Because Every Picture Tells A Story: Political Cartoons

Contributor: Barbara Keese. Lesson ID: 13011

When you think of cartoons, do you think of animated drawings on TV or the funnies in the comic section of a paper? Some cartoons can be humorous yet make a serious point! Try your hand at this art!


Social Studies, Visual Arts

learning style
personality style
Beaver, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8), High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!


We all have an opinion and love sharing it with others. We all want to be heard and want others to understand our point of view. It can be very frustrating when we cannot get our idea across because others just do not get it!

"A picture can speak a thousand words" is a common saying, and some talented people use this idea every day to share their opinions. These people are political cartoonists, and they use different techniques to make their artwork speak for them. To understand the cartoonist's point of view, we must understand these techniques. Keep in mind that a political cartoon is not necessarily funny in the same way that a regular cartoon seeks to make us laugh. So, let's delve in and discover the techniques used by these clever political cartoonists!

The first political cartoons, drawn hundreds of years ago in Europe, were a type of visual protest.

These visual images sought to spread ideas and thoughts to a wide audience, many of whom could not read.

Benjamin Franklin is attributed with drawing the first political cartoon in America. Entitled "Join or Die," this visual illustration showed the concern Franklin had about the upcoming American Revolution. He understood that if the colonies did not unite and fight the British Crown as a single unit, the hope of liberty and freedom would be lost.

Political cartoons were often found wherever news was published, such as newspapers and magazines. Today, however, as technology has advanced, people use electronic devices to get their news.

Most political cartoons have several elements. These elements include symbolism, exaggeration, labeling, analogy, and irony. To represent an idea, philosophy, or large entity, a cartoonist uses symbolism. An example of symbolism is the use of animals to represent the two main political parties in the United States.

Political cartoonist Thomas Nast is considered the creator of these symbols. Nast published a cartoon entitled "Third-Term Panic" in Harper's Weekly in 1874. He used an elephant to represent the young Republican Party. To represent the Democrat Party, he went back into history and used the jackass, or donkey, that had been associated with President Andrew Jackson. Earlier, when running for the presidency, Jackson was often insulted with the slur of being a jackass. However, Andrew Jackson took the insult as a compliment; thus, the birth of the symbol of the Democrat Party.

Compare Nast's cartoon from 1874 with a present-day version below:

To make a point about an individual or a situation, the artist uses exaggeration. Also known as a caricature, a cartoon using exaggeration draws attention to certain aspects of a person or thing. Everyone knows this caricature of Abraham Lincoln (below). The bushy eyebrows, pointed nose, beard, and large ears, while exaggerated, still help the viewer know that this image is of the 16th president of the United States.

caricature of President Lincoln

Labeling is another way the political cartoon artist can identify people, places, and things. A badge on a man's lapel, or a name on a mailbox, are just a few ways viewers can understand to whom the cartoonist is referring. The example below shows the artist's views on the current economy.

Finally, analogy and irony can be used to compare and contrast ideas and philosophies. The artist can show two very similar concepts in a cartoon to highlight the differences between the two or how the two ideas, though very different, can share some commonality. Hence, difficult ideas and viewpoints are made more understandable when placed side-by-side.

The drawing below is an example of an analogy because it conveys the idea that time equals money.

money in an hourglass

The idea of irony can be seen in the cartoon below. It examines the idea that just sitting down together for a meal brings people together.

couple having dinner

Another example of irony can be seen in this political cartoon, entitled Mark Zuckerberg and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, by Gary Varvel of Indy Star. Do you recognize the irony?

An important aspect of political cartoons is that they are not always about politics. They can be about anything to which the artist wants to draw attention. It can be a social issue or a personal issue that affects many. It can be any aspect of life that the artist feels should be put before the public for discussion.

Take a look at this 2015 Bob Gorrell cartoon, on, that is both political and personal. Notice that the artist has used multiple panels for this cartoon. This is a helpful technique when you want to show multiple thoughts by one person or when showing the ideas or perspective of multiple people.

Continue on to the Got It! section to exam more cartoons for their messages.

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