There is a well-trodden line in the story of American political cartoons. The quotation is attributed to William M. Tweed, a powerful political insider, who along with his fellow Tammany Hall co-conspirators fleeced the New York City treasury out of an estimated $200 million in the mid to late 1800s.
"Stop them damned pictures," Tweed shouted in response to an 1871 Harper's Weekly cartoon that depicted he and his accomplices pointing to one another along with the question, "Who stole the people's money?" Tweed would go on to offer cartoonist Thomas Nast a half-million dollar bribe if he would simply disappear — because the political conman knew not to underestimate the influence of a powerful image and a few well-placed words.
"I don't care so much what the papers write about me. My constituents can't read," "Boss" Tweed is quoted as saying. "But damn it, they can see pictures."
Nineteenth-century literacy rates aside, it's hard to dismiss Tweed's words today. And it's just as difficult to ignore the role that editorial cartoonists like Charleston's own Steve Stegelin play in their communities as an increasingly absurd 24-hour news cycle slowly grinds us all down to a fine powder.
"Half the time now it seems like I can do a cartoon where I throw in the very same words that someone spoke, and that could be three panels of a strip — showing real-life events and dialogue, and then leave that fourth panel to show the irony or hypocrisy in it," Stegelin says, describing the challenges of lampooning modern-day politics. "Trump is kind of like a parody in himself. It's very hard to satirize a parody, but it does speak to the absurdity of everything that's happened over the past few years."
Speaking on Oct. 25 as a part of the Charleston Library Society's Wide Angle Lunch series, Stegelin will walk guests through his life in indie comics, as well as the perils of being a political cartoonist during the Trump era. Readers of the City Paper are likely familiar with Stegelin's illustrations, whether they be drawing attention to the criminal exploits described in the Blotter or his own biting satirical cartoons. But the artist's beginnings go back to when he created an award-winning comic strip for his college newspaper. After graduation, Stegelin managed to take the characters he had created and develop them into bimonthly indie comic, Boondoggle. Lasting into the late '90s before transitioning into a web comic, Boondoggle allowed Stegelin to develop his exaggerated and recognizable style.
"There is definitely a lot of trial and error. I look back on it now, and I was probably getting ahead of myself trying to do an entire comic run right out of college," he says. "I look back at the Boondoggle run and see leaps and bounds between issues where I can see that I learned stuff. I learned what worked, what didn't work, what to experiment with. That's where my style developed."
After leaving Boondoggle behind, Stegelin went on to further grow his skills at the City Paper. It's been more than 14 years since Stegelin's work first appeared in Charleston's alt-weekly. Unsurprisingly, it didn't take long for him to strike a few nerves.
"The moment I knew I had arrived at the City Paper was only a few months into my career there. They had the Hunley funeral. They found the Hunley, dug it up from its trench, and were going to bury and have a memorial for all the soldiers. They had a horse-drawn hearse, a lot of pomp and circumstance," Stegelin recalls. "We were being inundated with Confederate soldier re-enactors from all over the country. So we had a strip showing the hearse being marched backwards to kind of match the thinking of a lot of the attendees. It was a commentary about those who are still holding tight to the idea that the Civil War was not over yet."
Following the comic's publication, the City Paper office was inundated with angry letters and phone calls from all across the Southeast. Although, perhaps thanks to old fashioned Southern gentility, Stegelin was told that these were the most polite and mannered complaints the paper had ever received.
So, whether it's outing corrupt politicians in the late 1800s or mocking those who prefer to keep their heads firmly rooted in that era, editorial cartooning remains a powerful tool to get one's opinion across and effectively reach an audience. How readers react is an entirely different challenge.
"Either I'm going to make you laugh or piss you off. That's the goal essentially. That and the fact that I can do it in a split second. If you read an article or opinion piece, you may start to build up the counter argument in your head," says Stegelin. "With an editorial cartoon — with the visual format and the quick read of it — there is less time to formulate that counter argument. So I think there is more of a visceral reaction to it. It's not a slow burn. It's more of a sock in the face. There you go. There's your joke. I think that's the power to it."