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On the death, dearth, and demographics of political cartoons

As you may have noticed, I’ve been off the blog for quite some time, as I’ve thrown myself pretty completely into political cartooning (the results of which are posted on the main page of this site). But today I wanted to do some more writing– about political cartoons. Mine and other people’s, but mostly other people’s.

Way back in high school, when I was taking journalism, I was given the assignment of performing and writing up an interview. I opted to interview Richard Crowson, editorial cartoonist for our local paper the Wichita Eagle. I don’t remember a great deal of what we talked about, but I remember lying on the floor of my bedroom (it was a phone interview, and I was a teenager), trying to quell my nerves, ask coherent questions, and record the answers at the same time. I remember that Richard was friendly and easy to talk to. I remember that he encouraged me to pursue the field myself if I was interested in it. And I remember that his name is pronounced like “ow,” as in, what you say if you get hurt, and not “oh” as in Son of Crow.

Crowson is still the editorial cartoonist for the Eagle, and it didn’t occur to me at the time of the interview to ask how common it was for an editorial cartoonist to be employed by one specific paper. I know that today, at least, it is extremely rare– today in the U.S. there are apparently fewer than 25 full-time cartoonists employed by papers, and most of them are getting up in years. They probably won’t be replaced with full-time cartoonists when they retire. A number of pieces have been written recently noting the grim prognosis for political cartooning– one such item by cartoonist Ted Rall went so far as to say “In the United States, political cartooning as we know it is dead. If you draw them for a living and you have any brains, you’re working in a different field or looking for an exit.”

Rall went on to provide a list of reasons for the demise of political cartooning in the above link, appropriately titled Political Cartooning Was Murdered. Here’s the Autopsy. It’s a good read. Though I don’t necessarily agree with all of his conclusions, I find it difficult to disagree with his thesis.

Recently Canadian cartoonist Michael de Adder lost his contract with New Brunswick papers (New Brunswick also being where he lives) in a dispute that conspicuously coincided with the publishing of a cartoon featuring his characteristically detailed caricature style applied to Donald Trump, pictured on a golf course, coming across the immigrants Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, and his 23-month-old daughter, Angie Valeria, drowned face-down in a river as they were in the photo most of us have been horrified by at this point.  In the cartoon Trump is depicted looking down at the deceased father and daughter and asking “Do you mind if I play through?”

Prior to that, the New York Times notably decided to cancel editorial cartoons altogether in response to outcry against its publishing of a clearly antisemitic cartoon in the newspaper’s international edition, a move that cartoonists have protested as a harmful overreaction, particularly Patrick Chappatte, a Lebanese-Swiss cartoonist who lost his job with the NYT due to factors entirely beyond his control. He wasn’t the one who drew the antisemitic cartoon, after all.

But those are far from the only recent job losses for editorial cartoonists. You can see a breakdown of them at Ted Rall’s piece above, which notes

Individual cartoonists are under fire around the world. Only in the United States, ‘land of the free,’ has the art form as a whole been targeted for systematic destruction by ruling elites and cultural gatekeepers. After decades of relentless, sweeping and never-reversed cutbacks there are now far more political cartoonists in Iran than in the United States. After terrorists murdered 12 people at Charlie Hebdo, a single publication in France, hundreds of U.S. newspapers ran editorials celebrating the power of cartoons; 99% of these hypocritical blowhards didn’t employ a single cartoonist.

Not too long after Rall published that piece, I received an email from Matt Bors, editor of The Nib which recently completed the fifth edition of their print publication, stating that First Look Media had dropped funding for The Nib as of the end of this month (July). Bors is continuing the site based on donor funding, however, which means that you can and absolutely should sign up for a membership to keep The Nib going.

Not long after that, rumors began to spread that satire magazine MAD, which has been around since the mid-1960’s and was beloved by so many of us, is coming to an end. I had recently been scanning eBay for books of Al Jaffee’s famous “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions” series, because I’d decided to come up with my own take on it.

