When Cartoons Are No Laughing Matter

So, just to get this out of the way, a bit of a trigger warning: This post contains some political opinion. Of course, I’m a political cartoonist, so that shouldn’t come as a big surprise. However, if you’re not interested in a political conversation, it’s completely understood, and you’re free to peruse some of the other great material here on ShoutFyre.





Still here? OK, great.


There’s an old curse, “Shall you live in interesting times.” And in terms of 2020, someone seems to have hexed us all. Just when my weekly cartoon threatened to become non-stop commentary on COVID-19 coronavirus and the government’s response to it, we had the tragic death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, at the hands—or, in this case, the knee—of the police. And while police brutality and racial injustice have reared their heads plenty of times before, this case became a flashpoint in a country already raw from other factors (not the least of which being the aforementioned deadly global pandemic). 


As I’ve written before, my role as an editorial cartoonist is to call attention to the bitter ironies of the world around us, to point out the hypocrisies and corruption of those in charge. Given the channel of a cartoon, this commentary typically ends with a punchline, some sort of humorous twist to punctuate the point. I often say that if I make you laugh or get you angry, depending on which side you fall on the topic du jour, I’ve done my job. And that humor often helps soften that blow, maybe even making you laugh in spite of your political leanings. 


However, there are some topics when humor isn’t the best policy, and the tragic death of innocents top that list. In those cases, the ultimate goal is the same: to make the reader think, just in a much more somber tone. Instead of a punchline, these cartoons usually end in a gutpunch. While the humorous strips usually feature dialogue with quips and witty wordplay, these cartoons up the visual ratio of the medium. Symbolic imagery and allegorical homages often provide an illustrated shorthand. That lack of dialogue makes for an impactful reading experience, one that’s quick and visceral. 


Case-in-point: the recent outcry against the death of George Floyd in police custody and how the President’s rhetoric both inflamed the outrage and helped encourage police brutality in the first place. 



  • Rather than the usual comic strip with multiple panels, it features one contiguous image, making it immediately consumed by the reader.
  • To further expedite the reading experience, the imagery is simple and iconic, full of symbolism. 
  • Any dialogue is short-and-sweet; in this case, the president’s own words, used to provide a direct example of the rhetoric contributing to the flames. 


While I often like the humorous strips and find some pride in a successful punchline that hits both the subject politician and the reader, these more somber strips are powerful. Given their highly visual nature, they hit the reader in a different way; they’re instantly consumed by the eyeballs and then realized, making an impact that’s often remembered longer by readers. A prime example of the power and diversity of the art form.


Do you have editorial cartoons or strong visuals in comics that still stick with you? Share it in the ShoutFyre forum!

Steve Stegelin

Editor, Artist, Letterer, Colorist Steve is the long-running cartoonist at the Charleston, SC alt-weekly Charleston City Paper, where he skewers politicians and criminals (and criminal politicians) alike with editorial cartoons and police blotter illustrations every issue. Steve was best known his indie comic book (and subsequent webcomic)  BOONDOGGLE