What's in a picture?

For famed political cartoonist Jeff Danziger, there's no better way to tell a story than illustrate it.

toon 88 (photo credit: )
toon 88
(photo credit: )
When Frederick R. Barnard transliterated an old Chinese proverb into "a picture is worth ten thousand words," he certainly didn't have Jeff Danziger in mind but it's a sentiment to which the award-winning New York-based cartoonist happily subscribes. For the past 30 or so years, Danziger, who will be in town this week to attend an international conference of cartoonists and caricaturists at Jerusalem's Mishkenot Shaananim, has earned a living as a political cartoonist. His work regularly appears in the New York Times, London Times, and numerous other leading newspapers around the globe. That gives Danziger something of a unique angle on current affairs inside and outside the States. Add that to a tour of very active combat duty in the Vietnam War, and you end up with a cartoonist with an unusually broad perspective and razor sharp insight into the whys and wherefores behind political developments - particularly, the wisdom or folly of waging war. "I am the only cartoonist in America with actual experience as a soldier," said Danziger in an interview with The Jerusalem Post from his Manhattan home. "I think that gives me a special perspective on what it's like to be in a war. That also gives me a better insight into the war in Iraq. In Vietnam, eventually the local people just wanted you to leave, and the same is happening in Iraq." But what does Danziger believe he can achieve as a cartoonist? Can he actually change people's political views? After three-plus decades in the trade, he has a very sober take on his own influence. "I don't really think so. I think the major role of the cartoonist is to be amusing," he said. There is so much sadness and misery, war and death in the daily news that if you can say something that is light and try to bring some levity to the situation that would probably be your first choice. Secondly, I think it's about using drawings to illustrate what's going on and, thirdly, I guess it's to get people to stop at the editorial page." Bringing "levity" to serious situations sounds very much in the line of black humor which, used sagaciously, can be a powerful tool. But, are there are any taboos? Is there any subject where even the most courageous cartoonist would never dare to venture? What about, for example, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001? That particular subject was deftly handled by Danziger. "I did a drawing of a man being carried out on a stretcher, calling someone on his cell phone and saying: 'I'm running late.' That is a typical New York approach and it wasn't political and didn't make fun of death or anything tragic. That was carried by a lot of papers." Not only can a cartoon get a message across in the most immediate fashion, it can also sometimes convey an idea far more succinctly, and with greater immediacy, than a news article while allowing the illustrator more liberty to express an idea. "In England, cartoonists are granted much more license to express an idea," says Danziger. "In America there is some license granted, and judges have held that you can't be sued for a cartoon because it is meant to be light and no one is supposed to take it seriously." Drawing cartoons, it seems, is something akin to having your cake and eating it too. You get to say whatever you want, raise a smile or two in the process, and do so with absolute impunity. Danziger finds living in New York gives him plenty of material for his work. "There's just so much going on here and a lot of it is just so funny and absurd." The cultural melting pot of the Big Apple also provides Danziger with a colorful patchwork of inspiration, as does his own cultural heritage. "My mother was Irish and my father was Jewish," he says. "I've been to Poland and Ireland on sort of heritage trips and coming to Israel will sort of complete the cycle. I'm very excited about coming to the conference in Jerusalem." Danziger is one 27 leading cartoonists and caricaturists from around the world due to convene in Jerusalem between November 6 and 8. Other leading invitees include Ann Telnaes and Pat Oliphant from the US, Jean Plantu from France, and Japanese cartoonist No-Rio Yamanoi. The event is the brainchild of local TV personality and leading newspaper cartoonist Michel Kishka.