, on the other hand, makes Hitler into a small, insignificant wannabe dictator. In his cartoons, he effectively takes power away from him, instead of amplifying it. Low said about this in 1940: “No dictator is inconvenienced or even displeased by cartoons showing his terrible person stalking through blood and mud. That is the kind of idea about himself that a powerseeking world-beater would want to propagate.”

Cartoon by David Low from 1930.

In one of the first Hitler cartoons that Low ever did, from 1930, Hitler is shown as a toddler trying on Emperor Wilhelm’s old clothes. What is also rather special about this cartoon, is that it is one of the earliest warnings that Hitler might be out for war. In another cartoon, from 1936, the allied nations stand cowering before Hitler. But Hitler isn’t some great hulk or monster, just a scrawny little man. ‘What are you so afraid of,’ Low seems to ask.

Two cartoons by Low, both from 1936.

Dismantling the fear

And it is in this question that we find the lasting legacy of his work. Fear is a potent weapon in the hands of dictators. “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both,” said the Italian Renaissance philosopher Machiavelli about leadership. Good satirists take that fear away. They show a dictator is just a man (and it is always a man), flawed and not above criticism. Through humour, they show you can question and criticise power, the first and perhaps most important step towards removing any autocratic regime. Dictators know this, which is why they crack down hard on anyone mocking them.

Cartoon about today’s world leaders by Turkish cartoonist Halit Kurtulmus Aytoslu.

Low’s legacy can be found today in how cartoonists portray Trump, Putin, Erdogan, Xi Jinping or Bolsonaro. The cartoons in which they figure as incompetent nitwits or grotesque clowns far outweigh the cartoons in which they are shown as massive monsters destroying their country or the world.

Cartoonists under threat

In a world where autocratic leaders are on the rise, the space for political satire is decreasing, and examples of cartoonists getting in trouble are rife. In the past few months, cartoonists in Brazil, Bangladesh, Bolivia, China, Palestine, Peru and Uganda have reported incidents, but also cartoonists in Belgium and Denmark. In the latter two countries, it was the long arm of China that objected to cartoons about the coronavirus originating in China, resulting in death threats.

The most recent example dates from just this month. Renowned Jordanian cartoonist Emad Hajjaj was arrested for a cartoon published in Al-Araby. The cartoon is related to the signing of the peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. The caption above the cartoon reads ‘Israel asks the United States not to sell F35 to the United Arab Emirates’. In the image, we see the dove of peace with a star of David spitting in the face of Emirates leader Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. After four days in jail, Hajjaj is now out on bail, but still faces a possible sentence of more than six years in jail for ‘disturbing relations with a sister country’ under Jordan’s counter-terrorism law.

The cartoon that got Emad Hajjaj in trouble.

In the current world, the outlook for satire might be somewhat bleak. But it is precisely because regimes keep cracking down on satire that we need to keep making it. Dictators try to silence satire only because they know it is effective, because they fear it. And that’s the best reason to keep laughing at them.


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