Friday, May 3, 2013

"A good editorial cartoonist should get out of bed mad and stay mad all day." --Paul Conrad

In a 1984 Society of Professional Journalists dinner and meeting, Steve Sack, Jerry Fearing and I appeared to speak and show slides of our cartoons. It was almost 30 years ago, so I don’t remember that much about it. The one thing I do recall is that I said, “Steve is too nice to be a political cartoonist!” and that this brought a huge laugh, especially from those who knew him.

This month Steve won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning. I congratulate him. But I still think he’s too nice--most of the time--to be doing political cartoons, at least to be doing them all of the time. Some of the cartoons he had in the portfolio that went to the Pulitzer committee were really great. All were really clever. Most were really funny. I loved the one with the graduates thowing their caps up in the air and the anvils and pianos and anchors representing “DEBT” coming back down in the next panel.

 Today’s version of the Pulitzer “Plan of Award” for cartoons says that the prize is to be given “For a distinguished cartoon or portfolio of cartoons, characterized by originality, editorial effectiveness, quality of drawing and pictorial effect.”

The snag here is “editorial effectiveness.” The “test of excellence" for “distinguished editorial writing” is defined by the plan as clearness of style, moral purpose, sound reasoning, and power to influence public opinion in what the writer conceives to be the right direction, using any available journalistic tool.” Sack definitely shows clearness of style and sound reasoning, and probably even some moral purpose--or at least, a moral compass. But very few of Sack’s cartoons ever appear to make any effort to influence public opinion in any direction. They almost invariably are illustrations that simply reiterate the headlines in a visual form, usually with a clever sight gag.

If you translate Sack’s cartoons into words, almost all of them convey a simple observation from a news story. They are usually very clear and easy to understand. But they don’t SAY anything beyond the obvious. They imply a moral position, as do all news stories by the mere fact that they are selected to run based on covering events that affect us and effect us. But they don’t offer any leadership about influencing public opinion. The “positions” he takes are so broad and at such a level of near-universal agreement (e.g. “winter is sure taking a long time to end this year,” the message of a recent cartoon showing a robin going “chirp chirp chirp” and a motorist clearing the snow and ice off his car windshield with a “chip chip chip”) they don’t challenge anyone to think about anything they might disagree with.

Here’s what the Pulitzer-winning cartoons “SAY”:
“The water’s fine” says the super-PACs have caused politics to be very dirty.
“Greece/Austerity” says austerity won’t do much to help Greece get moving again.
“Li’l Kim” says the Korean dictator is crazy for doing rocket tests.
“Next overseas summit” says the Secret Service will be having to keep their pants on in the future.
The one of the Pope on homosexuality. THAT is a GREAT one. It goes way beyond just reiterating a headline. It’s a true editorial and the “gimmick” is not just delivering a light-hearted observation but an actual opinion.
“JP Morgan” suggests investing through a company like this is a crap shoot.
“Repeal Obamacare” says the Right wingers are getting worked up into a lather repeatedly over it.
“Paterno Legacy” says a lot of people got hurt in his rise to fame.
“Jobs” shows that Obama’s rep is stained by unemployment.
Bachmann is embarrassing Minnesota.
VP Joe makes gaffes.
iPhones are like a combination of some of the game apps you can play on them.
Lance Armstrong used drugs.
Republicans are losing the numbers they need to survive as a party.
Right wing politicians are capitalizing on conspiracy theorists.
Gun control isn’t happening because of the NRA.

I’m not saying these aren’t done well. They are cute, clever, funny, fun. The WAY they are said is mostly pretty good, sometimes really great. I’m just pointing out that the underlying MESSAGE is too easy. Too superficial. Missed opportunities to wield some “power," one of the characteristics called for by the Pulitzer plan. Imagine if you took this kind of humor and did really pointed, substantial editorial analyses and messages. Imagine you said something with these that the headlines didn’t already say, or even something that the verbal pundits hadn’t yet said or wouldn’t say. Kind of like political cartoonists used to do before the newspapers were all bought out by giant corporations and they were replaced with clever, cute illustrators.