In truth, though, I hadn’t been an avid consumer of Mad since I was kid. My experience was reflected in a Facebook post by cartoonist Signe Wilkinson, who noted

Mad Magazine closing was sad for geezers like me who grew up with it. I loved it so much I haven’t purchased a copy in the past several decades. Oddly, they apparently couldn’t live on nostalgia alone. Cartooning in which the cartoonists actually get paid is going through a dire rough patch. However, the impulse to make funny pictures about jerks in power will always be with us. I look forward to finding ways to pay the next generation of satirists. Perhaps the emperors of the Internet who circulate our work for free might have some suggestions.

Wilkinson’s official reflection in the Philadelphia Inquirer depicts two older-looking men sitting in a coffee shop with sad expressions on their faces, one of them remarking “What’s going to happen to visual satire NOW?!” with tears exploding from his face, while at a table immediately next to them, a female Alfred E. Neuman with a ponytail sits gleefully working on a cartoon on her tablet, stylus gripped in one hand and caffeinated beverage nearby. The implication being, clearly, that making “funny pictures about jerks in power” will continue, albeit perhaps in different forms and created by different authors/artists.

Now would, I suppose, be a good time to note that while I made a dedicated effort to start following editorial cartoonists when I took up that pursuit myself in earnest in 2016, I’ve noticed that the field is overwhelmingly populated, in America at least, by straight white men. (I may have gone on a couple of Twitter tears about the ramifications of that demographic representation.)

Indeed, some have gone as far as claiming that political cartoons should go away entirely, and be replaced by memes, whose production is (or at least, might be) more democratic. I don’t consider that likely, because memes and political cartoons are fundamentally different in their purposes, production, and audience. A meme is produced quickly, using photos or stills from video footage accompanied by text, usually for a niche audience. Political cartoons are hand-drawn by artists, intended for a broad audience. I can’t imagine memes replacing political cartoons in the places, in front of the audiences, where political cartoons have traditionally been consumed. But then, those places themselves are endangered.

One interesting solution to this exists in Counterpoint, a political cartoon newsletter launched in April by cartoonists Nick Anderson, Kal Kallaugher, and Rob Rogers. According to their press release, posted on the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists site,

We are pleased to announce the publication of Counterpoint, a revolutionary new approach to the publication and distribution of editorial cartoons.

Our motto: Seeking Truth Through Diverse Perspectives

Editorial cartoons have played an important role in American history, and have been an integral part of newspaper opinion pages. But, as evidenced by several recent firings, newspapers are killing editorial cartoons. If the fate of editorial cartoons is tied to newspapers, they are doomed.

For the past few months, Counterpoint, an email newsletter, has been quietly testing this new approach to distributing editorial cartoons. We are more than just a roundup of recycled editorial cartoons from syndication; Counterpoint pays for original content. When we publish our newsletter, these are a collection of cartoons that haven’t been seen anywhere else.

We’re the world’s first cartoon-led news media company, pioneered by the most talented and thought-provoking political cartoonists. We bring you strong opinions from the Left and the Right. One thing we never do is play it safe.

At Counterpoint, we feel it is neither possible nor desirable to be completely objective in discussing the news. To be human, is to have a point of view. Some news sources are more biased than others, but the problem is no one admits it. By showing multiple viewpoints on the news, with a deliberate attempt toward ideological balance, we hope to create more meaningful discourse. Our goal with this newsletter is to seek truth through diverse perspectives.

In practice, what this means is that the weekly email newsletter you receive (edition 15 arrived in my inbox this morning) contains a brief introduction with news, followed by a collection of cartoons from various artists (this edition had ten). These cartoons are apparently drawn specifically for Counterpoint, although the artists who drew them may be employed by newspapers as well.

Their diverse perspectives include those of Michael Ramirez, who drew this, Rick McKee, who drew this, and Mike Lester, who drew this. These are examples that appear to exemplify their general body of work, not exceptions from it. Which leads me to ask– how diverse do perspectives need to be, in order to create meaningful discourse, and when do they actually become impediments to such discourse?

