A black and white drawing on the opinion page, they blend art and politics, and meld the news with humor, capturing the popular mood of the country and sometimes offending it.
The editorial cartoon has entered into a new golden age since the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The format has taken on a new sentimentality, but at the same time has provided a clever insight into the rights and wrongs of a nation at war.
What political humor was to the convoluted electoral mess last year, editorial cartoons are to the Sept. 11 attacks. But unlike with the elections, which provided a comedic gold mine (especially when one stands back and admires the crazed players and almost Kafkaesque attention to detail), artists have had to take a more reverent approach in their examination of the issues. Of course Will Ferrell still makes some hilarious appearances as President Bush on "Saturday Night Live," but he is no longer quite the bumbling fool.
The editorial cartoon has had a tricky path to weave through. Unlike major news stories of the past decade, such as O.J. Simpson or Monica Lewinsky, which featured a wide array of eccentric characters from which to draw a seemingly inexhaustible supply of laughs, the attacks challenged artists with its horrifying pictures. Overnight, it seemed, it became unpopular to attack our politicians, exploit celebrity gossip, or make fun of an ailing economy, traditionally popular topics to take jabs at. Of course there were also the complicated sentiments.
On the morning of Sept. 12 there was little to laugh about, and the nation's cartoonists chose to reflect that with drawings of a weeping Statue of Liberty, often surrounded by a thick cloud of black smoke. Others demonstrated the resolve of the nation, depicting an eagle bearing down with sharpened talons, or Uncle Sam with arms bared and flexed, fire in his eyes, looking like Superman.
As the week progressed the cartoons became more poignant, featuring images of giant firefighters bearing the title of "Twin Towers." Some nobly compared the raising of the flag at Ground Zero to the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima. One particularly moving cartoon depicted kids trading their valuable Barry Bonds and Michael Jordan sports cards for one New York firefighter card.
It didn't take long for artists to return to cynicism, as the news shifted to other topics like airline security, civil liberties and the military preparing to wage battle in Afghanistan. Cartoonists continued to tread carefully, but at least they had a wider pool of material to draw from. In one hilarious cartoon, two pilots are sitting in a plane reading off their checklists, one saying, "Flaps Up, Guns Cocked, Ready for Take-Off."
The anthrax scare has also provided some relief to artists strapped for material. A recent cartoon pictured a stamp with Benjamin Franklin wearing a gas mask on it. A number have featured variations of "American Gothic," but with the farmer and his wife wearing masks or Hazmat suits.
Even in dire times, people need to be careful not to take themselves too seriously. If we worry too much, the terrorists have succeeded in paralyzing us with fear. As the editorial cartoons have shown it's all right to cry, but it's also appropriate to have a laugh.