About the cartoons, and the problems in indexing them

My research is based on the assumption that we can divide the cataloging needs of political cartoons into three groups: bibliographic, descriptive, and subject. The bibliographic needs are fairly straightforward, as they have a number of similarities with other documents: authors or artist or some notation of the creator of the piece, date of publication (possibly the most crucial piece of information that can be included in the record), media used, and the like. The one item that falls into this category that may not always be easily agreed on is the publisher. Fifty years ago, this would have been simple, but now we have fewer newspapers, and fewer still cartoonists working for them. Today, an artist may publish his or her work to a website, or distribute the work through other means. Who, then, is the publisher? The artist? The website? The syndicate? While this is a problem to be dealt with, it is a small one when compared to those found in describing the cartoon itself and in naming the subject or subjects of that cartoon.

Of greater importance is solving some of the problems inherent in describing a cartoon and in finding a way to describe its subject or, as the case may be, subjects. Where standard textual documents can carry context with them - where they can explain themselves - political cartoons, indeed all visual media, assumes that context will be plain to the user through means other than the image. Where a news story can carry explicit references that make the content of the article clear within a given context, a cartoon can only hope that the viewer has the requisite knowledge to "get it", and without this necessary common set of reference points, the meaning of the cartoon is lost.

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This cartoon carries with it sufficient reference points that context can be established well after the events that it refers to is in the news, given that the user can interpret the caricature properly as the junior President Bush. Using this, the mention of Iraq, and the reference to a fourth anniversary, one can infer that the cartoon comments on the legacy of President Bush vis-à-vis Iraq. That the image carries with it enough context to establish meaning is an unusual state of affairs. And a useful description of this cartoon would not be difficult to write, either; the identification of President Bush would certainly be in order, along with the statue, the two "anyman" characters, the fallen statue, and all of the text either written or spoken. Either the description or the cartoon itself could be used to establish a link to the historical event that it comments on.

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This cartoon requires more of the user. The sentiment seen in the sign could be attributed to any number of movements in any number of places at any number of times and, therefore, cannot stand alone as a connection to a particular event. The background is likewise of little help in linking this cartoon to a particular event. Possibly, one could make a somewhat tentative connection between the sign and the nationality of the man in the cartoon. But it is only when we find that the gunman is Deng Xiaoping coupled either with the knowledge that he was the leader during the Tien'anmen Square Massacre or that the cartoon was published within days of that massacre that we can begin to understand what the cartoon is speaking to, and what it is saying. Here we find that a visual description might help identify the subject in that we could not fail to mention Deng in the description, providing the linchpin needed to derive the subject.

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Political comic strips pose a different set of problems, some in common with cartoons and other unique to this type of commentary. Strips share with cartoons the need for the user to have at least a passing familiarity with the political events they examine and the need for basic cognitive skills and cultural knowledge. Differences sometimes include the need for familiarity with the characters and a need to see several strips in a series. Both are illustrated here, the former in the need to know that the man in the brown vest is a well-meaning but clueless reporter, the latter in the need to have seen preceding strips to know that this vote spoken of in this strip is a Massachusetts town's vote to impeach the junior President Bush. Neither of these would be necessary in a political cartoon, but are essential to determining the precise subject of a comic strip.

In addition to those difficulties, strips also present problems in description, mainly stemming from the verbal representation of action, which is much more abundant in a strip than in a single-panel cartoon. Any description of this strip would need to include the movement through the meeting hall, an action purely visual in the strip. And determining the level of specificity strips can be a problem as well: would it be enough to describe a character as angry, or must the gestures used to make this determination also be included?

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How is the subject of a cartoon properly described when there are. potentially, two subjects? In this image, we can rightly say that the subject is the euphoria of the Women's World Cup being played in the United States for the first time and the subsequent triumph of our team. Certainly, all the young girls in the cartoon, all the soccer balls and flags and balloons, point to this cartoon being a most approving commentary both on the American's victory and on the World Cup as a month-long event being held in America or the first time. But this cartoon may also be a commentary on the changing times, on Title IX, and on the rise of women's athletics in general. In addition to being about the event, it is also about the watershed moment of women's athletics finally arriving on the national stage and in the national media.

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This cartoon also has more than one subject, the difference being that while the previous example was self-contained (aside from a specific timeframe), this one refers to something neither seen nor shown. The reference to smoking-related health problems in America's youth is plain, along with the opinion that advertising for cigarettes that is directed at children is wrong. The un-named event that is not evident in the text or the drawing involves Marshall Applewhite leader of the Heaven's Gate cult that committed mass suicide with the arrival of the Hale-Bopp comet. The only way to make this connection is to know the date of the cartoon's publication and that both Heaven's Gate and cigarette advertising aimed at children were both news items at that time.

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I submit that, with all of the bibliographic information removed, this cartoon cannot be classified or indexed as to it's subject based on the image alone. While one might correctly guess the event that inspired it, one would never be certain. We might guess that the eagle represents America, that the tear represents some tragedy. At a stretch, we might guess that it is a space tragedy, but there is no way to know which one. If the date (1986) is included, it becomes easier to see that this is about the Challenger disaster, but absent this critical piece of information in addition to the aforementioned guesses, how can anyone correctly identify the subject of this cartoon? Here, visual description would not be as much a supplement to the subject as in other cartoons, as there is so little to describe.

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What was simulated previously is true here. This image represents the sum total of everything I know about this political cartoon. It is part of the Claude Pepper Collection, which is housed at Florida State University. It was found in a folder containing cartoons that dated from the 1940's to the 1980's. There was no newspaper name, although it was certainly from a newspaper. No date of any kind at all. The reverse of this clipping was an article about a local event, but did not contain enough information to make an assessment about the cartoon in any way. My best guess is that is has something to do with the reapportionment fights of the 1950's, but it is only a guess. An intriguing piece of history is thus lost for want of a date, an identification of the people in the cartoon, or a note in the margin.