I’ve been looking at Dr. Seuss’ editorial cartoons for PM and thinking about what it is that makes them so great. Partly, of course, it’s just that Seuss is such an energetic and imaginative artist, capable of generating infinite numbers of goofy monsters and preposterous contraptions (check out this circus tower of Nazi dachshunds for example.)

But a lot of the cartoons’ interest/power/oomph/what-have-you comes from the fact that Seuss is a propagandist; he’s got a set of strong beliefs which inform all of his cartoons. He wants the U.S. to go to war against Hitler and beat him. That’s where he’s coming from, and it gives his opinions urgency and his bile real bite — this cartoon may be goofy, for example, but it’s also ominous; Seuss actually believes the apocalypse is nigh. It’s not like I agree with him all the time (the carton below, for example, is both racist and factually inaccurate) but the passion, however jovially presented, really matters.

In contrast, look at Kevin Kallaugher’s cartoons for the Economist Kallaugher is clearly a very talented artist; his caricatures are fabulous, and he’s got a fantastic visual imagination; that giant, over-muscled simian football player is a delight. But…I don’t know. You kind of look at it and go, so what? The ultimate point of the cartoon (and of a lot of Kallaugher’s stuff) just ends up being…oh, this or that politician is in trouble now! He often seems to deliberately be avoiding partisan identification; last week make fun of Obama, this week make fun of Bush…. Certainly, there’s no coherent message or ideology working here. It’s just well drawn, mildly funny pictures. There’s no heart.

(Of course, you can have the opposite problem too…Ted Rall, for example, has lots to say, but lacks the wherewithal to put it across effectively.)

Maybe that’s why there seem to be so few editorial cartoonists whose work excites me. It’s hard to find the right mix of ideological passion and aesthetic talent. When it happens, as with Seuss or Art Young it’s fabulous…but that’s the exception, not the rule.

Update: Edited; it’s PM, not PN. Duh.