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Death tribute cartoons are the embarrassing face of kneejerk social media mourning

Whether it’s Stephen Hawking leaving a wheelchair or the Buddhist Steve Jobs meeting God, these grief gags show the decline of cartooning as an art.

Recently, following the death of Stephen Hawking, social media users were treated to the usual display of sad words and images. Among these were the by-now-standard death tribute cartoons, most of which focused on Hawking’s wheelchair: sitting empty as he flies out of it; sitting empty as he walks away; sitting empty as he turns into cosmic energy.


These images proved offensive to some people, implying as they did that Hawking had been constrained by his illness and was not a whole, functioning person with a brilliant intellect.

But death tribute cartoons are nearly always problematic, and their rise is connected with the decline of cartooning as an art form.

In the mid-twentieth century, magazines and newspapers were omnipresent, and so were single-panel cartoons. There were gag cartoonists and there were editorial cartoonists, who provided a visual take on the news.

Back then cartoons felt dynamic and alive – but as the twentieth century dragged on, the single panel became a dead format. All the good simple cartoon ideas had been used and re-used and used again, and not everyone can create an original single-panel image that’s funny or makes an interesting point; in fact, almost nobody can.

As publishing began to decline, the art was the first thing to go. Today very few newspapers have full-time editorial cartoonists, preferring the freedom of choosing from a roster of syndicated artists. But one of the most popular and durable editorial cartoon formats has expanded into internet culture, and that is the death tribute cartoon.

The death tribute cartoon is different from simple tribute art, in that it uses a visual format designed to amuse, but to be maudlin instead. As near a perfect description for the death tribute cartoon as I can find is German writer Winfried Menninghaus summary of the concept of kitsch: “A simple invitation to wallow in sentiment.”

Every celebrity’s death is treated as an occasion for cloying fantasy or impossibly awkward visual metaphor.

The most common death tribute cartoon trope shows the celebrity arriving in heaven, most often encountering St Peter. It doesn’t matter what religion the celebrity actually practised (as with Steve Jobs, a Buddhist, who was placed in this context at least ten times, including on the cover of The New Yorker).


St Peter only tenuously represents religion in this context anyway; he represents popular emotion and the love of the crowd. He behaves like the maître d’ of a celebrity restaurant, trading quips with stars and sometimes even grabbing a selfie.

Sometimes there are other famous dead people eager to hang out with the recently deceased. It’s a ludicrous reflection of our obsession with celebrity status.

Other popular death tribute cartoon tropes include: a prop associated with the deceased, abandoned and weeping; fictional characters associated with the star sharing a drink, or weeping; the world itself, weeping.


The Hawking cartoons weren’t the first to show a star escaping a wheelchair; this also happened with Christopher Reeve and Muhammed Ali. Ali was also pictured in one strange cartoon lying on the floor of the boxing ring, having apparently lost to a skull-headed figure labeled “29,000+ HEAD BLOWS INDUCED PARKINSONS”.


The democratisation of social media means that it is nearly impossible to tell the cartoons created by an artist in the employ of a media outlet from those made by a complete outsider.

With the Hawking cartoons, the one deemed most offensive by the Huffington Post was in fact by an amateur, but a much more bizarre one (showing Hawking pumping his fists in the passenger seat of Elon Musk’s space Tesla) was from a publication.

The competition is serious: the right tribute cartoon at the right moment, going viral, can alter the trajectory of an independent artist’s career.

Our culture demands the instant tribute, the quick crystallising of emotion, and death tribute cartoons are made for that. We are instantly ready to be nostalgic about anything and anybody. Death tribute cartoons are a feature of a society constantly being made aware of what it has lost.

They’re never funny, they rarely make much sense, and they pander in a way that’s embarrassing. I’m sure we’ll see many more of them.

Michael Kupperman is a graphic novelist. Find his work here. He tweets @MKupperman.

The Depths of Hell
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Review: “Self-Portrait as Hairless Dog”, Alex Jones, 2018

Jones’s burners are off, but his face shows no fear: here is a creature that would luxuriate in hellfire as if it were as pleasurable as a hot shower.

The self-portrait as self-abasement has a long history in art: Caravaggio gave his own face to the severed head of Goliath being held aloft by the young sword-wielding David; Stanley Spencer once depicted his sunken haunches, grey skin and squashed genitalia (alongside his wife’s sagging body) next to a carefully depicted leg of mutton; Michelangelo meanwhile showed himself as an empty flayed skin in The Last Judgement  in the Sistine Chapel.

What to make, then, of the mocked-up photograph currently scarring Twitter’s collective eyeballs which the radio host, conspiracy theorist and provocateur Alex Jones posted, portraying him as a hairless dog lying on a kitchen hob?

This strange, Hieronymus Bosch monster, stares expressionless at the viewer anticipating a moue of distaste. The Jones-hound is unapologetic, fleshily pink in a pose that carries uncomfortable references to Renaissance nudes.

Titian’s Venus D’Urbino shows a voluptuously sensual woman: the thoughts she is meant to evoke can only be carnal. But it is harder to see the Jones image, however coquettish, as drawing the panting male gaze. Is his nakedness a reminder that we are all born of original sin and creatures of shame, like Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden of Eden? Is his canine persona an acknowledgement that we nothing but animals?

The kitchen hob on which this squidgy hybrid lounges clearly alludes to the flames of hell. Rogier van der Weyden showed the flames licking at terrified sinners in his Last Judgement of 1450: this, he says, is what happens to those who err from the ways of the Bible. Jones’s burners are off, but his face shows no fear: here is a creature that would luxuriate in hellfire as if it were as pleasurable as a hot shower.

It is hard not to interpret the Caravaggio, Spencer and Michelangelo depictions other than as as expressions of self-loathing, of a disgust so profound it came to the fore almost despite themselves. Jones, though, looks complacent, even contented. Medieval bestiaries are full of such fanciful creatures; often they are emblems of evil, the Devil’s playthings that are beyond redemption and settled in their fallen state. This, perhaps, is closer to the truth.

However, the cleverness of the image ultimately lies in something it doesn’t show. The animal’s plump tail covers, almost coyly, its genitals and what Jones’s expression says is: don’t worry, if you are looking for bollocks, well, that’s me.

Michael Prodger is Reviews Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.