The effect tends to be (and I am influenced to reach this conclusion partly by having known Steve in college and getting a sense of his personality from personal contact, but I do think it comes across even more in his cartoons if you read a number of them and really stop and ask yourself what is being conveyed in them) that he puts out a message of resignation to passively accepting the status quo. I’m not sure if I dislike this as much as I dislike the cynicism of cartooning typified by Matt Groening’s “Life in Hell" or “The Simpsons." Which is worse, cynicism or resignation? Which is more the opposite of what I think of as great political cartooning, exemplified by Thomas Nast, the “Father of American Political Cartoonists?” There is no outrage. There is not even a hint of any presumption that the problems being depicted should or could be tackled. It’s a feeling of, “Oh well, (sigh) what are you gonna do.” The children’s illustration style of drawing is part of it, but it’s more the content of the cartoons, the idea or writing that fails to provoke. Thomas Nast was offered a bribe by Boss Tweed to take a vacation in Europe to “stop them damn pictures.” I can’t imagine anyone trying to get today’s “editorial” cartoonists to take a powder.

Another memorable line spoken from the distant past was uttered when Steve began submitting some editorial cartoons to the Minnesota Daily, the University of Minnesota student newspaper we both worked at. I was the one who persuaded the editors of the Daily to create the position of a full-time editorial cartoonist in 1974. They agreed and hired me and I drew five cartoons a week until I ran for student president in the spring of 1976. Steve had been an illustrator and moved in on the cartooning position when I took leave to run for office.

Looking at how tame and mild, even meek, his cartoons were, I asked him one day, “Why do you want to do political cartoons?” I thought he was a good illustrator and he was very good at drawing in the style that most editorial cartoonists were drawing in at the time, but even the editorial editor agreed with me that Sack was not “really” an editorial cartoonist.

Steve looked very uncomfortable, and fidgeted a little and squirmed in the sofa we were sitting in next to each other, and eventually replied in his soft, twangy, Wally Cox voice (kind of a toned-down and very white Steve Erkel for you under-forty kids), “Well, you know, I sort of just, I want to be kind of like a wise-ass.” I was stunned. “That’s it?” He just shrugged.

This was not what I wanted to hear anyone who was doing political cartoons ever to say. I had this great vision that our job was to really slay dragons and provoke the masses to take umbrage against injustice, abuse of power and hypocrisy. I took my direction from Old School mentors like Bill Sanders and Ross Lewis of the Milwaukee Journal and Herb Block of the Washington Post, both of whom had spent many hours in person or on the phone with me showing me the ropes and impressing upon me the idea that we had an important responsibility to the readers to do just that. Two of them were Pulitzer winners themselves, and the third was widely syndicated and frequently reprinted in Time and Newsweek, famous for his “sledgehammer” style.

Sanders took me to school one afternoon when I brought in one of my earliest college newspaper cartoon efforts, something like what Sack always was good at--a funny cartoon about lab rats adapting to Warfarin rat poison, in which I drew a big fat rat munching on some of the stuff and remarking, “Hey, this stuff ain’t half bad once you get used to it.”

“If you want to be an entertainer,” Sanders lectured, “that’s up to you.” But, he insisted, if I wanted to do EDITORIAL cartoons, a good editorial cartoon had to be just that--”an editorial first, and a cartoon second.” He asked me which cartoonists I liked. I made the mistake of starting to say, “Well, I kind of like MacNelly--” I was about to say “MacNelly’s DRAWINGS and how funny some of his cartoons are,” not meaning everything about MacNelly, when Sanders abruptly and scornfully cut me off.

Sanders, who had a charming Kentucky accent, turned red and shouted in a voice that you would have sworn was being done by Mel Blanc aka Foghorn Leghorn, “MacNELLY?!!” He sat bolt upright in the chair he was usually sitting so far back in he was almost reclining. “MacNELLY?!!!” He blared again, almost stuttering. “But Pete! WHY?!” You could see the hairs on his neck raise up and he abruptly yanked the top drawer of his desk open and pulled out a pile of syndicated cartoon sheets and slapped them down on the top of his desk.

