Is the American Editorial Cartoon Making a Comeback?

A little over a year ago, I wrote about The Herb Block Foundation’s gloom and doom report titled The Golden Age for Editorial Cartoonists at the Nation’s Newspapers is Over. Founded by legendary editorial cartoonist, Herbert Block, aka, Herblock, The Herb Block Foundation strives mightily to keep the tradition of the American editorial cartoon alive. Bound to the rapidly dying corpse of the American newspaper industry, American editorial cartooning seemed headed for the grave. News that Dan Perkins, aka Tom Tomorrow (some of his work shown above), will receive the 2013 Herblock Prize, however, might be a sign that the American editorial cartoon is making a comeback—not dying on dead trees, but coming alive with new technologies and social media. The phrase “see you in the funny pages” might be more of a thing of the past than ever.

First created in 2004, the Herblock Prize “encourage[s] editorial cartooning as an essential tool for preserving the rights of the American people through freedom of speech and the right of expression.” Just as Herblock in 1950 stood up to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s scare tactics and witch hunting with the cartoon titled “YOU MEAN I’M SUPPOSED TO STAND ON THAT?”, which coined the word "McCarthyism," cartoonists today often say in words and pictures and irony and sarcasm what the mainstream media can’t (or won’t). With the looming threat of fewer newspapers and increasing corporate media consolidation in America, editorial cartoonists seem now more than ever prophets crying in the wilderness of modern mass communications.

Those voices are growing a little louder and easier to hear thanks to the wonders of social media. In last year’s frightening report, Mark Potts, author of the blog Recovering Journalist, held up Mark Fiore and Ann Telnaes as examples of cartoonists who evolved (by creating animated online editorial cartoons) rather than face extinction. Chanting a modern “mantra of technological change: [f]aster, smaller, better, cheaper,” Potts called on cartoonists to “[think] beyond traditional pen and ink,” because “[t]he day when a journalist or cartoonist could expect a long-term, stable career, with a pension from a longtime employer, are over.” The last two choices for the Herblock Prize signal that Potts’ prediction for the possible future of American editorial cartooning might be coming true.

Matt Bors, last year’s Herblock Prize winner (and a judge on this year’s panel), reaches his audience through his own website and, a website promoting international political cartooning for which he serves as Comics Journalism Editor. Bors’ work still appears in print format, but the better part of his influence comes from his online presence, especially in his work on the international network of editorial cartooning, which acknowledges the globalization of economics and politics by matching it with a globalization of humor, perhaps the lingua franca of the new millennium.

Similarly, this year’s winner, Dan Perkins, better known to his fans as Tom Tomorrow, continues to place his comic This Modern World in periodicals, but, as long-time readers of his blog know, more subtractions from newspapers than new additions are the general rule. Perkins teamed with the highly influential progressive website to create a progressive comics page featuring not just his own cartooning, but also that of other editorial cartoonists looking for an audience (including Matt Bors). For that feat alone, Perkins deserves an award based on “preserving the rights of the American people through freedom of speech and the right of expression.” 

But the Herblock Prize remains ultimately about the work itself. Perkins skewers both the left and right in his comics, remaining true to his progressive ideals even when allegedly progressive politicians don’t. “The Return of Droney” (detail shown above, click here to see full comic) first ran on October 1, 2012, during the heat of the last presidential election and well before the mainstream media took notice of the moral dubiousness of the American drone program. Borrowing a page from Garry Trudeau of Doonesbury fame, Perkins creates a faux kid-friendly drone embodiment (ala, Trudeau’s Mr. Butts and the tobacco cartel) to sell kids (and presumably adults) on the benefits of death from the skies. Perkins also inserts real-life political figures as well as stock stand-ins for right-wing talking points to play up the human comedy of contemporary American politics as it verges on the warmer regions of Dante’s  Divine Comedy.

The great thing about Perkins’ cartooning is that he’s built up a cast of characters and repertoire approaches that reward repeated visits and diving into the archives. The sad thing about Perkins’ career is that he still has to rely on online subscriptions and virtual “tip jars” to keep his work economically viable. Similarly, Matt Bors looks for financial aid for his projects through KickStarter. That these artists are finding new forums for their work in new formats is great, but there’s still the challenge of keeping body and soul together while fighting the good fight in words and images. Just as Herblock turned the tide against McCarthyism in his day, we need Tom Tomorrow and editorial cartoonists like him to ensure a better tomorrow (tomorrow).

[Image: Dan Perkins, aka Tom Tomorrow. “The Return of Droney” (detail, click here for full comic), This Modern World, October 1, 2012.]

[Many thanks to Dan Perkins, aka Tom Tomorrow, for his permission to run the image shown above.]

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