Is Caricature Unkind?

What’s interesting is that Kate Middleton was, I thought, the most innocuous and flattering of any caricature I’ve done. Yet one woman wrote to me, “I’m not so sure… a baby with a pointy head?” (I was thinking: “Newborn prince as crown jewel.”)

Now, the Paula Deen portrait of some weeks ago, dipping a raccoon into a deep fryer—I knew that was way out there. But readers commented not on the unflattering, if true, porky visage of the Southern cooking show doyenne whose accent, not to say attitudes, made headlines as the uneasy side of To Kill A Mockingbird but, rather, “Poor little raccoon!”

One reader did politely ask if I ever do caricatures of women as we would like to be. I thought Kate Middleton, new royal mom, was a nice answer to that.

The whole workout got me pondering, not for the first time, about whether caricature, the great editorial art form, is just plain mean.

Caricature is not meant to be flattering. It’s meant to be true—as I see it—literally, how I see a person. Hey, we all walk around with colored lenses. If you’re upset because I exaggerated Michelle Obama’s lush eyes, lips and biceps, your lenses are blue. If you’re angry with my rendering of Ann Romney holding a dressage riding crop and a plate of cookies, you’re seeing red. Mine are shaped like John Lennon’s, tinted violet. (This is literally, as figuratively, true.)

The second question I ask myself: Just because I can, does it mean I should? I have something innate which, really, not only can I not help but don’t want to. Gotta dance, you know? I began my political career with editorial caricature at the age of twenty, drawing three times per week for a university newspaper. Jimmy Carter and his Taft-Hartley Act was rendered as a vaudeville show, with the president in straw boater, doing a little soft-shoe in which he kicked Taft-Hartley into the wide-open mouth of a waiting lion. Did anyone reading that college paper get it? Probably not my editorial nuance on the federal law that restricts the activities and power of labor unions, but the Jimmy Carter likeness made the point. I don’t recall whether, in 1977, I was pro or con Jimmy Carter. He was the president, something made an impression on me, and they ran it. An editorial imperative to be “nice” (or to build in some kind of compensating redemption) with everything I create isn’t just cowing to the vague subjectivity of anyone who happens onto my stuff, it’s impossible. The only creator of whom I’m aware who pulled that off without being completely inane is Charles M. Schulz, creator of Peanuts®—and I’m certain there are cat lovers out there who are offended at Schulz’s open, pro-beagle prejudice. No wonder cartoonists, like stand-up comedians, are notoriously insecure. You never know where the line is until somebody screams that you’ve crossed it. But the music of a stranger telling you, “Thank you—you got me thinking,” is incomparable.

Now that I’ve begun to establish that, despite having rotten eggs pelting one from time to time, the compensations are indeed great, is it my personal mission to burnish the crown, dip into the deep fryer, or point the finger at otherwise probably, or occasionally, very nice people?

No, I leave that mission to the politicians, paid preachers, and reality TV. I take my chances, but I’m not quite that unkind.