“I’ve got--” He started counting the cartoons out quickly with his index finger, jabbing staccato at the air above each one (and under his breath half-whispering “...two, three...six, seven...twelve...”) “Ah’ve got twelve, Ah’ve got THIRTEEN MacNelly cartoons right here, and I want you to take a look at these and tell me what this man is trying to SAY." I was dumbfounded. I was an 18-year-old kid in the intimidating presence of my primary role model, a man my father’s age, who had his own private office next to the editor in chief’s in a huge building of granite and brass with giant chandeliers in the 50-foot-ceiling lobby who I had to go through two guards and a secretary to get in to see, and he seemed to be inordinately upset with me! I wasn’t sure if it was just professional jealousy, or if he really was this upset with me for failing to “get it" about editorial cartooning. I quickly decided, the latter!

“Ah challenge you!" Sanders persisted emphatically, “Ah DEFY you, to show me ONE MacNelly cartoon in which you can clearly know what it is he is expressing his opinion about, and what side he is taking. Ah DEFY you!” As I came around behind the desk and stood there sort of shaking in my Adidas and perspiring, but also half-sheepishly smiling about how much passion and conviction and caring my friend and teacher was expressing, I looked over the cartoons and agreed that this kind of cartooning, what Sanders soon after wrote and spoke about as “situation cartoons,” meaning cartoons that merely depicted a situation without really analyzing and providing an opinion with deep conviction, was really not what good newspaper editorial cartooning is all about.

In the years since, as I have watched the number of staff editorial cartoonist positions at daily newspapers dwindle down from around 300 when I first got into the profession in the early 1970s to something like 60 today, all the while I have thought of Sanders, and Herblock, and Ross Lewis, and MacNelly, and known that the reason newspapers are losing so many readers and so many cartoonists isn’t so much because of any competition from the internet, or lifestyle changes among readers (hey, movies were supposed to go out with big-screen TVs, and they are still doing well), but because editors have replaced political cartoonists with illustrators. As a partial proof, I refer to the fact that when I was staff cartoonist for City Pages for 10 years, six of the seven years I submitted entries to the Society of Professional Journalists competitions, my work won first place, ahead of this year’s Pulitzer-winner, a number of times. In those cases, the cartoons were funny, they were clever, but they were also much “deeper” in what they said, not just cute in how they said it. So I would argue that if anyone today were doing the really deep and risk-taking “editorial first, cartoon second” cartoons, those would be more what Mr. Pulitzer had in mind when he designated the prize.

In my first book, “Buy This Book” (1980), I recounted a true anecdote about how I was in line to become the staff editorial cartoonist for the Minneapolis Star when I was on the staff of the Daily. The Star was using two or three of my cartoons every week for quite a few months, until I did an especially controversial cartoon in the Daily, after which they continued using a fair amount of my work but cooled to treating me like a shoo-in to replace the soon-to-retire Roy Justus. It was close to the time they hired Craig MacIntosh, another illustrator-turned-almost-cartoonist, instead of me. I came in as I did every week to hand them some of my cartoons. They were standing around, Harold Chucker and Steve Alness, the editorial and opinion editors, and looking at some of Craig’s work. I remarked, “These are well drawn, and kind of humorous, but they don’t seem to have much of anything to say.”

“That’s EXACTLY what we’re looking for!" Chucker and Alness chimed in unison. I wish I could say they were ribbing me, but they weren’t laughing! And of course, they hired Craig.

When my friend Scott Long retired from the Minneapolis Tribune in 1981, I didn’t even bother to apply for the job. I had met the editors of the Trib a couple of years earlier and found them to be so satirically illiterate, I knew I wouldn’t want to work with them. Their overly literal interpretations of several cartoons are also recounted in the book--unintentional ironic humor on their part. I showed those at some of my comedy shows and the verbatim reactions from the editors that I reported to the audiences all brought very big laughs. Everybody got it but the editors.

In the same book, I reprinted a cartoon Steve drew about me when I ran for U of M student president in 1976. It was a great drawing and very funny. It showed me as a sort of Tasmanian Devil character in a cage with my long, hairy, clawed arm reaching out from the bars for a bone in my pet dish, with zookeepers labelled “Minnesota Daily editors" perched on top poised with butterfly nets and whips and chairs, and my opponent, Karen Olsen, an archetypical pre-feminist “cupcake” standing off to the side with a big bow in her hair, a balloon, and a dippy look on her face. It was captioned, “The match of the century: Suzie Sorority vs. Johnny Charisma.”

