Toon Musings: (Political) Cartoons Under Siege
Political strongman Boss Tweed once famously said this of the political cartoonist Thomas Nast: “I don’t care a straw for your newspaper articles; my constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures.” I cut my teeth on collections of cartoons by Bill Mauldin that my dad had lying about the house. As a result of my early obsession, I can tell you all about Khrushchev, and that slippery bastard Castro, and Lumumba, and anti-anti-anti-missile-missile-missiles. And Willie and Joe. I later explored the work of Jim Borgman (who draws Zits in the funny papers these days), Jeff MacNelly (who I generally disagreed with, but boy howdy, could he draw!) and the great Pat Oliphant (who I generally agreed with, except the horribly retrograde anti-feminist and anti-Arab stuff). It’s a great way for children, or the feeble-minded, or just people short of time or patience to get a quick ’n dirty summation of the issues of the day. One must pick one’s cartoonists carefully, though, because as with columnists, the views expressed are only as good as the cartoonist is honest, or relevant. But due to the distilling nature of the cartooning medium, it’s like drinking espresso; if it’s good, it’s concentrated tasty, but if it’s poison, it’s super-extra-poisony. I like to sample a bunch of them, to get a variety of views, plus a few reliable mainstays: Ben Sargent, Tom Toles, Ann Telnaes, Matt Davies.
Lately though, political cartoons have been under siege. Much of the economic viability of comics in general, and political cartoons in particular, is tied up with economic situation that the print media finds itself in. Newspapers and newspaper syndication provided the humble cartoonist with a captive audience and a steady paycheck; some lucky ones even became fabulously wealthy, but the barriers to entry were always ridiculously high. The internet changed all that, and getting cartoons published became vastly easier for the new creators, but also far less (often 100% less!) lucrative; they had to become businesspersons, or have another unrelated source of income entirely, to practice their craft. The already employed cartoonists saw their livelihoods threatened because newspapers suffered as well; their ad revenue plummeted, and they began dropping syndicated features or laying off their resident cartoonists, or consolidating with other papers, or transitioning to online only, or going out of business entirely. There were epic feuds wherein syndicated cartoonists debated whether online-only comics was a career or just a hobby, even as their own economic viability suffered. The situation is still unresolved.
Comics remain an excellent audience generator, I would contend; and further, political cartoons provide a vital service to the reader. The news media, however, seem to be rethinking the role of comics in their future. The always excellent Comic Strip of the Day weaves a tale of journalistic malfeasance. Since you probably didn’t see it, Let me tell you about it.
Almost a year ago, the Florida Times-Union endorsed Donald Trump for president. They said he was a “change agent.” Well, recently one of the editors admitted a problem: he is frustrated with editorial cartoons. Apparently, they offend people. Since Trump was elected, this editor has “…had difficulty finding balance.” He says, “So why all the negative cartoons on Trump? That’s what cartoonists are drawing.”
His solution? Don’t run ‘em. Print pretty pictures instead. Uplifting pictures. Could it be that since their endorsement, and the subsequent election victory of their preferred candidate, the world has been treated to an ongoing display of greed, spite, mendacity, and naked incompetence seldom seen outside a Molière play, or an episode of Jackass? I will resist the temptation to ask the solons of the Times-Union how their endorsement is working out for them. I will note, however, that there is no shortage of Trump-sympathetic cartoonists. One even worked for that very paper until 2010, when they laid him off. As you might expect, the industry has responded.
There seems to be a mania in journalism for finding balance. For example, if some pundit comes out with an opinion strongly condemning, say, indiscriminate puppy murder, the editor feels obligated to beat the bushes for a piece declaring puppy murder to be a fine and noble pursuit, or at least that it’s none of society’s business what puppy murderers are up to. Throw both opinions out there and let the reading public decide. No matter that it’s one twisted puppy murderer versus… well, Everyone Else. Taking a stand is just too much work, and liable to upset someone.
Fairness and rationality are difficult; objectivity may be an unattainable ideal, but all are noble goals. Balance is not. Balance is bullshit. When presented with Crazy on one hand, Sane on the other, is Half-crazy the proper stance? Of course not. Nor is the alternative the feckless Times-Union editor chooses: abdication. Abject cowardice is not a good quality in an opinion page editor, nor is intellectual laziness, but perhaps there’s another motive. It costs money to run cartoons, either from an on-staff cartoonist or from a syndicated one. File photos are another matter; the staff photographer is already paid for. So is it plain old avarice that’s driving his decision?
There are places online to get political cartoons, such as The Nib, or Mark Fiore, or at the various surviving newspaper or syndicate sites, or at the website of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists itself, but as with cartooning in general, the monetization of political cartoons, at least for those who make them, continues to be a situation in flux.
Political Cartoonist Ed Sorel said this at the recent AAEC convention: “The world has changed and they don’t need us anymore. I have no answers.” I would amend that to say “they don’t think they need us. But they’re wrong.”
Phil Maish is a freelance cartoonist of no repute. His modest efforts may be viewed at myth-fits.com. He has worked for the Government, the Press, the Opera, and a Soulless Corporation. Self-taught and beholden only to his formidable wife and amazing son, he spends his free time gadding about in his vintage autogyro and, with his faithful manservant Nicopol, exploring forgotten ruins, discovering hitherto unknown animal species, smashing spy rings, and regaling fellow members of the League of Intrepid Adventurers with tales of his intrepid adventures.