The Magazine

Cartoons Without Humor

The underwhelming oeuvre of Herblock, America's worst political cartoonist

Nov 13, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 09 • By MICHAEL LONG
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The thing that drives so many creative types batty is not their own lack of success but the caprice of success. Great actors spellbind in regional theater while selling ties at Macy's to pay the rent; lousy actors sign eight-figure deals to say the F-word in front of a movie camera. It's when the laurels go to the nog-for-brains that life seems most unfair.

Enter Washington Post political-cartoonist-for-life Herbert Block.

Herblock's cartoons have been a fixture on the Post's editorial page for more than 50 years, despite fairly obvious shortcomings. Herblock (he's used the compound name since the 1920s) cannot draw caricatures. His liberal politics are mind-numbingly cliched. Perhaps most objectionable, he is never, ever funny. His lone strength is the smear.

Regular readers of the Post may wonder: Has he always been this bad? A stroll through the new Library of Congress exhibit "Herblock's History" provides the answer. If the 121 cartoons he has donated to the library (does it ever turn anyone down?) can be taken as a fair selection, then, yes, he has always been this bad.

Of course, the history of editorial cartoons is full of rim shots and dirty pool. The father of the art, Thomas Nast, was busting chops as far back as the Civil War. But Nast didn't arrive on the scene as a cartoonist. He started as an illustrator, filling much the same role for newspapers that photographers do today. Instead of zig-zagging through a war zone with cameras around the neck, illustrators like Nast had to pitch an easel on the edge of the battlefield and dodge cannonballs between ink strokes.

Nast's job was to draw what he saw. But it was when he moved from representation to allegory that he gained notoriety -- and, ultimately, wealth and formidable influence. He became the first editorialist of his kind, inventing elements of the language of cartooning, and setting hypocrisy and lies in high relief. Nast the editorial cartoonist created the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey, and even the modern image of Santa Claus. He helped elect Ulysses S. Grant to the presidency. He worried Horace Greeley -- perhaps to death. And in the early 1870s, Nast helped depose Boss Tweed with nothing more than the power of the pen (and the impressive circulation of Harper's Weekly).

Herblock is a direct descendant of Nast -- Nast the illustrator, that is. Because for Herblock, editorial cartooning is little more than photography by other means. There he is, still stuck on the edge of the battlefield, illustrating away, concentrating earnestly with his tongue hanging out and a pen in his mouth, metaphors whizzing past his ears, just missing their target.

The illustrations are breathtakingly simple and unwitty. But like a colossal bore who repeats his stories, thinking your failure to respond means you didn't understand the first time, Herblock is not content to leave bad enough alone. Hence his trademark habit of labeling every item in the panel with GREAT BIG CAPITAL LETTERS. Thanks to this device, he sometimes achieves the distinction of insulting the reader's intelligence four or five times in just one cartoon.

Consider a typical Herblock cartoon from March 3, 1985. A happy-faced man is running down a street toward a manhole. Herblock's metaphor -- which is in no way suggested by the drawing -- plays out like so: The sun is labeled ECONOMIC INDICATORS and the manhole is labeled TRADE DEFICIT. But the panel is -- as usual -- so generic, practically any other labels would do. Wanna play Herblock? Insert labels yourself! Try these: WORLD PEACE for the sun and MIDDLE EAST CRISES for the manhole; EXPENSIVE GOVERNMENT PROGRAMS and FEDERAL DEFICITS; THE DEVIL and THE DEEP BLUE SEA.

Sometimes Herblock is even lazier. On October 19, 2000, the Washington Post ran a panel in which he portrayed George W. Bush (labeled BUSH) as Peter Pan, standing on the ledge of a building and set to fly under the power of a bag of FAIRY DUST CAMPAIGN PROMISES.

On January 25, 1987, Herblock drew Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger as the personification of the proposed Star Wars missile defense, standing on the ledge of a building and set to fly under the power of books labeled MARY POPPINS, DUMBO, SUPERMAN . . . and PETER PAN.

The corner of the building in both panels is the same. The windows are cut off by the edges of the panel in the same places. The same amount of skyline is visible in the lower left corner. And the night sky of both panels is illuminated by identical sliver-crescent moons. They are virtually the same cartoon, nearly 14 years apart.