Steve gave me the original, which of course I loved and I had up in my studio over my drawing table for many years. It read, “To Pete. A political cartoonist’s worth is measured by the number of people who hate his guts. To one of the best.” Now if only he could have put THAT kind of sentiment into at least SOME of his cartoons!!!

Steve, you know I love you, and congratulations again. But I hope you can find it within yourself to get over being so damned nice.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Wag Cartoon Albums at Facebook

Like many blogs, mine are infrequently updated. Many more are never updated after the first few entries. Most people are too busy to take the time, and if you aren't either independently wealthy or selling something to help sustain yourself, it's even harder to justify doing these. For this topic, political cartooning, I feel it is important enough to try to put something out there to at least create a slight CHANCE of recovering the medium to some degree by offering an approach I've taken that departs significantly from what the corporate cartoonists do and attempts to apply the higher goals and methods of political cartooning that have been used in years past--for example, most recently, by Ward Sutton when he was writing and drawing them for the Village Voice in the past decade, and going back to Bill Sanders, the retired Milwaukee Journal editorial cartoonist who is still blogging and cartooning today, to Thomas Nast, to Ben Franklin's "JOIN, OR DIE" snake cartoon.

As I take occasional jabs at doing a new political caricature sketch here or there, and make some comments that I would otherwise be putting into cartoon form if I had a base and the time and enough income to allow me to do so, I usually post these at my Facebook page on political cartooning, which started out primarily as a place to make available an archive of my past cartoons from various publications. At this point, the cartoons that can be found there are almost all from the Minnesota Daily, where I returned to draw as staff editorial cartoonist in the late 1990s and early 2000s while earning my Master of Fine Arts degree in Multimedia Design and beginning work on a PhD in Design Communication.
Here is the URL for that page, for those who would be interested:
I will continue to post occasional comments here about political cartooning as a medium or art form, and about the political cartooning profession, but for some of my political cartoons themselves or topical satirical and sarcastic analysis, albeit mostly verbal for now, please visit the Facebook page. Thanks for any interest and support in this often seemingly futile effort.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Pioneering Animated Political Cartoons

I sent congratulations to Mark Fiore after he won the Pulitzer Prize for political cartooning a few weeks ago. He is one of my heroes, along with Ward Sutton, who drew political cartoons for Rolling Stone for a few years until RS fired pretty much all of its cartoonists.

The fact that the Pulitzer committee was smart and with-it enough to give the award to Fiore is nothing short of amazing. They are known for their stodginess. Oliphant, who won it several times in the 1960s, mocked it saying that all he had to do was to use a kind of jingoistic rah-rah-Amerika formula to win it, and sure enough, it worked. (He never got another one after he said that.)

I went back to grad school in the late '90s to try to get some ideas and skills to help me improve my own efforts at doing animated political cartoons, which began on the Amiga computer in 1986. I may have been the first to do so on a personal computer. Bill Sanders, one of my mentors, (cartoonist for the Milwaukee Journal), was one of the first to try to do them on big network mainframe computers, and there were animated political cartoons offered to TV stations in the late 1970s, called "Cartoonitorials." These were run on a Madison, WI TV station when I was there as a grad student in the School of Mass Communication and Journalism at the University of Wisconsin. I was taking TV production courses trying to pursue this idea. I also recall PBS Newshour taking a stab at them, maybe 20 years ago.

I pretty much gave up on the animated political cartoon in grad school both times. But I did land a gig on the local KMSP-TV morning news show that I stuck with for a few months (getting up at 4 am just wasn't worth it!), where I did a combination of live drawing + showing my animated cartoons + commenting with satirical remarks.

It just doesn't seem that animated political cartoons ever really "take off." Maybe at some point in the future, someone will find a way to pull it off. It will take a team, not an individual, to do something that could work on that level. I'm still interested... call me if you have an idea how!

