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visual communication


Multiliteracies: how readers interpret political cartoons

ELISABETH EL REFAIE Cardiff University, UK

cartoons ELISABETH EL REFAIE Cardiff University, UK ABSTRACT Using a small-scale pilot study of readers’


Using a small-scale pilot study of readers’ responses to three British newspaper cartoons as an example, this article explores the ways in which readers make sense of these multimodal texts. The findings of the study, which also included interviews with the three creators of the cartoons, suggest that interpreting cartoons is a complex process that requires people to draw on a whole range of different literacies. These include a broad knowledge of past and current events, a familiarity with the cartoon genre, a vast repertoire of cultural symbols, and experience of thinking analytically about real-world events and circumstances.


audience research • new literacies • newspapers • political cartoons • visual literacy


In an essay about the state of British cartooning, the artist Ralph Steadman (1997) complained that the cartoon is now generally regarded as little more than a ‘readily digested pictorial version’ of the written word, intended for ‘those who do not wish to read, who cannot read, or who just will not understand’ (p. 23). In fact, many academic scholars currently working in this field seem to share the view of the cartoon as a relatively simple and ‘readily digested’ medium. In her study of cartoon representations of Saddam Hussein, for instance, Conners (1998) confidently asserts that cartoons ‘can often be understood across cultures, ages, and levels of intelligence’ (p. 97). This, she believes, is due to the common use in cartoons of metaphors and symbols which ‘simplify ideas’ and thus enable readers to interpret the images ‘quickly and easily’ (p. 100). While agreeing with Conners on the prevalence of symbols and metaphors in cartoons, I believe that, far from making the interpretation of cartoons easier, this reliance on non-literal thought processes actually contributes to their complexity.

SAGE Publications (Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore and Washington DC):

http://vcj.sagepub.com Copyright © The Author(s), 2009. Reprints and permissions: http://www.sagepub.co.uk/journalspermissions.nav/ Vol 8(2): 181–205 DOI 10.1177/1470357209102113

The widespread view of the cartoon as a straightforward medium might also go some way towards explaining the conspicuous lack of research into what audiences actually do with this genre. Although since the 1980s there has been a steadily growing number of academic studies of cartoon representations of various social and political issues, 1 these analysts still tend to regard the meaning of cartoons as self-evident and to take the validity of their own interpretations more or less for granted (e.g. Diamond, 2002; Koetzle and Brunell, 1996; McKenna, 2001; Michelmore, 2000). This is all the more surprising given the fact that comics scholars, who have explored the semiotics of this closely related art form in great detail, have always regarded artists and readers as creative partners in the process of making meaning (e.g. Eisner, 1985; Frahm, 2003; McCloud, 1993). 2 The aim of this article is to use the example of a small-scale pilot study of audience responses to three British cartoons in order to begin to understand how people interpret these multimodal texts. More specifically, I would like to address the question of what competences are necessary in order to read political cartoons, and how these competences are linked to socio-cultural practices. Section one explores the concept of visual literacy and goes on to describe the growing field of New Literacy Studies. This approach challenges traditional definitions of literacy as a collection of static and decontex- tualized skills, and focuses instead on the social practices that enable people to make meaning out of different types of texts in different contexts. Seen from this perspective, reading a political cartoon involves far more than just the ability to identify the real-life referents of visual representations. The second section of the article discusses the political cartoon as a specific genre, which, while sharing some formal features with gag cartoons and comics, has its own historical provenance and communicative purposes. What makes political cartoons unique is the way in which they typically use a fantasy scenario to comment upon an aspect of topical social, political, or cultural reality; in LeRoy’s (1970) apt words, they are ‘complicated puzzles mixing current events with analogies’ (p. 39). The final section analyses a pilot study of how readers interpret political cartoons, starting with a description of the data and methods used and explaining my decision to consult the makers of the three cartoons used in the study, Nicholas Garland, Dave Brown and Steve MacMurty, about their intentions. The results of the pilot study show that, in the case of political cartoons, interpretation is a matter of drawing on many different types of literacy, ranging from a familiarity with cartoon conventions and a broad knowledge of current events to the ability to draw analogies. Although all eight participants were fellow academics from a middle-class background with regular newspaper reading habits, their responses were surprisingly different, not just with regard to how they interpreted the cartoons, but also to what they actually saw when looking at these images.


In a world increasingly dominated by visual forms of communication, many scholars believe that the ability to make sense of visual texts is becoming ever more important (e.g. Sturken and Cartwright, 2001: 1) and there are regular calls for ‘visual literacy’ to be taught in schools and further education. However, there seems to be little agreement over what skills might be construed as constituting literacy when it comes to visual materials such as the political cartoon. In its most basic sense, visual literacy can be said to refer to ‘an adequate capacity to identify images and to parse them according to the ways they refer to the world’ (Elkins, 2003: 137). According to Messaris (1994, 1997, 1998), the recognition of pictorial images is based on people’s ordinary, everyday visual perception and does not require any special competences. 3 It is precisely because images are so close to our real-world perceptions that they can be used as ‘an especially elusive means of audience manipulation’ (Messaris, 1998: 74, 75); visual literacy training should therefore, he reasons, concentrate on increasing people’s awareness of visual artistry and their resistance to manipulation. Messaris’ confidence in people’s ability to comprehend images seems to be partly due to his focus on film and photography, which at least in Western cultures are generally considered to be the most ‘realistic’ of all visual genres. 4 Cartooning, by contrast, always involves a degree of abstrac- tion, or, as McCloud (1993) puts it: ‘amplification through simplification’ (p. 30). Abstraction can sometimes aim for pure form without meaning, but most cartoonists tend towards ‘iconic abstraction’, which involves reducing resemblance in order to amplify meaning (pp. 50ff). The greater the degree of iconic abstraction, the more interpretative work and knowledge of cultural conventions are required on the part of the viewer. Seen from this perspective, the concept of visual literacy would also have to include ‘the ability to understand at a conscious level the visual language used within a particular culture or cultures’ (Zimmer and Zimmer, 1978: 21). The claims Messaris (1997) makes about the ease with which every- body is able to read images is also based on his assumption that the visual mode is essentially presentational, not propositional, and that it is unsuitable as a means of expressing causality or analogy, or indeed any other non- spatial relationship (p. xviii). Many researchers in the field of visual rhetoric, by contrast, strongly refute the ‘long-standing Western prejudice’ which assumes that pictures ‘merely signify by resembling objects in the real world’ (Kenney and Scott, 2003: 19). Instead, they insist that images can also express all kinds of non-literal and symbolic meanings (see also Huxford, 2001; Morris, 1993). Similarly, social semioticians (Jewitt and Oyama, 2001; Kress and Van Leeuwen, 1996, 2001) regard the visual mode as able to realize many of the same complex meanings as verbal language, albeit in different forms. According to these researchers, the visual mode possesses a kind of

