Pat Oliphant does a really nice job of making political points with extremely funny artwork. That's important, not only because it results in memorable and effective commentary, but because many of the cloth-eared grammarians who edit newspapers think that all cartoons are supposed to be funny and won't choose a political cartoon that doesn't include a broad element of humor.
If a cartoonist makes a salient point but doesn't include a little seltzer-down-your-pants, the resulting cartoon risks being the tree falling in the desert, because it won't be picked up by any newspapers.
( I know there are other places to see cartoons than in newspapers. But that's where the money is, and it's also where a lot of critical dialogue still begins.)
Oliphant isn't the only political cartoonist who is able to inject some inspired mockery into his work, but he's certainly one of the best at it, in part because he includes enough detail in his cartoons that, if the main image doesn't provoke a snort, something in the periphery will, and it's always worth perusing the cartoon to pick up the additional little bits.
In this one, for example, he mocks Romney and Gingrich, but there is also that "too cool" tone of little tiny Obama that sticks a pin in the prez.
And it's not pointless mockery. It's a commentary on operating style. If Obama thinks he's getting out of 2012 without a trip into the gutter, he's either kidding himself or planning his retirement, and Oliphant has -- with nothing more than the angle of spine and head -- pretty consistently portrayed No-Drama-Obama as aloof and a bit above it all, even when he's being supportive of the president.
You can tell when he's not being supportive. More than once, he depicted GWB as a child playing cowboy, as in this 2005 cartoon when Bush failed to defuse the Cindy Sheehan situation by simply giving the woman a cup of coffee and a few minutes of his time, before it became a cause celebre:
There is a point at which mockery crosses a line, not of good taste, but of effectiveness. There are any number of second-tier cartoonists who consistently add mockery to their work, but in a way that comes off as petty, vindictive and partisan, rather than insightful.
This is largely a case of "I know it when I see it," and, certainly, you're likely to give a cartoonist more slack if you generally agree with their point of view. But effective commentary requires that the mockery be laid on with something of a deft touch: If you start by picking a fight, what you actually have to say on a particular topic is likely to get lost in the scrum.
If Oliphant has a blind spot in that regard, it seems to be wrapped up in whatever his experience was with Holy Mother Church back in his youth, because his criticism of the Vatican does get shrill. This is one of those aforementioned cases where I cut him some slack, since I only had one year of knuckle-rapping, ear-yanking, hair-pulling Catholic education and I can sympathize with anyone who endured a more drawn-out exposure.
Especially when he can turn that pain into a bitter-but-insightful critique of Mel Gibson's overwrought "The Passion of the Christ," elsewhere described as "a religious snuff film."