Pulitzer Prize winner Toles to discuss editorial cartoons

The word “cartoon” brings to mind punchlines and quick sketches, but according to Tom Toles, this year has proven that political cartooning is anything but lighthearted.

“Tragically, editorial cartooning found itself sort of on the front line of the free expression debate,” said Toles, editorial cartoonist for the Washington Post.

On Jan. 7, Islamic militants attacked the offices of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, killing 11 people — including several cartoonists — and injuring 11 others.

Toles will speak on this and other aspects of modern editorial cartooning at 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater.

“There are two ways to look at editorial cartooning, and one is just kind of a lighthearted take, some of the silliness of politics and poking fun at this person and that person and pretty much anybody that comes along,” Toles said. “I’ve always looked at it more as trying to make the important parts of the discussion more interesting, and to highlight the things that I feel need highlighting. I’ve always seen it as a proactive art form rather than a reactive one.”

Before joining the Post in 2002, Toles spent more than 25 years at newspapers in Buffalo. Despite his long career, Toles said his job has not gotten any easier.

“I tend to inflict a certain degree of difficulty on the process for myself,” he said. “I sort of still come to the task every day with a certain degree of terror that I will not succeed in doing all the things that I would hope to do in a cartoon. It’s just kind of silly, because it’s just a cartoon. But I sort of do anyway. For me, it’s always been a challenge. A very, very interesting one, but definitely a challenge.”

Among the things Toles has worried about accomplishing are raising awareness about climate change and American wealth disparity. Toles said both have the potential to negatively impact American society and politics, and he wishes he could have been more instrumental in raising awareness, but he is happy with his contributions.

“I like to think that every cartoon is another pebble on one side of the scales,” he said. “I think each cartoon affects the general debate in a small way. In any case, while I can’t say that I can point to an instance where I changed the world, I feel like I’ve been a healthy part of the process.”

This contribution is aided by the unique perspective that cartoons provide, Toles said.

“So much of [political] commentary is either direct narrative commentary, either reporting or analysis or some combination of those and opinion,” he said. “That model of discussion is well covered and well represented. Cartooning is just another way of looking at the same material. The more ways you can look at something and think about it, the better off you are being able to understand it.“

Though Toles has been sharing his commentary with a much larger audience since joining the Post, he said that perspective on his work has not changed.

“Whether it’s a large audience or a small audience, I’ve always known that there are going to be people that agree with the overall thought of the cartoon and people that very much disagree with me,” Toles said. “When you work for newspaper, unlike giving a talk, you don’t really see the response. It’s almost like putting a note in a bottle and sending it out there. You just have to wonder who will see it, what they will think of it. It could be just one person, but the effort and the intentionality doesn’t change. I still feel like I’m more or less talking from one person to one person.”