El Refaie: Multiliteracies: how readers interpret political cartoons


‘grammar’, which determines how visual elements combine into a meaningful whole. Until quite recently, visual communication was safely in the hands of a few experts, but today most of us are involved not just in consuming but also in producing visual materials. Kress and Van Leeuwen (1996) predict that, as a result of this development, the domain of visual communication will gradually become more constrained by normative rules, and that people who have not learned to use visual grammar in a socially acceptable way will soon be severely disadvantaged, particularly in the workplace (p. 3). For writers on visual culture, the focus tends to be on issues of interpretation: the aim of visual literacy training is to increase awareness of the power of images by developing a critical understanding of the social functions and effects of visual practices. Schirato and Webb (2004), for instance, argue that visual literacy should be seen as ‘a kind of reading’, in the sense that it goes beyond the habitual ways of seeing and requires ‘various skills in framing, selecting, editing and decoding the visual material that surrounds us’ (p. 57). It can thus be seen as a way of allowing the viewer to move from ‘tacit looking’ to ‘skilled understanding’ (pp. 2, 3). This focus on visual practices brings visual culture theorists into close proximity with ‘new literacies’ scholars, who have challenged the traditional view of literacy as the decontextualized, psychologically defined ability to read and write. Since reading always involves particular types of text, and every text can be read in many different ways and on many different levels, these scholars believe that a definition of literacy must, at the very least, be extended to include the ‘multiple abilities to “read” texts of certain types in certain ways or to certain levels’ (Gee, 1996: 41). They are also interested in how people are socialized into using literacy ‘in different contexts for different purposes’ (Pahl and Rowsell, 2006: 3). Seen from this perspective, issues of social identity, power relations and ideology become central to the argument. This approach is also new in the sense that it takes into consideration the multiliteracy practices that have occurred as a result of technological and institutional changes (Lankshear and Knobel, 2003: 16) and the emergence of novel types of ‘post-typographic’ texts (Tyner, 1998). Although the various definitions of visual literacy and the concept of multiliteracies reveal important differences in emphasis, they are not necessarily all mutually exclusive. In the discussion of my data, I draw on insights from several of these different approaches in order to consider the multiple literacy practices involved in reading political cartoons.


The political cartoon constitutes a very specific genre, with its own history, distinctive styles, conventions and communicative purposes. It is an illustration, usually in a single panel, published on the editorial or comments pages of a newspaper. Most commonly, cartoons address a current political issue or event, a social trend, or a famous personality, in a way that takes a

stand or presents a particular point of view. Although political cartoons are not always humorous, they do generally contain an element of irony or at least something incongruous or surprising. The antecedents of the political cartoon were anonymously produced woodcuts, which typically depicted scenes of a political or religious nature and were hawked around the streets of 17th-century Europe. Many of these woodcuts contained words as well as images and there is evidence that some artists even employed speed lines and word-balloons (Sabin, 1996). The invention of copperplate engraving and, in the mid-1800s, of facsimile reproduction facilitated the mass production of more detailed images, and the early cartoons became increasingly humorous and satirical. The term ‘cartoon’ was first used in its current meaning in the mid- 19th century, when the British satirical monthly Punch used it as a title for a series of humorous illustrations lambasting the government’s plans for a new lavish Parliament building and contrasting this lavishness with the extreme poverty of many ordinary people (Kleeman, 2006). At a time when the newspaper was still a predominantly verbal medium, cartoons created a visual sensation that is hard to imagine now, and many cartoonists of the late 19th century and early 20th century came to be regarded as influential and highly respected political commentators (Walker, 1978). Since the spread of photography and television, however, newspaper cartoons no longer dominate our perceptions of social and political issues as they once did, and they seem to have lost some of their former status (Jensen, 1997; Rowson, nd). In the UK, many local newspapers and tabloids now tend to publish humorous illustrations and single-panel visual gags rather than cartoons of an explicitly political nature. Cartoonist Steve MacMurty, for instance, told me that about 90 per cent of his drawings for the tabloid Daily Mail are ‘bright, funny cartoons’, while only about 10 per cent ‘are trying to be hard- hitting political cartoons’*. But particularly in times of social or political tensions and upheaval, as for instance in the USA after the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, individual political cartoons can still evoke surprisingly strong reactions (Lamb, 2004). In Western cultures, at least, the use of literary references in political cartoons is rapidly declining (Mumford, 2001: xi). Instead, cartoonists now generally rely on widely shared cultural symbols and metaphors from popular culture and from sport, which often seem so natural that we accept them through barely conscious thought processes (Edwards, 1997: 29; El Refaie, 2003: 83). In fact, as Fischer (1996) points out, cartoons ‘must exploit conventions in fundamental harmony with the “cultural literacy” of the public or risk almost certain failure’ (p. 122). However, every cartoonist will probably have a slightly different concept of what constitutes ‘cultural literacy’, and this may not correspond with the actual cultural literacies of his or her public.

* All the quotations of the cartoonists Steve MacMurty, Nicholas Garland and Dave Brown are taken from our telephone conversations in June and July 2005.

