Jack Ohman

In wake of Boston bombing, symbols matter

When national tragedy strikes, it almost seems oxymoronic to attach the word cartoon to what we have to do to reflect the sentiment after the hideous events in Boston.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, every editorial cartoonist in the United States found themselves in shock like everyone else, but we had to interpret the drama. Editorial writers had hundreds of words to express shock and anguish, and we had our pens and paper. I would have preferred to be an editorial writer then.

I can rightly claim that I did not, in fact, draw a weeping Statue of Liberty. About fifty of my colleagues did some version of that (seriously). And, honestly, when Tony Auth's cartoon came in with that metaphor, I have to say I kind of liked it, and that the notion of drawing the Statue of Liberty had never even occurred to me.

Rex Babin and I used to have long talks about this very subject. We preferred to wait until Day Two of whatever dreadful catastrophe happened, even as we were mostly forced to do Day One first. The second day effort on events of this magnitude were better because we had the advantage of actually knowing what happened.

On Day Two after the Boston bombing, I was able to watch a few hours of network coverage, chat with editors and writers, and get a better sense of what I wanted to say. I'm glad I waited a day, but there are days when you can't put it off and you have to go with what you've got.

There are a few cartoonists who are masters at throwing something together just to be first on a story like this, and it usually shows. Statues weep, Uncle Sam consoles, smoking holes are blown into symbols, the justice lady is vengeful, and so on.

In the Boston story, I saw a lot of scattered shoes, terror figures at finish lines, and runner's numbers configured on the ground in various patterns. Many were well-executed, and what visual can really reflect the horror of such an event? I'm not really judging here, exactly. We have very difficult jobs, and no one likes to comment on apocalyptic events. We'd rather draw John Boehner as a pumpkin, or Joe Biden looking like the Cheshire Cat (another cliche).

One cartoon that is absolutely inexcusable is Uncle Sam weeping. Well, anything weeping. Last week I ridiculed weeping eagles, and I haven't seen one of those yet. But I may have missed it. Knowing that the cartoons cops are out there is good for me; it keeps me from Going There, and yet many colleagues probably just think, whatever, I gotta get this baby done by five.

And we do. 

But let's dry Uncle Sam's eyes and see clearly for a moment. 

Another familiar metaphor in this type of story is a pool of blood arranged in some message or symbol. I really think this is terribly overworked at this point, and it's usually so ghastly that no one responds to that sort of thing anyway. 

Granted, our visual metaphor palette is finite. A lot of readers react positively to this sort of stuff, and that's never going to change. But I think when I can, off the top of my head, rattle off three trite approaches to tragedy in about eight paragraphs says something.

I think the victims of Boston deserve a better effort than Uncle Sam in tears.