Appropriating images is good shorthand — but requires intelligence, care

The old axiom goes, “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” As an editorial cartoonist for 25 years I have borrowed — or stolen — many different images from different areas (all with due credit I hasten to add).

080720_coughlan_toonA cartoon, especially a single panel, has to find a shorthand to connect to the viewer to be able to put the point across. When I did a cartoon about a poor hiring choice by BISD superintendent Carroll Thomas, I used a current movie image, in that case Heath Ledger’s Joker from “Batman: The Dark Knight,” to easily imply an obvious lack of trustworthiness.


During the 2016 Republican primaries I appropriated a John Tenniel illustration from Alice in Wonderland with the candidates filling the roles of the Mad Hatter, the dormouse, etc., with Alice slumped in her chair. Donald Trump, of course, was the Mad Hatter. Whether readers knew about Tenniel’s style or not, the Alice reference created the perfect setting for the satire.


On Feb. 14, conservative Belleville News-Democrat cartoonist Glen McCoy published a cartoon that appropriated a famous Norman Rockwell image from the Civil Rights era and equated it to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos being blocked from entering a Washington D. C. public schoolboy protesters.


The Norma Rockwell image, titled “The Problem We All Live With,” shows six-year-old Ruby Bridge being escorted by U.S. deputies to desegregate a school on Nov. 14, 1960. Rockwell is famous for illustrating American life in a loving and positive manner, which makes the image all the more powerful. It is my favorite Rockwell image, and certainly his most powerful piece.


So what is the problem with appropriating the image? Well, for a start, the message being presented in each is a contradiction. Ruby is a young black girl who has been denied access to school for no reason but the color of her skin — for simply being herself.

The word “nigger” is scrawled on the wall behind Ruby Bridge but the word “conservative” takes its place in McCoy’s cartoon.

DeVos was blocked by protests because she was not an advocate for public education, had not attended a public school, nor were her children educated in public school. She is the epitome of white privilege and choice. One could argue, and make a strong case, that the only reason she even held her office was because of her donations to Republican candidates.

In the aforementioned Alice cartoon, regardless on political viewpoint, the concept of the zaniness of the GOP primary was not in question. However, McCoy draws a false equivalency, and in doing so, dilutes his message. The outrage and push back completely negated any attempt to push a point (which, by the way, despite being liberal myself, I completely support his right to make).

A few years ago, some Danish newspapers published cartoons that depicted the prophet Mohammed, which is prohibited by Islam, to “see what would happen.” Big shock — they got death threats and were attacked. So what did they learn? The exact thing they thought would happen, actually did. They offended a group of people for no reason other than to offend.

I quoted the “Spiderman” comics in the column I wrote then and it still applies, “With great power comes great responsibility.” The freedom to draw cartoons — the freedom of the press in general — is a tremendous privilege and comes with power.

We must be responsible in how we use that privilege.

McCoy, in an interview with Talking Points Memo, Feb. 15, said “My cartoon was about how, in this day and age, decades beyond the civil rights protests, it’s sad that people are still being denied the right to speak freely or do their jobs or enter public buildings because others disagree with who they are or how they think.” He said he believed he was, “speaking out against hate.”

He offered the trite apology, “if anyone was offended.”

Maybe if he had had a little better comprehension of the power of the image, maybe had a little more understanding of what the image represents — and maybe a little more wit — he would have not have had to apologize at all.

In an age when “the media” is constantly under attack, we all need to think and be cognizant of the images — and words — we use. That is not to say that we should not offend — I savor all my hate mail. But I stand behind the validity of my viewpoint and the careful way the images I choose are used.

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