El Refaie: Multiliteracies: how readers interpret political cartoons


Political cartoons generally operate on two distinct levels: on one level, they tell an imaginary story about a make-believe world, while on a second, more abstract level, they refer to real-life events and characters. This relationship between the two levels of meaning is essentially metaphorical, inviting people to map properties from a more tangible area of reality onto one that is more abstract. A viewer who understands a cartoon on the level of its fictional narrative may nevertheless struggle to discern its real-life referents, since this kind of interpretation requires some interest in public affairs and knowledge of politics. The metaphorical combination of the real and the imaginary is one of the features of cartoons that distinguish them from other newspaper images such as press photographs and illustrative drawings. It also to some extent sets political cartoons apart from the closely related genre of comics, which generally tend to remain within the realm of the fantastic, or, if they refer to real-life events, do so in a more literal manner (Dittmer, 2005). 5 Another important difference between comics and political cartoons concerns the way in which they express sequence and chronology. Comics are by their very nature a form of ‘sequential’ art (Eisner, 1985), where the shape, size and arrangement of panels and the ‘gutter’ between them are important resources for expressing narrative sequence and the passing of time. The political cartoon, by contrast, is generally contained within a single border, the main function of which, according to Baldry and Thibault (2006), is to signal a separation between the dramatic cartoon world and the real world of serious news reporting (p. 17). In spite of this, Edwards (1997) believes that political cartoons are also able to function as narratives since they encourage viewers to complete in their heads what is suggested by the depicted moment. This process relies on the natural and universal tendency of human beings to seek ‘closure’ (Zakia, 2002). A sense of action can also be encouraged through the depiction of movement that is ‘frozen in the instance of representation’ (Schirato and Webb, 2004: 87) and the use of vectors: strong, often diagonal lines formed obliquely by depicted objects or people, which indicate the direction of an action (Kress and Van Leeuwen, 1996: 43–78). Some cartoons also use conventionalized motion lines (Horn, 1998: 136) leading to or from a moving element. If readers are willing and able to solve the mental puzzle that every cartoon poses, this can give them a real sense of satisfaction and sometimes provoke a humorous response (Smith, 1996). Political cartoons are often able to expose a certain kind of essential truth, which can encourage viewers to see things from a new angle. The suggestive nature of the genre also allows cartoonists to be more forthright in their criticism than would be acceptable in journalistic writings and to avoid the charge of libel (Templin, 1999: 21). Conversely, the failure to make meaning out of a cartoon can be a very frustrating experience. As Nicholas Garland observed when showing his work to his journalist colleagues, some of them seemed completely

bewildered by the unique language of cartoons: ‘it is as if they are puzzled by

the cartoons

they seem to regard them as some kind of test of their

intelligence or their imagination.’


Data and methods

The three cartoons used in this pilot study (Figures 1–3) were taken from the liberal Independent and the more conservative Daily Telegraph, which are both aimed at a middle-class, professional readership, and from the right- wing tabloid Daily Mail. I selected the cartoons partly because of the different political affiliations of the newspapers they appeared in, 6 and partly because they represent three different types of political cartoons, in terms of both their visual style and the degree to which they make use of metaphor. In my choice of data, I also wanted to avoid cartoons that referred to obscure events and personalities with which the respondents might not have been familiar. For this reason, I used three cartoons from 15 July 2004, the day after the publication of the ‘Butler Report’ on the inquiry (chaired by Lord Butler) into the British Government’s use of intelligence in order to justify the invasion of Iraq. Both the report itself and the events leading up to its publication had been big media events, and so the subject of the three

had been big media events, and so the subject of the three Figure 1 mac (Stan

Figure 1 mac (Stan McMurty), Daily Mail, 15 July 2008. © Daily Mail. Reproduced with permission of Stan McMurty and the Daily Mail.

El Refaie: Multiliteracies: how readers interpret political cartoons


Figure 2 Nicholas Garland, The Daily Telegraph , 15 July 2008. © The Daily Telegraph

Figure 2 Nicholas Garland, The Daily Telegraph, 15 July 2008. © The Daily Telegraph. Reproduced with permission of Nicholas Garland and The Daily Telegraph.

cartoons was likely still to be very present in the minds of most people living in Britain at the time. The participants in the study were all academics from a relatively homogeneous, highly educated middle-class background, whom I chose deliberately because I thought they would be likely to share an interest in political affairs. Of the four men and four women interviewed, ranging in age from 29 to 64 years, five were British, one was of Spanish, one of Catalan and one of Italian origin. I expected the interviewees’ different cultural backgrounds and levels of experience of and engagement with British society and culture to have some bearing upon the interpretation process. All eight participants described themselves as being interested in current affairs and as quite or very regular newspaper readers. Three respon- dents regularly read The Guardian, one occasionally reads The Independent and another The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph. The other three respondents read a whole range of newspapers, including some foreign ones. All but two of the respondents said that they (almost) always looked at the cartoons when they were reading the paper, and all of them acknowledged that they sometimes found them quite hard to understand, particularly if they had not been following the news or if, in the case of one of the non- British respondents, the cartoon related to UK politics. Although only one of

188 Visual Communication 8(2)

Figure 3 Dave Brown, The Independent , 15 July 2004. © Dave Brown. Reproduced with

Figure 3 Dave Brown, The Independent, 15 July 2004. © Dave Brown. Reproduced with permission.

the respondents, D, had seen any of the cartoons used in this study before the interview (specifically Figure 3), all the participants were thus reasonably well acquainted with the genre and the conventions and styles associated with it. This was confirmed during the interviews, when several respondents explicitly referred to what they thought cartoons are ‘normally’ about. Respondents were interviewed individually for between 30 and 45 minutes each. In order to preserve their anonymity, responses were coded with a letter from A to H. The interviews took place two to six weeks after the publication date of the cartoons. One by one, the cartoons were shown to the interviewee, starting with Figure 2, which was first displayed without the context of the page it appeared on, since I wanted to discover whether it made any sense to viewers outside its context. With the other cartoons (Figures 1 and 3), I used the whole page (or double spread in the case of the tabloid Daily Mail). In each case, the interviewee was first asked to describe what he or she could see in the cartoon, without trying to analyse it. Occasionally, I would ask additional questions in order to elicit more details, such as: ‘Where do you think this scene might be taking place? How would you describe the mood/feelings of the depicted characters?’ Only after the interviewees had described their own responses to the cartoon would I ask them to say what they thought the cartoonist wanted to communicate. I encouraged them to read any of the headlines or articles that they would normally read in conjunction with the cartoon before attempting an interpretation. In a final step, I asked respondents to describe their overall

El Refaie: Multiliteracies: how readers interpret political cartoons


emotional reaction to the cartoon’s perceived message and to say whether or not they found it amusing. In the telephone conversations with the three cartoonists, I focused particularly on those aspects of the respective cartoon which had evoked the most divergent responses from the research participants. Although I do not consider the artists to be the ultimate arbiters of the meaning of their work, it proved illuminating to compare and confront the meanings intended by the cartoonists with the different readings of the cartoons by actual viewers. It was also interesting to explore the extent to which the artists were aware of the many literacies required in order for readers to interpret cartoons.


