America's cartoonists are busy excoriating the business world—a hard-times tradition that goes back at least to the 1907 panic, when banks were rescued by J.P. Morgan (depicted above) and a few fellow financiers. BusinessWeek's Reena Jana talked about cartooning and the economy with syndicated political cartoonist Jeff Danziger and Jennifer Tonkovich, curator of drawings and prints at New York's Morgan Library & Museum. Starting Jan. 23, the Morgan will present "On the Money," a private collector's cache of New Yorker cartoons from the 1920s to 2003.
What does a good financial cartoon accomplish?
Essentially it's a reward for paying attention to the news. It's a confection. But the best are serious. They wake people up: My financial adviser recently asked me what I think will happen in the markets. Me!
How have such cartoons evolved?
Early in the 20th century they were more aggressive but usually tied to one event. Since finance is no longer the province of the few, they now address a wider range of subjects. And there is a huge trend toward looking at the news with humor. The New Yorker financial cartoons have always been more a critique of the attitudes of a particular social class. The humor is in capturing the zeitgeist.
I think the cartoons are milder today. In the 1970s financial crisis, New York had many newspapers, each with its own voice. Now some cities have only one paper. And newspapers have gotten more corporate. They have to provide a forum for a variety of viewpoints, so they don't take a point of view.
Who would you say has been the most depicted figure in financial cartoons?
J.P. Morgan must be one of the leading financial figures satirized. Unfortunately, most of those cartoons were negative and didn't recognize his patriotic and philanthropic qualities.
I've done cartoons where I had J.P. Morgan in a boardroom portrait next to a portrait of Deng Xiaoping. Everyone knows what Morgan's nose looks like because they've seen him in their high school textbooks.
What sort of cartoons will this recession generate?
They'll be about the economy of the average household. Price of gas, price of milk, cost of college. The depictions may be at the expense of the brilliant financial managers who turned out to be not so brilliant. But the humor and pathos will be at the family and the individual level.
I think this wave of financial malfeasance will lead cartoonists to find the dark humor in matters of trust, betrayal, and security.