Once upon a time, a psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham went on a tear over Wonder Woman. He detected a vagina in the crook of her cartoon arm, and he thought her superpowers were giving girls “the wrong idea” about women’s place in society. As for Batman’s ward, Robin, his bare legs and devotion to his guardian were planting homosexual thoughts in boys, or so Wertham believed. His crusade led to Congressional hearings and the “voluntary” censorship of comics.

That was back in the freaked-out fifties; nothing so extreme has happened recently. But at an inaugural banquet last month, right-wing moralist James Dobson lectured members of Congress on the threat posed by SpongeBob SquarePants. Unlike some, he wasn’t bothered by this deep-sea dweller holding hands with his buddy Patrick, a starfish. Nor was he troubled by the porous Mr. Pants appearing in a video promoting tolerance. Dobson’s target was the “pledge of tolerance” one of the video’s many sponsors had posted on its website. It dared to mention sexual identity among the categories that merit sensitivity. To Dobson, this was “homosexual propaganda” and another sign that cartoon characters are being “hijacked” to move the gay agenda.

It’s an old obsession of the religious right. Remember Jerry Falwell’s jihad against Tinky Winky, the purse-packing Teletubby? “He is purple–the gay-pride color; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle–the gay-pride symbol,” Falwell fumed, adding that such “subtle depictions” of gay sexuality were being deliberately inserted into children’s entertainment. Today’s right-wing moralists are less bothered by subliminal messages than by the real issue of teaching children that homosexuals are worthy of respect. Dobson and his kind aren’t really worried about cartoons turning kids queer. Their aim is to see that homophobia is free to operate, and one way to do that is to keep children from seeing gays as part of the human community.

During the Clinton years, these puritans were preaching mostly to the choir, but now the government too is listening. In late January, the new education secretary, Margaret Spellings, criticized the PBS show Postcards From Buster because its host, a gregarious bunny, had traveled to Vermont where he encountered, among other residents, a female couple. PBS decided not to distribute that episode (though local stations still may air it).

It’s no surprise that kids’ stuff looms so large in the culture war. No form of pop culture is more prone to blunt moralizing, whether it’s the liberal ideal of inclusiveness in Postcards From Buster or the conservative critique of “political correctness” in the animated feature The Incredibles. But this struggle involves the medium as well as the message. Cartoons are powerful in a special way, and the less realistic they are the more potent they seem. Children are not the only ones deemed vulnerable to their impact. And you don’t have to be a right-winger to see evil between the lines.

Consider the response to a recent Pat Oliphant editorial cartoon of Condoleezza Rice as a parrot perched on Bush’s shoulder. “OK, Chief,” she says. “Anything you say, Chief. You bet, Chief…” etc. When liberals gave Rice hell during her confirmation hearing, the right-wing snarlers of cable TV pounced on Oliphant’s rendition. “I can’t even begin to describe it,” cried Joe Scarborough, “the racial stereotyping by a self-described liberal.” The Christian Coalition chimed in, claiming to see a pattern of “left-wing prejudice.” The agenda here is plain to see. Conservatives want to make it hard to go after a warmonger who happens to be black. And if they can pry African-Americans away from the liberal coalition, so much the better.

But some black commentators think Oliphant’s cartoon does reflect a pattern of bias. Washington Post columnist Colbert King sees that parrot as big-lipped and buck-toothed. “It’s hard to imagine a more demeaning and offensive caricature of a prospective secretary of state,” he writes. To King, both this image of Rice as a flying factotum and the accusation that she is too loyal to her boss resonate with the stereotype of shuffling blacks. Is King being a bit, um, sensitive? Perhaps. But there’s a long history of bigotry in editorial cartoons. The Irish once were regularly portrayed as monkeys, and Ariel Sharon has been drawn with a hooked nose in some European papers. Cartoons may make these negative attributes look funny, but the real purpose is to enforce a certain order through mockery. The fact that gay people can still be shown as limp-wristed pansies is a good indication of their uncertain status. That’s why some gay readers were shocked to see a recent cartoon by Robert Grossman in these progressive pages. Playing off recent speculation that Abraham Lincoln was gay, Grossman drew him as a flaming trannie.

Take a step back from the particulars and you can sense the anxiety that animates the cartoon wars. Fundamentalists are convinced that pop culture is stealing the souls of their children. Gays are concerned that liberals will abandon them, especially after the talk from leading Democrats about how same-sex marriage lost John Kerry the election. Liberals are caught in a bind, as the same system that thwarts the collective advancement of African-Americans bestows considerable power on some of them. Do some progressives resent blacks who rise by embracing conservative values? Do they wish gay rights would go away? Maybe not consciously, but such negative sentiments must exist along with empathy–we wouldn’t be human if they didn’t. And editorial cartoonists can sniff the emotional wind. The best of them delve into the subconscious.

During the 1996 campaign, Bob Dole was often drawn with a withered arm, or shown as a patient on an operating table. This idea was unspeakable in polite society, but it probably played a part in Dole’s defeat. Clinton was portrayed as a lubricious bozo with a bulbous phallic nose, while Bush is fitted with a tiny schnoz and giant ears, giving him a distinctly infantile aura. These images work by tapping into hidden feelings, and that is the mandate of editorial cartoonists. They are the tummlers of journalism. Of course, their revelations aren’t always welcome. Nor are they necessarily wholesome. Sometimes they reveal the fear and loathing behind the smiley face.

My generation will never forget Herblock’s vicious rendition of Richard Nixon as an unshaven demento, or David Levine’s infamous image of Lyndon Johnson lifting his shirt to show off a surgical scar in the shape of Vietnam. These sketches stick in the mind not just because of their content but because of their formal qualities. They capture something that seems essential, something we have always felt and perhaps feared in ourselves. It wasn’t just the sight of a Hasid kissing a West Indian woman on the cover of The New Yorker that caused such a furor in 1993. It was the power of this Art Spiegelman image as a cartoon.

The word once referred to a crude model of a more important work, and in a sense it still does. Cartoons have an unfinished look that leaves a lot of interpretive space. Their sparse details and antic distortions are surreal yet recognizable enough to hit the target, whether it’s a powerful politician or a basic human type. And because cartoons are the stuff of childhood, they invite us to enter a regressive, dreamy state. Movies do something similar through lighting, framing and the subliminal flicker of film itself. Cartoons work a bit like movies even when they are standing still.

To those who say that sometimes a parrot is just a parrot, I offer this memory of a cartoon that delighted me as a child. It was an animated trip to Africa, replete with nurturing lions, chatty monkeys and bouncy pickaninnies. It ended with a map of Africa, drawn in black. “And so we bid farewell to the dark continent,” the narrator intoned. Then a pair of huge white lips burst from the map, crooning “Bah-bye!” This image enchanted me then and embarrasses me now, but the fact that it remains embedded in my imagination says something about the enduring power of cartoons.

With the rise of graphic novels, computer-generated games and other meta-cartoon forms, it’s clear that this medium is central to the postmodern sensibility. The price of such authority is that no cartoonist can claim to be in it just for laffs. These unstable images are going to be the subject of intense examination and roiling debate. That can be hard on the creative process, but the good news is that you never know where the argument will lead. After Dobson’s remarks, the United Church of Christ announced that it welcomes SpongeBob into its flock, along with Tinky Winky. The cartoon wars continue.