During the interviews, I always asked the respondents to describe what they could see before attempting an overall interpretation of the cartoons. This made it easier to distinguish between some of the competences involved in the interpretation process. These multiliteracies are explored by focusing on the following five questions: How do readers: (a) establish the real-world referents of a cartoon; (b) impose a narrative on the cartoon image; (c) interpret the facial expressions of the depicted participants; (d) understand text–image relations; and (e) establish metaphorical connections between the fictional scene of the cartoon and a political argument?

(a) Achieving reference

In order for a viewer to be able to read any pictorial image, he or she must first of all identify what in language would be the lexis, i.e. the depicted objects, places, people and events (Van Leeuwen, 2001). But even at this basic level of achieving reference, several different kinds of literacies seem to be involved. Compared to the other two examples, the imagery in Figure 1 is quite detailed and ‘realistic’. When discussing this cartoon, all the respondents concurred in their description of rows and rows of graves and of a destroyed city in which there is still a lot of unrest and destruction. Like participant E, they appeared to recognize immediately that the image represented a ‘landscape of conflict’:

Extract 1

It seems to me it’s a field of tombstones. I interpret these as being the stones of the people who have died since the invasion of Iraq. And in the background you see the destroyed country, the buildings and flames and smoke, and I think that may be a tank on the left-hand side, I’m not sure. But generally a landscape, a desolate, appalling landscape of conflict. It’s reminiscent of course of the war graves of the First World War. But unlike those which are in a sort of lovely green lawn, then here the background is of ongoing conflict. And it has to be Iraq because of the buildings, the minarets, and of course the figure in the front. (E)

The identification of the general setting thus seemed to rely on viewers’ familiarity with media images of modern warfare, particularly the bombing raids on Baghdad. Because the overall scene was so familiar, the identifi- cation of individual visual objects, such as a tank, was not essential. The city in the background was very quickly identified by everybody as being Oriental, since several well-known symbols of Islam are represented: ‘we’ve got the usual silhouettes of mosques, minarets’ (A). Once the context of the Butler Report had been established, the Oriental city was specified further by all respondents as being Iraqi. This demonstrates that, in the case of political cartoons, even achieving ‘reference’ requires a mixture of general visual literacy – in the sense of being able to identify ‘a tank’, or ‘flames and smoke’ – and more specific cultural and political literacies – being able to identify the city as ‘Oriental’ or ‘Iraqi’. This example also reveals that cultural literacy is linked to people’s background and experience. Three of the four British interviewees (A, C, E) strongly associated the symmetrical rows of graves with war cemeteries, which, as Extract 1 demonstrates, enabled these individuals to perceive a theme of contrast in the cartoon which was apparently not salient for the Spanish, Catalan and Italian informants. In fact, for respondent C the association of war cemeteries was so strong that he initially thought the gravestones might be for the British and American soldiers. He later explained this misapprehension as resulting from a ‘cultural problem’: ‘I don’t really know what Iraqi gravestones look like. That was the thing, it looked Western to me’ (C). The figure in the foreground of Figure 1 is quite small and shown from behind, so that his features are not very clearly visible. All but two of the respondents agreed immediately that this figure is meant to represent a generic ‘type’, ‘a cleric’ (C), ‘a mullah’ (B), ‘an all-purpose Arab’ (A), rather than a specific individual. After briefly considering the possibility that the figure might be meant to look like Bin Laden, E also quickly decided that the figure represented ‘the Iraqi people as a whole. If it were meant to be somebody, then it would have to be a bit more distinctive.’ The recognition of the cartoon character as an ‘all-purpose Arab’ by all of the respondents would indicate that they were aware of the cartoon convention which determines that small size and a view from behind, combined with stereotypical features and a lack of distinctive detail, typically point to a generic rather than specific referential meaning. This familiarity with generic norms and conventions is another important aspect of cultural literacy. Even though the style used in Figure 2 is more ‘cartoonish’ and less detailed than Figure 1, none of the respondents had any trouble identifying the drawing as that of a cat. However, in contrast to the generic Arab figure in Figure 1, the respondents expected the cat in Figure 2 to represent a specific person, and they were irritated and confused by their inability in this case to ascertain whom the cartoonist intended to portray:

El Refaie: Multiliteracies: how readers interpret political cartoons


Extract 2

My problem is I can’t identify the cat as any particular person. Normally, in political cartoons, you can actually identify the figure, even if it’s in a sort of mythological or animal form, as a person. I’m not identifying that cat visually with anybody. So I’m left asking what exactly – who exactly – it’s meant to represent. (C)

Only one respondent (G) was prepared to identify the cat as possibly representing Tony Blair on the basis of a physical resemblance: ‘the eyes and its very thin, very marked features’. Caricatures tend to represent the more permanent traits of physiognomy and of particular facial tics; apparently, it is often the mouth, the eyes and the eyebrows that function as the most important signals of identity (Moyle, 2000: 13). As Walker (1978) points out:

