There are few who possess the talent and the wit - whether it's making whimsy of a monumental world event, taking the mickey out of some prune-faced and overzealous old cadre, or simply transforming our chief executive into a shaved hedgehog. Our political cartoonists have more than just Tung Chee-hwa to thank and inspire them for their material - a unique mixture of social and political circumstances has created a vibrant space for satire in Hong Kong. And at no time is it more obvious than right now, in the midst of a crucial election campaign. Despite the still-palpable air of dissatisfaction and outrage that lingers from the July 1 marches, the most successful forms of criticism are always tempered with humour, as evidenced by the popularity of books such as Animal Farm, which printed 20,000 copies for this year's book fair, and the original Silly Old Tung, which took the event by storm in 2000, selling out all 40,000 copies within a month. There is a need for social and political criticism to be more subtle, more nuanced - even when it's going for the jugular. Arguably, none fit this calling better than political cartoonists. They are humorists, news junkies and accomplished illustrators. They have their fingers - and pens - on the pulse of Hong Kong. Zunzi, the popular satirist who draws for Ming Pao and Apple Daily, reads up to six newspapers a day, in addition to being briefed on the day's news by his editors. Despite their unique position, however, political cartoonists tend to play down their importance, rather than see themselves as the torchbearers of shaping or changing public opinion. Harry Harrison, a freelance illustrator who writes a daily editorial cartoon for the South China Morning Post, likens the role of a cartoonist to a flashlight - directing people's attention to lesser-known issues, and doing so by casting a different shade on the meaning of words and events. 'I don't think that my work has much political impact,' he says. 'Most Hong Kong people are pretty smart and are able to see through things, so I'm just here to direct their attention to it. I hardly think that anyone ever marched on Government House because they read my cartoons.' Zunzi says his goal is more than just to present a situation or to represent the facts. 'It used to be said that political cartoonists should be objective and fair,' he says, 'but my personal experience is that, the more I draw, the more I find that it is impossible to be fair and objective. Everyone has their own views. In political cartoons, one is expressing some hope, some expectation. If you're overly careful and objective, you won't be able to draw anything.' As anyone who has enjoyed the antics of Councillor Mut - Zunzi's protagonist who is stridently and often ridiculously pro-Beijing - will attest, Zunzi himself has fairly strong political views, and is not afraid to show it in his cartoons. 'I decided to use a more ironic approach with Councillor Mut because it would be more fun. Simply presenting the issues straightforwardly would make it too serious,' he says. 'I think it's not just the case in Hong Kong, but everywhere: politicians like to play word games, to use certain phrases to hide or gloss over things. It makes for good political cartoons to expose that.' The difference, however, is not only in the delivery but also in the intention. As Gavin Coates, political cartoonist for The Standard, says: 'The cartoon is on the opinion page, so it should be opinionated. I certainly see my role as, for example, to encourage the democratic process, and to point out hypocrisy in the government or wherever. 'When I lampoon Tung, for example, it is not because I hate him, but that he's said something or is in a situation that is daft. My view of Tung is that he's just someone out of his depth. He seems like quite a nice chap, actually, but you need to be more than just a nice chap when you're dealing with sharks.' Just as the long nose and wide face of Coates' Tung is a caricature of the chief executive's features, so too are the cartoonists' drawings a sketch of Hong Kong's political realities. Events and words may be exaggerated or thrown out of proportion to get a laugh, but at the same time it is not hard to see that they also reflect some underlying truths about the political landscape. 'You can usually find something funny about somebody,' says Harrison. 'Sometimes I get my material from people making these really rash statements; they obviously don't have any PR people advising them. They're like a bunch of loose cannons firing all the time, but in a way I like it, because it's more honest.' The visceral nature of the daily political cartoon can play to that - Harrison's August 27 cartoon (above right) on Law Chi-Kwong's planned Beijing visit, for example, is humorous just as much for the bloated and carnivorous panda as for the point underlying the cartoon - but it can also limit what a political cartoonist can accomplish within the frame. 'What gets printed on the newspaper expires every day,' Harrison says. 'By tomorrow no one will remember what you have drawn yesterday. So you have to be very focused in what you poke fun at.' This makes detailed or thematic analysis somewhat difficult. 'Political cartoons are a bit of a knee-jerk reaction,' says Zunzi. 'If you want to reflect a certain place and time through cartoons, then you have to look at a cartoonist's work over a period of time. You can't see it just through one or two cartoons,' he says. 'In Hong Kong it seems that there's only left and right - or the democrats versus the pro-Beijing camp,' Zunzi says, 'and because of this, we are more likely to draw lines and make distinctions in our cartoons and commentary. The truth may be that there are not too many differences between them.' Like the cartoonists' pencil sketches, when it comes to election campaigns, the parties' political platforms often feature more broad strokes than detailed, etched descriptions. While functional constituency candidates may still campaign on practical issues related to their professions, most geographical constituency candidates focus on the 'big issues' - the timetable for universal suffrage, the relationship between the government and the Democrats - rather than stances on specific policy issues. 'Of course they have a big picture or overall ideas in their platforms, but when you get to the details then a lot of what they say is trash - either they are unable or sometimes even unwilling to do what they promised,' says Zunzi. Coates says the electioneering allows political cartoonists to raise more questions. 'What is the Liberal Party, for example,' he says. 'One minute you're business, the next minute you're democratic - what's going on? 'Not many of this year's candidates are funny, actually, and I don't know what the cartoon on September 13 will look like right now. We'll just see as it goes along.' That was one point on which all three cartoonists agreed. With 159 candidates vying for 60 Legislative Council seats and the election heating up, there is plenty of work still to be done.