Comics, being one of the most democratic art forms around, have long been a powerful agent for social change, so why is the medium becoming so dry and complacent in contemporary times?
Question: Why are cartoons important to society?
Michael Kupperman: Cartoons and comics are important for two kind of opposite reasons. I think for reading material, they're very compelling, they're a marriage of the visual and the narrative and in my work, what I hope to achieve is art that takes you outside of your normal perception of society, of reading, or power relationships, it takes you outside of normalcy. But cartoons and comics started as the sister art of film and for a while there, I think in the '40's, they were actually leading, the comics like Dick Tracy, the comic strips would be, I think more shocking and more dynamic than most films being made at the time. And so for a while, I think comics were actually leading the culture. Now, they're in more of a follower status, they're following film, they're following, you know, personality and celebrity, and so on.
But I think comics are important also because, I mean, to me, part of the attraction was you could do a drawing on a page, reproduce it, you know, at the time for 5 cents a page, and just hand it out. It's one of the most democratic art forms there is. All you need is a pen and a piece of paper, you know, and you're in business.
Question: Are cartoons important politically these days?
Michael Kupperman: No, I think political cartoons, at least in this country, are kind of a mess. I'm still seeing, there are still cartoons working in England, who I think are doing interesting work in that vein because they're allowed to be as venomous as they like. In America, all I see is either this kind of wishy-washy, you know, joke-making thing, or else it's someone whose venom has taken over their brain and they're no later capable of making a coherent cartoon.
You don't have cartoonists any more like Thomas Nast, I think that's really a specific period in history and he was exceptionally vicious in a lot of ways. I think Horace Greely, the presidential candidate who kind of killed him, you know, he drove him to his sick bed and then shortly after that he died, you know, Nast could just be extraordinarily vicious guy, just really go after people. And no publication now here is really going to encourage that.
Question: Has fear of libel suits hurt cartoon quality?
Michael Kupperman: Yeah, I think every publication is terrified of being sued, to a ridiculous degree, they really are. And what's said is, I don't think the people in magazines even have a knowledge of the first amendment. You know, they don't even know what they could be sued for, so they just avoid anything that has the appearance of potentially inviting a lawsuit. It's extraordinarily weak behavior.
Recorded on December 19, 2009