‘cartoonists quickly develop and fix a visual image of particular politicians’, and cartoonists tend to ‘mine’ each other’s ideas (p. 8). 7 However, some cartoonists develop a very individual shorthand style when drawing famous politicians and it is therefore hardly surprising that people who are not familiar with a particular artist’s work will struggle to recognize some caricatures. The respondents all indicated that they were unfamiliar with the way Nicholas Garland normally caricatures the then Prime Minister. By contrast, the caricature of Tony Blair in Figure 3 was recognized immediately by seven out of eight respondents, who mentioned the ‘typical rather forced smile’ (D) and the ‘pronounced grin and ears’ (B). Dave Brown explained that he enjoyed the fact that Tony Blair is still ‘instantly recognizable’, even though he is almost completely covered in whitewash. In the case of Lord Butler, the artist conceded that Butler ‘isn’t the most recognizable person for caricaturing, so the idea of him as Tony’s butler was an ideal way to lead people in’. This figure was described by all the respondents as a sort of butler or manservant, and five identified him as Lord Butler, either immediately or else after spotting the name in the accom- panying article. But Brown was clearly right in assuming that Lord Butler’s face is not so widely recognizable: only respondent B referred to a particular physical feature (‘his shiny nose’) when identifying Butler. Figure 3 offers another good example of the way in which the recog- nition of some visual elements depends on familiarity with the symbolism used by a particular artist. As Dave Brown explained: the smoking Y-fronts lying in front of the bath were a sort of visual rendition of the expression ‘liar, liar, pants on fire’ and represented a ‘running gag’ that had started at the time of the Iraq war and that referred to ‘the fact that Blair had lied over weapons of mass destruction’. The dossier was ‘intended to put out the fire’, so in this cartoon the pants are ‘smoking in a pool of whitewash’. Brown conceded that this particular verbo-visual joke would only work for viewers who were familiar with his work. As it turned out, none of the informants had been following Brown’s running gag, and none of them were able to even recognize the scorched

Y-fronts, let alone interpret them in any meaningful way. G thought this item represented ‘the dress of a soldier’, with ‘smoke rising from it after a recent battle’. The four British respondents, who were all familiar with Steve Bell’s cartoons in The Guardian, referred to his use of Y-fronts to represent John Major, but they were unsure as to what the connection between the two might be. They were also unable to decide whether the pants were meant to be ‘scorched’, or ‘soiled’.

(b) Reading cartoons as narrative images

As pointed out earlier, Edwards (1997) believes that many political cartoons are meant to be read as narrative images. Therefore, viewers must not only be able to read a cartoon’s visual lexis, but also its visual syntax, the specific patterns for how meanings are put together in images. According to social semioticians, visual syntax is generally more flexible than its verbal counterpart. Particular visual structures are seen to represent a ‘resource’ or a ‘meaning potential’ rather than a strictly prescribed code (Jewitt and Oyama, 2001: 134, 135). Figure 2 offers a good example of the potential ambiguity of visual syntax: the main narrative ‘vector’ could be said to be formed by the consecutive drawings of cats, in which case the cat would be read as somersaulting diagonally across the picture. On the other hand, the motion lines above each individual drawing of the cat encourage a ‘frame by frame’ reading of the cat’s fall, in a straight line from the sky to the ground. In fact, three of the eight respondents were not even sure whether the cartoon showed several different cats or the various stages of one cat falling to the ground. Two of these three people quickly decided that it was one cat, while one respondent stuck to the view that there were several cats ‘either falling down or jumping up’ (H). But even among those respondents who saw the image as representing one cat, there was some confusion over whether the cat was falling in a diagonal arc – ‘kind of somersaulting’ (D) – or vertically ‘plummeting from the sky’ (C). In this latter case, the drawing was described explicitly in structural terms as ‘a sort of frame by frame illustration of when a cat falls’ (A). The frame by frame format is more typical of comic strips than it is of the editorial cartoon, which character- istically consists of a single-panel drawing, and in this case the frames are implied rather than actually drawn. A high level of familiarity with the graphic conventions of the comic strip genre may nevertheless have helped some readers to interpret this particular cartoon in the way it was intended by the artist. 8 The process of trying to imaginatively activate the characters depicted in a cartoon and to work out their ‘story’ was also apparent in the responses to the drawing in Figure 3. Although there are also other implied ‘stories’ in this cartoon, the main narrative vector seems to be formed by the two characters, the bath and the tub of paint, and reinforced by the pattern of light and shadow across the back wall. In fact, for several of the respondents

El Refaie: Multiliteracies: how readers interpret political cartoons


this vector seemed to suggest an action so strongly that they described the butler figure as ‘walking’ (C) or ‘running’ (H) away from the bath, even though, as Dave Brown pointed out, the butler is not actually depicted as moving at all; in fact, he is standing still with his back to the bath. Everybody agreed that the butler had done something to the figure in the bath, although the exact interpretation of this action and its consequences were dependent on how participants interpreted the facial expressions of the two figures and the inscription on the can.

(c) Recognizing displayed emotions

Understanding the meaning of a cartoon often requires a viewer’s capacity to interpret gestures and facial expressions, and to attribute emotions to the depicted characters. 9 With regard to facial expression in caricature, Gombrich (1977) believes that this is one of the most important clues to which we react instinctively (p. 289). This assumption is apparently supported by empirical studies, which show that basic emotions are indeed universally recognized (Ekman, 1999), although culture plays an important role in mediating the way these are displayed and perceived (Matsumoto et al., 2003). Moreover, even in real-life situations, we typically need additional contextual information in order to be able to judge another person’s mood or feelings from his or her facial expression (Messaris, 1994: 16). Of course, the cartoon viewer is faced with the additional difficulty that here facial expression is merely suggested through a few simple lines, which are likely to be more ambiguous than the human face itself. Some of the responses to the three cartoons reflected substantially different perceptions of the emotions displayed by the depicted characters. For instance, when discussing Figure 2, one respondent perceived the cat in the second to last image to be ‘fairly smug and self-satisfied’ (C), while the same picture was described by others as a ‘wince’ (B) and as expressing ‘a sort of relief’ (E) or ‘pain’ (A). Similarly, the cat’s expression in the final fame was interpreted variously as ‘perky’ (D), ‘smug’ (E), ‘slightly bemused’ (A) and as ‘very concerned about what he has done’ (G). The respondent who saw the image as representing several cats seemed to find it particularly difficult to attribute emotions to them, describing some of them as ‘quite content and happy’ and others as ‘quite angry’ (H). In the case of the butler in Figure 3, there was a high level of agreement as to his expression, which was described by everyone as ‘happy/ content’, ‘smug’, or as ‘pleased with himself’. The facial expression of the Blair caricature, by contrast, was again interpreted somewhat differently by the individual respondents, which influenced what they thought the cartoonist might be trying to say. Dave Brown had intended Blair ‘to look a little bit ambivalent: a smile rather like a grimace’. Some of the participants picked up on this intended ambivalence, describing Blair as ‘smiling, but in a mean, malicious way’ (G), or as ‘pleased’, but ‘out of touch with reality’ (D). The others thought he looked ‘a bit miffed’ (B), ‘extremely uncomfortable’ (C), or

gnashing his teeth’ (F). One respondent’s

reading of the facial expressions seemed to interfere with his overall interpretation of the cartoon:

