An appreciation for cartoons
One of the first picture books I enjoyed as a child was called “Medals and Shoes.” It was not an illustrated children’s book, but a compilation of “Political cartoons of the times of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, 1965-1992” by Alfredo and Irene Roces (Anvil, 1992). It just happened to be lying around the house; I doubt that the authors envisioned that it would become the favored reading material of a child of the ‘90s. As I grew up, it transformed from a funny picture book into a tool for me to understand that era, which my parents, being political activists, fortunately made it out of alive.
Books about that time in Philippine history, while factual and necessary, could also be dry and uninteresting to a generation of children who took basic freedoms for granted. The photos were another story: They were creatively drawn and lampooned their subjects, who must have been quite important political figures, with ease and a sharp sense of humor. To this day I still think of a cartoon from The Manila Chronicle, showing how the First Lady “applied cosmetics” to slums in Manila for a visit by the Pope.
Cartoons make no pretext of being neutral: in portraying contexts, discrepancies and glaring problems in politics, they use satire and metaphor, making “no bones about their personal biases.” “Their role is precisely to deflate the pompous,” the authors write, while saying something of the “emotional and psychological forces surrounding public figures and events.” While lacking an artistic bent myself, I appreciated how these cartoons shaped my consciousness of that time, and how it served at times to entertain, at times to confront uncomfortable truths, then eventually, how it preserved these sentiments for posterity.
On flipping through the pages of this compilation, it’s striking to see what parts of history have repeated themselves, with only slight changes. There’s a 1981 cartoon from Sick of the Times where the dictator is decked out in American stars and stripes, saying “Arf! Arf!” — not a far cry from the sentiments of many critics today about our ties with China. Another 1972 cartoon reads: “Sa bagong lipunan…. huwag magsiksikan, tayo’y magbigayan,” showing commuters packed like sardines into a jeepney, while the administration cruises by on private transport. Then there are the sober illustrations about elegies to human rights, about whitewashing or denial of killings. “After an extensive search… I have concluded that there is no smoking gun in my closet,” one cartoon of the dictator says, while standing beside a closet filled to the brim with guns.
These days it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the news and its daily dose of the painful and the ridiculous. Just this weekend, while we were still reeling from the chillingly high number of COVID-19 cases, from PhilHealth-related news, and the assassination of activist leader Randy Echanis, we also saw a viral video, showing what was clearly a government-mandated gathering, with dancers and a coronavirus mascot dancing to the tune of “It’s more fun in the Philippines.” Meanwhile COVID-19 cases continue to climb frighteningly high and hospital vacancies have reached their limit. This would make an excellent editorial cartoon, if it were not already so absurd, and so disappointingly real. “Sobrang swerte kaya ng tsinelas mo,” the song goes, “nakatapak ka sa paraiso.” The pandemic and these endless political gaffes have stretched our appreciation for irony to the limit.
If our country (and the free press) survives this pandemic, I wonder how the absurdity, the pain, the insensitivity, and the impunity of the past year will be distilled into pictures for the next generation. I can already imagine some of the most spot-on cartoons as part of compilations: a huge cartoon boot descending on protesters in light of the Anti-Terrorism Act (Gilbert Daroy, 7/9/20); exhausted frontliners in bunnysuits lying on the floor, being handed “MECQ” instead of concrete plans for ramping up testing and contact tracing (Albert Rodriguez, 8/5/20). I admire the work of political cartoonists these days in capturing our frustrations, in unmasking and confronting our present evils. It must be a challenge to satirize or exaggerate our current situation, when most days, life already feels like we’re living in a caricature of the Philippines.
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