Cartoonist Darrin Bell, who according to his Wikipedia profile is the first African-American to have two comic strips nationally, and incidentally also won the Pulitzer Prize this year, is one of those artists, and a lively discussion broke out on his Facebook page when he made a post encouraging people to sign up for Counterpoint that featured one of McKee’s recent cartoons. The cartoon portrays a vampire being scorched by the sun above him, screaming “AHHH..!! IT BURNS!” The sun is shaped like a capital letter Q, and inside it are the words “Are you a U.S. citizen?” On the vampire’s t-shirt is printed “The Left.”

Commenters on the post were unimpressed, and Bell had to edit the post to clarify in all-caps that he did not draw this cartoon. In response to one commenter who vowed to stop allowing co-founder Nick Anderson to promote Counterpoint on his page, Bell replied ” …or, you could watch the cartoonists you agree with rebut the cartoonists you DISagree with. Counterpoint is for those who enjoy seeing *competing* points of view. Anyone who’s not interested in that, shouldn’t sign up.”

The cartoonists on Counterpoint don’t really rebut each other, though– they just publish alongside each other. Which is probably just as well, considering that a political cartoon isn’t really an argument. It’s an expression of a viewpoint, certainly, but the purpose of a political cartoon is not really to persuade, or even to inform. It’s to provoke, whether a thoughtful response or an emotional response, or both.

Offense is certainly an emotional response, but I will maintain until the day I die that all offense is not created equal. Patrick Chappatte blamed his firing from the New York Times on “a world where moralistic mobs gather on social media and rise like a storm, falling upon newsrooms in an overwhelming blow. This requires immediate counter-measures by publishers, leaving no room for ponderation or meaningful discussions.” But in that same blog post, he acknowledged that the antisemitic cartoon never should’ve been published in the NYT in the first place. The problem is not that “moralistic mobs” were offended by the cartoon and left the NYT no choice but to stop carrying political cartoons altogether– it’s that the NYT made the unwise choice of publishing the cartoon, and then reacted to legitimate offense by punishing the wrong people for its decision.

I would never argue the point that Twitter can be a place where “moralistic mobs” gather in a way that resembles a natural disaster in both impact and lack of predictability, but that is precisely why the simple fact that people got rowdy on Twitter about something in no way necessitates that someone should lose their job as a result. And in Chappatte’s case, it certainly did not necessitate that if someone should lose their job, that person should’ve been him.

But if moralistic mobs are going to be offended by something, bigotry is a pretty good thing to be offended by, isn’t it? We’ve seen what happens when people aren’t offended by bigotry, and it isn’t pretty. And bigotry is basically hateful, dehumanizing generalizations made by powerful groups against disempowered groups, and political cartooning is making funny pictures about jerks in power. So if your cartoons are taking the side of the jerks in power, it seems like you’re doing it wrong.

That’s when your cartoons slip from satire into propaganda, according to a recent post by cartoonist Clay Jones. You should read the whole thing, and I’d buy a signed print of the cartoon there if I could afford it. Jones is talking about notorious right-wing political cartoonist Ben Garrison, he of the many labels, when the latter was invited to the White House social media summit:

Trump and other conservatives claim their voices are suppressed on social media. Basically, they scream suppression whenever one of their racist posts, personal attacks, or lies are removed. This is a very popular conspiracy theory among those who believe they’re the most oppressed segment in today’s society. You know, white, Christian, male conservatives. The summit will be an airing of grievances for conservatives without the Festivus pole. The only pole they’ll be dancing around will be Trump’s. . .

One guy who was invited, then uninvited is conservative-conspiracy-loving Ben Garrison, famous for using anti-Semitic images in his cartoons and for loving him some Trump. If Donald Trump could draw himself, it’d look like a Garrison drawing. Strong face, large hands, muscles, regular tie, and hair only slightly ridiculous. How much of a right-wing lunatic is Garrison to be uninvited to this troglodyte shitshow? . . .