‘very angry’ (H), ‘really enraged

Extract 3

I’m not entirely sure why he’s [Lord Butler] looking so smug, when I would have thought that it would be Tony Blair who would have the grin all over his face. If Tony Blair is supposed to be grinning, I don’t recognize it. So it seems to suggest that Blair isn’t entirely happy with being whitewashed in this way by Lord Butler. (B)

This extract is a particularly clear example of the close relationship between the way respondents read facial expressions and how they interpreted the overall narrative meaning of the drawing. The ability to recognize the emotions displayed by cartoon characters may also be linked to a reader’s degree of familiarity with the language of cartooning.

(d) Interpreting text–image relations

Thirty years ago, Barthes (1977) coined the terms ‘anchorage’ to describe the way that language is often needed in order to fix the meaning of images, and ‘relay’ to refer to word–image relations in sequential forms of commu- nication, such as comics and film. Since then, scholars have come up with a whole range of different relationships that can pertain between the verbal and the visual mode (e.g. Nikolajeva and Scott, 2001; Nodelman, 1988). McCloud (1993: 153ff), for instance, lists seven different ways in which the two modes can combine in comics, ranging from ‘word specific’ or ‘image specific’, where one mode carries the meaning and the other merely adds non-essential detail, to ‘interdependent’, where the combined modes produce meanings that neither could convey alone. Even though it is possible to separate verbal and visual meaning for analytic purposes, in reality, in cartooning the two modes are typically so completely intertwined as to be virtually inseparable. Words become part of the image and are thus exposed in their materiality, ‘side by side on the same surface of the paper of the page’ (Frahm, 2003). In early political cartoons, the use of verbal labels to ‘anchor’ the meaning of the different elements in political cartoons was very common indeed (Walker, 1978), and this particular use of text persists to some extent to this day. The headline ‘BUTLER REPORT’ on the newspaper in Figure 1, for instance, is clearly intended to guide the viewer to a particular, specific interpretation of the depicted scene, which could otherwise have been read as a more general comment on the occupying forces and their unwillingness to take any responsibility for Iraqi casualties. The caption to Figure 1, ‘Guess what, everyone? Nobody’s to blame’, has a slightly more complex function, since it introduces a sense of

El Refaie: Multiliteracies: how readers interpret political cartoons


incongruity that would not be conveyed by the image alone. As Edwards (1997) points out, identifying the various voices in a political cartoon can be very complex since different types of (verbal) narrator are possible: the cartoonist can ‘speak’ via a caption or other commenting verbal element, or else through a cartoon character, who in turn may be addressing other depicted characters or the reader directly (pp. 48–52). In this example, the cartoonist has chosen not to use a ‘speech bubble’. Instead, the quotation marks and the dialogic features of the caption suggest that it is meant to represent direct speech, and the fact that the figure in the foreground is depicted with an open mouth seems to indicate that he is the speaker (Baldry and Thibault, 2006: 11). All but one of the participants in the study attributed the words to the figure in the foreground and suggested that he is talking to the tombstones or to the dead, although G thought that the voice

might also be that of ‘the cartoonist trying to involve the reader’. Respondent

H assumed instead that the caption represented a sort of dialogue between

two different people. Figure 2 is a good example of a particular relationship between words

and image, in which verbal expressions, metaphors or idioms are represented

in a striking visual form. This verbal–visual relationship, which is perhaps

best described as the graphic concretization of verbal meaning, seems to be very common in the political cartoon genre. According to Nicholas Garland, the cartoon was intended as a comment on the Prime Minister’s ability to get out of tight corners, based on

the simple idea that ‘if you drop a cat it will land on its feet’. Interestingly, all but one of the respondents saw it as the pictorial representation of a proverb, but only four of them referred to the proverbial ability of cats to ‘land on their feet’, while three informants focused instead on the meanings associated with the nine lives of a cat. Of these, the two respondents with a Romance language as their mother tongue, in which cats are said to have seven instead

of nine lives, saw the cat as having used up all its seven lives, which of course

subtly changed the meaning of the cartoon. The inscription on the tin in Figure 3 seems to be fulfilling several roles simultaneously. First, it could be described as a straightforward case of

‘anchorage’ since it tells the reader that the object in the butler’s hand is a tin

of paint. The visual information alone was clearly not sufficient in order for

viewers to recognize the liquid on Blair’s body as whitewash: it was initially

described by respondents as ‘water’, ‘mud’, ‘something sticky’ or ‘body lotion’. This function only works, of course, if viewers know the meaning of the word ‘gloss’. One of the non-native speakers, for instance, seemed to regard the word as a synonym for soap. Second, the words on the tin also evoke an idiomatic verbal expres- sion which is depicted literally in the picture (graphic concretization). The native English speakers all immediately interpreted the inscription on the tin


referring to a situation of ‘whitewashing’, where someone is trying to cover


his or her previous mistakes, and applied this to the whole cartoon: 10

Extract 4

Blair doesn’t look terribly happy, and standing by him is what seems to be a sort of butler figure and he is holding a tin of a [laughs] ‘Nice ‘n’ neutral full gloss’ – and then I’d obviously start interpreting it. I would presume that Blair is trying to whitewash himself, so that perhaps what he’s got running down him is actually whitewash and not water. (A)

