Once a Politician, Always a Butt: Introduction to Editorial Cartooning

Movie clip on editorial cartoons and the caricaturing of politicians, from the second half of the 19th century to today. (Time: 2 min 44 s)

McCord Museum
19th-20th Century
© 2007, McCord Museum of Canadian History. All Rights Reserved.


What’s the ideal subject for a cartoonist? A tricky political situation, a spicy story, a juicy scandal? A public figure who’s caught up in a shady deal … or smells of corruption? Or perhaps an inexperienced politician who falls on his or her face? Because, as everyone knows, cartoonists really love ridiculing politicians!

Ever irreverent, cartoonists underline the faults of public figures and are always ready to pounce on the slightest misstep. They expose, exaggerate and depict reality with humour and sarcasm. Gifted with soaring imaginations, cartoonists use any number of strategies to illustrate their points of view. They exaggerate the physical characteristics, ticks and gestures of important figures, often creating characters more real than the persons themselves! They sometimes place figures in a particular setting, like dressing them up as Ulysses or a character from Shakespeare. In addition to the symbols and visual elements that they use to reinforce their messages, cartoonists use titles, speech balloons and captions to convey their message. No detail is left to chance!

But why do cartoons make us smile, if not laugh out loud? Wielding sharp pens and minds, cartoonists create visual editorials that reflect news events. They present their view of the world, shaped by their own experience and culture and even their gender. Cartoonists make us think about social issues, provoke us and stir up controversy… Although some cartoons speak for themselves, usually it’s familiarity with the context that enables us to decipher and really appreciate a cartoon. That is why it’s not always easy to grasp the meaning of old cartoons. Just dig a little, read between the lines, pay attention to the details … and ask some questions!

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