I don’t have a problem that he’s a conservative cartoonist or that he even loves Trump something fierce. While I’m not a fan of his style, which consists of labels, labels, labels, and more labels, I respect that’s his thing and he’s not witty enough to write an idea that doesn’t need label overload. I can appreciate he doesn’t know how to actually draw a cartoon. I don’t care that he’s obsessed with Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (and in case you can’t identify them in his cartoons, they’re labeled).

My problem is he’s mistaken for a political cartoonist when he’s a propagandist. What’s the difference? For starters, a political cartoonist would NOT accept an invite to help a politician advance their agenda, even one that wasn’t based on conspiracy theories.

Garrison also bases his cartoons on conspiracy theories and not facts which is not something any journalist would do. And, yes. Political cartoonists are journalists. There are journalism awards for it. Although we engage in opinion journalism and satire and make a mockery of our targets left and right, a political cartoonist bases his work on truth. You can disagree with an opinion. You can find that the cartoonist left something out. The cartoonist is biased. The cartoonist is unfair. But, the cartoon is based on a fact. Benjy bases his shit on shit Donald Trump says. For Benjy, Donald Trump is truth.

In the post Jones goes on to differentiate Garrison from Ramirez, McKee, Scott Stantis, and Nate Beeler by saying that the latter group are conservative political cartoonists, while Garrison is a hack.

Benjy does not just drink the Kool-Aid. Benjy is on a Kool-Aid IV drip. If you don’t believe me, Google the guy. I’m not sharing a link here because he’s famous enough and today’s cartoon has done enough to increase his name recognition. But, the guy is a hack. He is extremely talented as an artist, but a hack.

Michael Ramirez, Rick McKee, Scott Stantis, and Nate Beeler are conservative political cartoonists. I can pick apart any argument they push into a political cartoon, but they’re still political cartoons. I love reading their work. I love reading Benjy’s work too because it’s inadvertently funny. It’s funny how much of a hack he is.

So in trying to cobble together an idea of what specifically differentiates a political cartoonist from a propagandist (or a hack, I suppose), I see these possibilities:

  • A political cartoonist should not push bigotry (I take this from Chappatte’s acknowledgment that while political cartoons can offend, the antisemitic cartoon should never have been published in the New York Times).
  • A political cartoonist should comment on the truth (I take this from Jones’s statement about political cartoonists as journalists).
  • A political cartoonist should not push conspiracy theories (I take this from Jones’s criticism of Ben Garrison).
  • A political cartoonist should be critical of the powerful (again from Jones, and also Wilkinson).

That might seem fairly clear-cut, especially if we were to take all of these stipulations as correct, but of course it isn’t clear-cut in practice. Two reasons for that:

  • Reasonable people, and certainly unreasonable people, can disagree about what counts as bigotry, the truth, conspiracy theories, and/or “the powerful.”
  • Neither political cartoonists nor propagandists/hacks create one piece of work and are done with it. I wouldn’t even want you to take my word for it that the single examples I linked to above for Ramirez, McKee, and Lester are actually representative of their work. It’s entirely possible for a cartoonist to create a couple of hacky pieces among what is otherwise a respectable body of work, just as it is for a stand-up comedian to have some hacky jokes in an otherwise great act.

So sadly, this post is not going to end with a firm, objective declaration of which people currently working as political cartoonists actually qualify to be such and which aren’t.

But that really isn’t the point regardless. The point is to share with you some of what I’ve learned about the state of political cartooning over the last couple of years, and also give you some tools to use evaluating political cartoons that you come across, or perhaps even draw yourself. Even though the cartoons don’t themselves contain arguments, or at least not especially elaborate ones, it’s a valuable thing to argue about those cartoons.  That is, as I see it, where the “meaningful discourse” can be found.

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