This passage illustrates how respondents gradually pieced together all the verbal and visual evidence in order to create a coherent narrative. One of the non-native English speakers, for instance, did not get the reference to ‘whitewashing’, and instead came up with the association of the White House. Although she was still able to come up with some meaning for the cartoon, she was clearly aware of the fact that she was ‘missing’ something:

Extract 5

The White House! So it’s putting him [Blair] in the White House, or


took us to the war for the false grounds, as it says here, just joining the

painting him as if he was the White House, for the relationship

White House. Probably this one is completely wrong. (F)

The third and final function of verbal text in Figure 3 is to add further humorous details. All the native English speakers agreed that the ‘hint of raspberry’ was an allusion to blowing a raspberry, thus implying that the cover-up might not be as complete as intended. For D, this expression simultaneously recalled the various shades of paint one might find in a DIY shop, which to her conveyed the image of rather small-minded Englishness. The description of the paint as ‘Nice ‘n Neutral’ was interpreted by B as ‘obviously satirical, implying that Lord Butler was anything but neutral’. These subtleties of linguistic and cultural meaning were apparently not available to the non-native English speakers participating in the study.

(e) Reading metaphor

As pointed out earlier, the relationship between the two levels of meaning so characteristic of the political cartoon is essentially metaphorical: people and events are depicted ‘as something that they are not in order to arrive at a new definition of what they are’ (Edwards, 1997: 128). From a cognitivist perspective, metaphors are ‘sets of mappings between a more concrete or physical source domain and a more abstract target domain’ (Kövecses, 2002:

67). Good, apt metaphors are thus able to do more than merely highlighting pre-existing similarities between two different objects: they can encourage us to see things in a completely new light and thus reconceptualize a whole area of reality (Cacciari, 1998: 138).

El Refaie: Multiliteracies: how readers interpret political cartoons


Of the three examples used in this study, it was Figure 3 that generated the most interesting metaphorical thought processes and set off a chain of thought about the war in Iraq, the Butler Report, and the various personalities involved in the decision to join the US-led invasion:

Extract 6

The notion is that the Butler report gave Blair a whitewash, but the result is that Blair covered in whitewash is looking extremely uncomfortable, whereas Butler walking away is looking rather pleased with himself. It seems to me the interpretation is that Butler has apparently whitewashed Blair, but in fact feels that he’s left the Prime Minister in what he seems to think is a very uncomfortable position. Obviously there’s also this thing on the tin, with a merest hint of raspberry, which again implies: Yes I’ve whitewashed you, but it’s not as simple as that, there’s a raspberry floating around in it as well. (C)

For another interviewee, the butler figure evoked the idea that Tony Blair ‘really rather likes to be thought of as a member of the elite and of having a manservant who attends to him and looks after him’ (A). Respondent B used the fact that the butler is dressed far too formally for an ordinary manservant to conclude that the cartoonist was presenting Lord Butler as ‘a toff, a member of the establishment. Just pretending to be a butler.’ The cartoon thus encouraged viewers to go beyond the simple concept of ‘whitewashing’ and to use visual details such as facial expression and dress to generate a whole set of interesting questions: Who exactly was responsible for the act of ‘whitewashing’? Was the ‘whitewash’ really a complete success? What are Tony Blair and Lord Butler like as human beings and what is their relationship to one another? Even if the cartoon was interpreted in a way that completely diverged from the cartoonist’s intended meaning, it still generated intriguing metaphorical entailments. Respondent H did not see the two figures as specific personalities; instead he saw the figure in the bath and the butler as representing, respectively, the government of an invading country and the people of the invaded countries. For him, the white substance in the tin represented the invasion of a foreign country, and the information on the tin the unreliable information provided by the intelligence services. He interpreted this as indicating the need to read ‘the small print’ before deciding on military intervention, in order to know ‘whether there are any damaging side-effects’. The responses to Figure 3 show that visual metaphors are often more specific than words, capturing nuances of meaning that would be hard and sometimes perhaps even litigious if conveyed through language.


The results of this small pilot study appear to challenge the widespread view that cartoons are simple and easy to read. My findings suggest that even for highly educated readers who are relatively well informed about political events the reading of individual newspaper cartoons poses quite a challenge and requires a whole range of literacies, including a broad knowledge of current events, an excellent grasp of idioms and other linguistic phenomena, a vast repertoire of cultural symbols, a familiarity with cartoon conventions, and a capacity for lateral thinking. According to some educators, these features make the political cartoon, used judiciously, a particularly good vehicle through which to develop ‘an ability to identify bias and formulate opinions’ (Kleeman, 2006: 62) and ‘an outstanding device for honing analytical skills’ (Dougherty, 2002: 264). Even the apparently simple process of identifying visual elements and parsing them ‘according to the ways they refer to the world’ (Elkins, 2003:

137) is far from straightforward. In this study, the respondents were all well aware of the main issues surrounding the Butler report and most of the divergent responses thus cannot be explained as the result of a simple knowledge deficit. Instead, many of the distinctive interpretations were due to respondents’ unique socio-cultural background, as the example of the war graves in Figure 1, which evoked different responses from the British and non-British participants, clearly demonstrates. As Nicholas Garland pointed out, the language of cartooning is not always self-evident and can be misunderstood by readers who are not used to this genre. For instance, a familiarity with the convention of sequence and ‘motion lines’ was clearly decisive for the understanding of the falling cat in Figure 2. Similarly, in order for viewers to understand that the caption to Figure 1 represented the spoken words of the figure in the foreground, they had to recognize that the quotation marks and open mouth indicated a direct speech act. The identification of some of the visual elements, such as the Y- fronts in Figure 3 or the particular way in which Tony Blair is caricatured by Garland in Figure 2, were apparently dependent upon a familiarity with the work of a particular artist. In this respect, an awareness of the visual practices associated with the cartoon genre and with individual British artists may allow viewers to move from ‘tacit looking’ to a more ‘skilled understanding’ in Schirato and Webb’s sense (2004: 2, 3). In the cartoon genre, text and images are often so closely related as to be virtually inseparable. Sometimes words simply anchor visual meaning, but in many cases they add further information or create a sense of incon- gruity and irony that could not be conveyed through the image alone. As the example of the inscription on the tin of paint in Figure 3 shows, many of these additional meanings may not be available or at least not particularly salient to non-native speakers.

