Analyzing Political Cartoons

Learning Objectives

  • Analyze political cartoons in order to reach a conclusion about an event, person, movement, or policy

Part Three: Analyzing Modern Political Cartoons

As with any aspect of history, it is important to understand how these concepts and tools translate to the modern world. Political cartoons are still a powerful tool used by the media to address complex issues. With the internet as a tool, artists and journalists can create and upload cartoons anytime and share them with millions of readers within a matter of days or even hours. The first political cartoon artists of the 18th and 19th centuries could never have imagined the ability to reach such a large audience so quickly. Because of this, the purpose and style of political cartoons has changed over the centuries and it is important to analyze the different contexts of historical and modern political cartoons. While the purpose, style, and contexts might have changed, we can still apply the same analysis techniques to modern political cartoons. The following section will briefly walk you through an analysis of a modern cartoon and then you will answer several questions to check your understanding.

Amazon Monopoly (2017)

This political cartoon is the recreation of the original 1904 political cartoon depicting the monopoly of Standard Oil, with an octopus coming out of an Amazon factory.

Figure 1. Amazon depicted as a monopoly.

This political cartoon is a commentary on the modern-day monopoly that the Amazon corporation holds, which extends to the U.S. Capitol and a statehouse. One tentacle reaches for the White House, while another has a stranglehold on several people grasping papers. The image above is actually a modified political cartoon. The original was published in 1904 as a reference to the corporate monopoly that the Standard Oil Company had established in the oil industry. Standard Oil had to be broken up by the Supreme Court in 1911 for violating anti-monopoly laws. The juxtaposition of the old-style cartoon with the modern Amazon logo creates a striking image, which we will analyze.

This is the original 1904 cartoon:

Political cartoon showing a Standard Oil tank as an octopus with many tentacles wrapped around the steel, copper, and shipping industries, as well as a state house, the U.S. Capitol, and one tentacle reaching for the White House

Figure 2. Original 1904 cartoon depicting Standard Oil as a monopoly.

Try It

Let’s analyze the “Amazon Monopoly” cartoon using the strategies learned above.

Part 1: Modern/Original Visual Components



Buildings and/or Furniture:



Style Choices (exaggeration, irony, analogy):

Part 2: Modern/Original Creative Components:

Answer these questions in regard to both the original cartoon and the modern version of it.






Try It

Answer the questions below based on the cartoons shown above in Figures 2 and 3.

The purpose of this exercise was to enable you to form a conclusion about the issues depicted in your cartoon. What conclusions can you draw from your analysis? How does the cartoon make you think differently about the issue? What effect do you think this cartoon would have had on its original intended audience? What effect do you think it would have had on the “opposition”?

Political cartoons can be valuable primary sources for research, because they are demonstrations of the public consciousness at the specific time that they were created. They allow us a peek into the visual world of the past: how people imagined things, how they believed certain issues should be handled, and what types of thoughts or opinions were commonplace at the time (can you imagine a major newspaper today publishing a political cartoon encouraging the tarring and feathering of a public official?)

Think about how political cartoons have changed over the centuries as well, especially with the advent of the internet. Now, anyone can create a political cartoon at any time and post it on the web. What types of effects does this have on freedom of the press (think of the Charlie Hebdo shooting in 2015)? What might we see in the future?