Cartoons played an integral role in shaping people’s political opinions during the First World War, but in a different way than cartoons do today, said the Globe and Mail’s award-winning editorial cartoonist.
“These (WW1) cartoons are not editorial cartoons in the way that we think of them now. They’re not critiquing. They’re mostly propaganda on both sides,” said Brian Gable, who gave a presentation at the University of Saskatchewan and received an honorary degree there last month.
Gable said the Great War was a time of profound censoring of cartoons and cartoonists were essentially branches of government because the government controlled the newspapers.
“Cartoonists were complacent in the propaganda,” he said.
“It was illegal in British papers I think until 1918 to show bodies of British or Commonwealth dead. It was a crime.”
At the war’s outset, citizens were positive and patriotic about their involvement, with cartoons presenting grandiose and symbolic imagery.
“In 1914, it really was ‘Hi ho, off to war we go’. The government sort of framed the war in the sense that we are re-establishing our purity, our manliness,” Gable said.
Germans were initially portrayed as curious, with powerful, commandeering kind of personalities. British cartoons were condescending, with Germans later shown as giant, hairy, ape-like creatures.
Gable said these grandiose themed images don’t resonate with readers now.
“I’m guessing at the time that was passion, heartfelt emotion and patriotism. Now it just kind of looks pretentious and overblown,” he said.
Cartoon captions were often several sentences long.
“Nowadays cartoons usually have very short cutlines. People will not invest more than about three seconds before you lose them,” he said.
As the war dragged on, black humour, bitterness and sarcasm crept into the heavily censored cartoons.
Cartoons started to reflect the changing tone of people’s moods, which became increasingly negative and impatient.
“By the end of the war, people were starting to get the idea that what the government is telling them, what people are telling each other, isn’t always necessarily true,” said Gable.
Historian Bill Waiser, who chairs the university’s war commemorative committee, said the images of Germans and Germany changed.
“At the beginning of the war, they blamed German leadership, but by the end of the war and because of the number of deaths that were inflicted or caused, just being German was considered a bad thing. That intensified,” he said.
“They (the Allies) actually began to blame the entire German nation, the people, as the war dragged on,” he said.
Gable said cartooning continues to evolve and change today.
“It’s getting harder to make a general audience laugh,” he said.
“We’re becoming very cocooned in our own universe and consequently when someone impinges on that, we don’t like it and we don’t laugh.”
“It does make (cartoonists’) job harder, but in a sense, I’d rather have that than having what we saw with the British cartoons where everybody’s on the same page — Germans are monsters and animals and British are heroes and wonderful people.”