El Refaie: Multiliteracies: how readers interpret political cartoons


Political cartoons are generally designed to be suggestive and to require a critical transformation on the part of the reader. In the case of cartoons which are based on graphic concretization of verbal idioms (Figures 2 and 3), for instance, readers must not only be aware of specific proverbs or idiomatic expressions, they must also be able to make a mental leap from the level of language to that of visual meaning. In fact, lateral thinking is demanded in the case of any cartoon that is based on metaphor. As the example of Figure 3 in particular shows, such cartoons can trigger critical thought processes about the connections between seemingly unrelated areas of reality, and they are thus often able to go well beyond what ‘pure’ text could achieve. In view of the small number of participants, any conclusions that can be drawn from this explorative pilot study will of necessity be quite tentative and require further investigation. In particular, it would be important to explore the interpretation process with respect to a larger number of cartoons and in a wider population. It would also be necessary to consider carefully the routine physical locations and circumstances of ordinary reception (Moores, 1993: 32–69). The degree to which a cartoon is processed is likely to be influenced not just by background knowledge and cultural literacies, but also by pragmatic factors such as available time, lack of distraction and levels of motivation. The pilot study under discussion was not based on a natural reading situation in the sense of an ethnographic study. The interviews took place in an office, and participants were presented with a newspaper page that was several weeks old and that was taken out of its natural context. Respondents were encouraged to follow particular predetermined steps in the interpretation process, and to spend more time and energy on this than they probably would in normal circumstances. Finally, any future studies of the way people read cartoons must consider carefully the inherent difficulties of verbalizing visual meaning and the extent to which verbal responses can be considered reliable data for judging what people actually ‘see’ in an image. As Cook (2001) rightly points out, facial expression, for example, is a graded paralinguistic phenomenon, which cannot be simply translated or paraphrased into words: ‘Paralanguage is literally beyond complete description in language, because it belongs to a different kind of communication from language’ (p. 72). Perhaps future researchers will be able to devise methods of exploring multimodal literacies that are not so dependent on purely verbal data.


I would like to thank Nicholas Garland, Dave Brown and Steve MacMurty for permitting the use of their cartoons in this article and for kindly agreeing to be interviewed by telephone (June and July 2005).


1. Both in the US (Edwards, 1997; Koetzle and Brunell, 1996; Michelmore, 2000; Penner and Penner, 1994; Templin, 1999) and in Europe (Martin, 1987; Morrison, 1992; Moyle, 2000), scholars have explored cartoon representations of specific personalities, themes or events. There are also several collections of cartoons that represent the work of particular artists or periods in history (Lamb, 2004; Mumford, 2001; Newton, 1998; Walker, 1978). A small number of academic studies address the ‘language’ of political cartoons (Edwards, 1997; Harrison, 1981; Morris, 1993). Dines (1995: 249) is one of the few authors to call for ‘a more nuanced and sensitive analysis’ of cartoon audiences.

2. In media and cultural studies, there has also been a marked shift away from theories of effects or influence to an interest in how audiences create meanings (Moores, 1993).

3. Messaris’ view is apparently confirmed by the findings of cognitive scientists, who have shown that our vision is always an act of construction, regardless of whether we perceive an image or a real-life object (Hoffman, 1998).

4. Gombrich (1977) argues that different visual cultures have different standards as to what constitutes a realistic rendition of the world and that there are therefore no necessary or sufficient rules of corre- spondence between pictures and their real-world referents.

5. There are of course many notable exceptions to this general rule, including many of the underground comix of the late 1960s and early 1970 and more recently Art Spiegelman’s accounts of his parents’ experiences in the Holocaust, Maus and Maus II (Witek, 2004).

6. While it would be an oversimplification to suggest that cartoonists always directly reflect the opinions of the editors for which they work, they probably tend to ‘migrate to papers with which they have a reasonable degree of political sympathy’ (Mumford, 2001: xi). While Nicholas Garland is given ‘complete freedom’ in choosing what to draw for The Daily Telegraph, Dave Brown usually produces a quick rough and faxes it to the editorial board of The Independent for approval. Only ‘on the rare occasion’ has he encountered any objections, which are generally to do with issues of ‘taste and decency’. Cartoonist Steve MacMurty presents an average of five different ideas to the editor of the Daily Mail, who then picks the one he likes best:

‘So I suppose that is a subtle form of censorship.’ In the interviews, several of the respondents expressed surprise at the fact that Figure 1 was published in the Daily Mail, which was perceived to be very right- wing and generally supportive of military action.

7. In ‘Drawing Tony’, Steve Bell (2004) says that once he had ‘discovered the secret of his one mad (left) eye, furrowed brow and bland, twinkly (right) eye’, he was able to apply these features ‘to any animal or

El Refaie: Multiliteracies: how readers interpret political cartoons


object’. Seymour-Ure (1998) describes cartoonist Rowson’s Blair as wearing ‘a smile some way towards mania and built like a cascade of piano keys’ (p. 3).


Garland explained that he had intended to depict a cat ‘twisting and turning in the air’ and that, given the opportunity, he would have preferred to have done the cartoon not in a landscape format, but rather ‘as a long tall drawing’.


In their study of gestures in Asterix comic books, Fein and Kasher (1996) found that people have a firm comprehension of the gestures in comics, which are generally understood to mean the same as similar real-life gestures.


In fact, Brown had intended his cartoon to express the idea that ‘the report put a gloss on things’. None of my eight respondents mentioned this particular expression.


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ELISABETH EL REFAIE is Lecturer at the Centre for Language and Communication Research, Cardiff University. The focus of her research is on visual and multimodal forms of narrative, rhetoric and humour, and she is currently working on a project which uses the graphic novel to explore multimodal semiotics. Her work has appeared in scholarly journals such as the Journal of Pragmatics, Journal of Sociolinguistics, and Journal of Contemporary European Studies.


University, Colum Drive, Cardiff CF10 3EU, UK. [email: refaieee@cardiff.ac.uk]








El Refaie: Multiliteracies: how readers interpret political cartoons