Painting the Political Picture: Editorial Cartoons in Alabama

Nov 7, 2016

      

           Alabama was a popular destination for those seeking the presidency this year. Republicans and Democrats made it a point to visit the Yellowhammer State to try and keep it red or turn it blue. This of course means news coverage, which in turn, brings out cartoonists. If you follow sites like Al-dot-com you’ll see the work of one man in particular…

            “Never dreamed I’d get a job drawing editorial cartoons, political, I’m not really that political by nature, I just make fun of everything.”

 

Alabama political cartoonist JD Crowe
Credit Stan Ingold

           That’s J.D. Crowe, the cartoonist for the Alabama Media Group. He says people noticed he had a knack for drawing as a child…

            “My mother found out early on that if she kept me drawing in paper and pencil, I was a pretty good kid. So when I was a toddler she would tear out an old paper bag and lay it out on the floor and I would start drawing and disappear into the brown paper just drawing animals and critters and whatever came to my imagination.”

            But it wasn’t until college that he got his start in editorial cartoons…

            “I was just a dork around campus and all of a sudden I was making fun of the university president and taking issues with some of the issues around campus and started getting a little bit of notoriety so people started recognizing me on campus going “hey there’s that guy who draws that cartoon”.”

            That is what many cartoonists do; they lampoon prominent figures and highlight particular issues. Wilson Lowery is a journalism professor at the University of Alabama and a former cartoonist. He says no one has ever been truly safe from satirists…   

Wilson Lowery, UA Journalism Professor and former cartoonist
Credit Stan Ingold

“Surprising to look back and see the harsh cartoons of revered figures like George Washington and others and realize they were made fun of big time in their own period.”

            He says the heyday of editorial cartoons was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and that was mostly due to the work of a man named Thomas Nast…

            “He took on a lot of big time politicians, was probably best known for taking on Tammany Hall, powerful political machine in New York City and their bosses, most famously Boss Tweed who made some comment and I’m not going to get it exactly right “our constituents can’t read the stories about us but they can them damn pictures”.”

            Lowery says Nast is also credited with providing the modern vision of Santa Claus, Uncle Sam and popularizing the images of the elephant representing the Republican Party and the donkey for the Democratic Party.

Thomas Nast political cartoon "Third Term Panic"
Credit smithosianmag.com

J.D. Crowe says drawing caricatures of Donald Trump are easy, but Crowe says Hillary Clinton is tougher…

            “ With her, she has so many different looks, the straight on look at her face is different when she tilts it a little bit. Her profile doesn’t look like what her front face, looking straight on, lot of circles and a lot of roundness and when you look at her profile her nose kinda comes out like this…”

Crowe draws Hillary Clinton
Credit Stan Ingold

         

   Its the defining characteristics that make these drawings immediately recognizable. Wilson Lowery says there is usually one major feature cartoonist zero in on for each character…

            “Certain people begin to be drawn certain ways, every cartoonist does it somewhat differently, but Obama for example, first thing you think about are the ears. That’s the most recognizable thing about an Obama caricature. I’m not even sure if that is the most recognizable thing about Obama physically but it almost becomes to where it doesn’t matter.”

            Crowe agrees with Lowery…

            ‘I like a big nose and glass and big eyebrows, or just some funky, something that is very definitive, you know that’s a good way to draw people, its more of an easier caricature then someone who is an attractive person is more hard to draw.”  

Crowe drawing Donald trump
Credit Stan Ingold

   He says this will even play into how he votes on occasion…

    “Sometimes I go into the voting booth and if I don’t really have a clear political favorite, which often happens, usually by the time I get through an election I’m sick of every character there. Sometimes I’ll just vote for the funniest looking one.”

            While Clinton and Trump have been filling the national headlines, local politicians make it easy for Crowe… 

            “Usually Alabama politics can out goofy national politics or be weirder than national politics. A lot of times in the course of a year Alabama politicians keep me busy, it’s a target rich environment in a normal year.”

   

Political cartoon by JD Crowe
Credit JD Crowe, Alabama Media Group

      But this hasn’t been a normal year… 

            “We got Alabama politics going crazy and our governor Robert Bentley he decided ‘well I’m going to try and take the attention away from Trump,” and so Bentley acted up and we got the “Luv Guv” stuff and I was drawing Luv Guv cartoons, I was going from drawing Trump in the national election stuff and then Luv Guv took over.”

            But that isn’t all…  

Political cartoon by JD Crowe
Credit JD Crowe, Alabama Media Group

            “And on the heels of that we had Mike Hubbard got sent to prison, so I go to cover his trial, then of course we have ol’ “whack a mole” Roy Moore he pops up every now and then, it’s just on a cycle.”

 

Political cartoon by JD Crowe
Credit JD Crowe, Alabama Media Group

                         Crowe says tackling political leaders is easy for artists in the U.S. but that isn’t always case elsewhere…

            “Take a look around the world, people do what I do get put in jail or killed for less than what I do. There are certain parts of the world that will not put up with you talking about their leaders, the leaders wont put up with it and you’re in danger.”

            Crowe says it isn’t all about making light of our leaders. There are times when he creates a drawing to help people through troubling times…

            ‘Certain issues you can’t be funny with, now for instance a hurricane comes through and its devastation, that’s not funny so we have to paint that in a different light, we gotta go dark, serious, and find an image that conveys that.”

            One of these serious cartoons stands out as one of Crowe’s most memorable…

            “Several years ago my daughter was about five when the Columbia shuttle went down and seven astronauts died in that. I took my daughter to work with me that day and I explained what happened and decided a really good way to memorialize this tragedy was a black sky with seven stars.”

Columbia crew memorial cartoon by JD Crowe
Credit JD Crowe, Mobile Press Register

            Whether is it helping people deal with tragedy or poking fun at those in charge there is one thing Crowe hopes for…

            “If you can capture anything in an image with no words, I think that’s what we’re all shooting for, is that Holy Grail of a cartoon every now and then.”