Is the Editorial Cartoonist Dead?

My first introduction to newspaper reading was the Sunday comics. Stretched out on the floor beside my Dad, both of us propped up on our elbows, we read everything from Andy Capp to Ziggy. But my first introduction to reading a newspaper like an adult was the editorial cartoon. Pat Oliphant, Jeff MacNelly, and others soon became heroes as big to me as Spider-Man and Batman. Alas, with the death of the American newspaper comes the collateral damage of the demise of the editorial cartoon. The Golden Age for Editorial Cartoonists at the Nation’s Newspapers is Over, a report recently presented by The Herb Block Foundation (founded by legendary editorial cartoonist, Herbert Block, aka, Herblock), gives the grisly details and sad statistics behind the extinction of that now rare animal, the flourishing editorial cartoonist. Is the editorial cartoonist really dead? What does that mean for American politics and culture, today and tomorrow?

The numbers are truly stunning. “At the start of the 20th century, there were approximately 2,000 editorial cartoonists employed by newspapers in the United States,” the introduction to the report states. “Today there are fewer than 40 staff cartoonists, and that number continues to shrink.” The report tries to soften the blow by promoting the brave new world of online editorial cartooning, but can’t find a convincing way to make the job appear promisingly profitable. “It’s never been easier for anyone to find a wide audience for their self-expression,” the report quotes a nationally recognized cartoonist (who refused to be named), “the tough part is getting paid for it.” When an official of one of the nation’s leading editorial cartoon syndicates was asked how much value newspaper publishers place on editorial cartooning, he curtly replied, “Not much.” Money talks, so the editorial cartoonist walks… right out the door, taking his or her talents and valuable, challenging voice into the silent void.

Mark Potts, who titles his blog Recovering Journalist, offers a helpful primer on technological changes for the editorial cartoonist and holds Mark Fiore and Ann Telnaes up as examples of cartoonists who have adapted (by creating animated online editorial cartoons) rather than died. Chanting the modern “mantra of technological change: [f]aster, smaller, better, cheaper,” Potts calls 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.” If I were a young artist hoping to enter editorial cartooning and have a home and family, that last sentence would send me running.

The most interesting section of the report, for me, was the short essays by (non-)working editorial cartoonists. Mark Fiore strikes a note of hope, writing that the current situation, although “depressing,” can also “be somewhat liberating.” Fiore challenges his fellow cartoonists to change their “mindset from the days of staff political cartoonists and look at ourselves as free-agent personalities. We are in charge, not the publishers.” “Sure, the safe stability of a small raise at your annual review is gone, but you can aim higher on your own,” Fiore concludes. “In short, the stakes are higher: You can lose more and you can win more.” Fiore, unfortunately, is the exception among the field.

At the other, darker end of the spectrum, you’ll find the always brutally honest and controversially direct Ted Rall. Rall calls the situation “bleak, bordering on hopeless.” He doesn’t fear that editorial cartooning will die as much as it will lose all professionalism and be left in the hands of amateurs who, no matter how skilled or committed, can never reach the top tier. “It takes years of trial and error to become a good cartoonist,” Rall rails. “Name a giant like [Bill] Mauldin or [Charles] Schulz or [James] Thurber and you will discover years of youthful experimentation that precedes the cartoons for which they are now remembered.” The exodus of young, talented editorial cartoonists such as Chris Kelly, Kaz, Lloyd Dangle, Mikhaela B. Reid, Tim Kreider, and David Rees from the business troubles Rall more than anything else. “Unless something dramatic happens, I expect that there will be fewer than a dozen professional editorial cartoonists left in the near future (10 years or less),” Rall fortells. “All will be old (over 60).” These old cartoonists will then draw in “an old-fashioned style that does not resonate with younger readers,” thus marginalizing the genre itself from future generations and relegating it to the status of “an esoteric throwback… like classical theater, experimental dance and fusion jazz.” Editorial cartooning will then die what seems to be a fitting death—extinction with the last of its dinosaur professional practitioners.

I believe that editorial cartooning serves an important role in American society, and one that I want my sons to experience in the future. What would America look like today if Herblock hadn’t drawn the cartoon titled “YOU MEAN I’M SUPPOSED TO STAND ON THAT?” on March 29, 1950 and coined the word "McCarthyism" (detail shown above)? When so many others refused to stand up to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s scare tactics and witch hunting, Herblock took on what he later called “a national affliction” and offered a cure through cartooning. Laughter (and ridicule) soon proved to be the best medicine.

The Herb Block Foundation’s mission statement states that, in addition to encouraging the art of editorial cartooning, they are “committed to defending basic freedoms, combating all forms of discrimination and prejudice and improving the condition of the poor and underprivileged.” For Herblock, cartooning and a commitment to humanity were inseparable. If editorial cartooning dies, part of that commitment to humanity dies as well—robbed of a form of expression that takes down the powerful and points out the cruelly absurd. Some day our children will need their own Herblock, their own Mauldin, their own Rall. I hope one is there.

[Image: Herblock. “YOU MEAN I’M SUPPOSED TO STAND ON THAT?” (detail). A 1950 Herblock Cartoon, copyright by The Herb Block Foundation.]

[Many thanks to The Herb Block Foundation for providing me with the image above.]

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