Cartoons at war: some thoughts on “conflict drawing”

When large-scale catastrophes, like a natural disaster, the election of Trump, or a war like the Ukrainian one, happen, cartoonists are ready to fire their best drawings. But how hard is it to portray such a polarizing situation as a war? Very hard, let me tell you why.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine – it’s been more than a month, time really flies like a hypersonic Russian rocket against a hospital – my social media and website stats have, well, boomed. It might be because I’ve been drawing more – driven by anger, and a little bit by fear – for a war that seems so near. Proximity is a thing, and I can’t apologize for feeling this conflict more than I feel others.

I know, though, that the main reason why people are sharing, liking, and commenting on my cartoons – and the ones of my colleagues, for sure – is that everyone needs information. Trying to make sense of this mess, we resort to the most immediate, most shearable, and often most effective content that populates our social media: cartoons.

But in this baillamme of hearts and thumb-ups, I started asking myself some questions about the position a cartoonist should take towards a conflict. Nothing is black and white, and even if something can be right or wrong, it is worth exploring all the aspects of it, to find a space for reflection.

Here are some of my doubts and thoughts.

Neutrality? Oh c’mon!

Let’s start by saying neutrality is not a thing. It was never a thing.

Neutral cartoons simply don’t exist, because the meaning of a cartoon lives in the proverbial “eye of the beholder,” the mind – and taste – of the public. We put out a cartoon with an idea in mind, sure of its meaning, and then people take it and do what they want with it.

A perfectly neutral cartoon should be a blank slate. But not even, because I can see the clever reader seeing in the white of the canvas a deep longing for peace, and the irony of the cartoonist that, lost for words, uses “white noise” to signify conflict and its opposite, peace, and destruction. Or one can simply scroll down, for some more interesting content.

Sorry for who of you asks for objectivity and neutrality. I’d tell you to go to Switzerland – famously neutral – but even they choose a side in this war.

Emergency prompts oversimplification

In the first days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a flurry of emotional cartoons and blazing political commentary stormed the web.

And this happens whenever a tragedy unfolds. A kind of knee-jerk response, totally motivated, and yet also completely uncontrolled. I’ve been hit by this war unlike any other war before – I already said proximity is, unfortunately, an important factor in how much we care about a specific emergency – and I’ve drawn my fair deal of “knee-jerky” cartoons.

But the problem with an emotional response to an emergency is that there is no space for a correct analysis. Editorial cartoons are there to help people explore a topic, understand its different angles, and reason about it. We want to take an issue into our hands and turn it around, put it under bright light, peek into each and every crack and crevice.

I am not saying Putin’s war is right, or that we should be skeptical of the suffering of the Ukrainian people, of course! They need all of our support. But, in this emergency as in every other emergency, we need to keep an eye on the bigger picture, and editorial cartoons are there to remind us we need to stay sharp.

At war with war

How many cartoons with white doves can you see, before feeling the urge of shooting a Russian hypersonic missile at the next one?

I love doves, really. But, fellow cartoonists, I have a question for you: Do we really add anything to the conversation when we draw a dove, ten doves, a thousand doves, with different flags in their beaks, according to where the latest emergency takes place? There are peace doves flying everywhere, so many doves flying over your head that I hope you brought an umbrella with you!

What I mean is that it is ok to be, let’s call it this way, “at war with war,” but after the aforementioned knee-jerk response we have all the right to have, it is time to draw something else. Let’s leave the doves alone.

It is a great time to be a cartoonist

It is a great time to be a cartoonist! No, I’m joking, it’s not. It might seem that extraordinary times make for good cartoons, but in fact, they don’t.

For one, polarization in the public discourse, and a lack of perspective – too many emotions involved – make a discussion almost impossible. I drew a cartoon trying to reflect on all the other – many – wars that are unfolding in the world while the Ukrainian conflict is given all the ink and paper we have, and soon I had to stop reading the comments and the messages I kept receiving, because many were unsettling.

On top of that, so many cartoons are stolen, and published in media outlets that use them to better sell their narrative on a specific issue. Twisting the meaning of an editorial cartoon is not impossible, and a cartoonist can take the blame for it. When we are dealing with delicate topics, this can be quite stressful.

We live in extraordinary times

In the end, so much for “extraordinary times.” We have been living in a constant state of emergency for the last, I don’t know, 20 and more years. This hasn’t fostered a healthy public debate, but quite the opposite: it has given real power to populist pseudo-politicians, and pushed media outlets to seek more “neutral” cartoons, to avoid polemics. “Have you got any doves cartoons? Keep ’em coming!!”

All the while, cartoonists sit there, at their tiny desks, and try to come up with something clever but thoughtful, touching but sharp, simple but complex.

And in the distance, a high-pitched whistle pierces the air, first feeble, and then louder and louder towards them, now almost unbearable, all-encompassing, definitely hypersonic.