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Welcome to my Political Cartoon blog

I will be posting some of my body of political cartoon work here, but the main purpose of the blog will be to discuss the political cartoon as an art form and to promote what little chance remains for it to be revitalized in my lifetime. Currently the political cartoon is for all intents and purposes as dead as a doornail thanks to the following:

  • corporatization of the news media

  • political correctness

  • decline of interest in news

  • the fear of litigation for libel

  • the fear of physical attack by religious fanatics, ideologues and pyschologically or emotionally disturbed individuals

  • editors who are satirically illiterate, visually illiterate and humor-impaired

  • cartoonists who are not really cartoonists, but opportunistic illustrators who invaded the field and made cartoons so boring and irrelevant readers abandoned them in droves

Corporatization of news media is something I began decrying in 1974, long before it was commonly accepted to be a problem. I attacked the effects of corporatism on political cartooning in detail in my first book, BUY THIS BOOK (1980). "Alternative Media" magazine in New York excerpted segments of the book relating to this threat. Newspapers shifted from a semi-public service ethic (or at least the pretense of it) to unabashed, shameless profit motive during the Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush years. As papers disappeared through mergers and acquisitions, cartoonists who posed the slightest threat to the status quo (and therefore, the editors wrongly reasoned, offending and losing readers, thus reducing circulation/subscriptions, and losing income) were the first to go as more and more were fired off. As openings occurred for new cartoonists, only the most innocuous, vapid "wrists" were taken on. The ability to generate cute, clever sight gags and/or elaborate technical drafting skills replaced the ability to think or analyze the news. Fear of controversy led to boring cartoons that no longer attracted any attention or followings. To the idiot editors who were afraid to hire me or publish my cartoons back then because I criticized this trend and insisted on continuing to adhere to the principles of classical political cartooning that placed making a bold statement in a risk-taking way above kissing your asses: I TOLD YOU SO.

Political correctness has resulted in near-universal satirical illiteracy and a total breakdown of the trust that is needed between the artist and the audience in order for satire to work. Readers, especially younger readers, are on continuous 24-hour hair-trigger alert just waiting to find something to be offended by so they can bitch about their group being victimized. I recommend Camille Paglia for readings on this subject--any of her books are great. To get a clue about what clear, genuine, hard-hitting satire looks and sounds like, find Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles"--an uncensored version--and study it. "The Daily Show" and Colbert are not so much satire as they are sarcasm--a dumbed-down substitute for actual satire. All the risk is removed. (Wink, wink, know-what-I-mean, say-no-more, say-no-more?) Double entendre is key to satire. The fear of being called a sexist or a racist or a homophobe has obliterated satire and in the process has, ironically, rendered one of the most powerful weapons against those maladies and others completely impotent. The bully tactics or Stalinism of the believers in political correctness (many of whom, like my worst editor ever, Steve Perry of City Pages, pretend to disapprove of but hypocritically adhere to) invariably call for the firing of anyone who deploys satire that obviously intends to attack sexism, racism or homophobia but does so by depicting the sexists, racists or homophobes using the kinds of language, symbols or actions they actually do use. There is no room for discussion. The chilling effect on open, honest discourse by political correctness today is even worse than it was from McCarthyism in the 1950s, because it has become so "hip" to buy into it and because nobody has had the gonads to stand up to it like someone did to McCarthy.

The decline of interest in the news is related to the rise of New Media. Once we went from three large television networks and the dominance of daily newspapers to cable TV, people who wanted something to watch or read switched en masse from watching the evening news and reading papers to "amusing ourselves to death," as Neil Postman put it, watching nothing but dumbass shows like sports and entertainment. But it was largely the fault of the same reactionary editors and publishers mentioned above, whose sensibilities remained in the Dark Ages while other media moved along with the dominant culture. Shock jocks like Howard Stern and shows like Michael Moore's "TV Nation" were more in touch with the changes that were happening in mass culture. Editors kept insisting on enforcing a tone that was so outdated, the cartoons they selected for publication and the cartoonists they hired were positively quaint and the readership of cartoons died off with the rest of the paper.

Fear of litigation was not really that huge of an influence on the decline of the political cartoon, but it did contribute to a "chilling effect." Even after my former boss and First Amendment hero Larry Flynt specifically won the battle to allow satire to be published with little reason to fear lawsuits, editors and publishers were scared of their own shadows. Whether events like Gen. William Westmoreland's famous $120 million libel lawsuit against CBS television in the early-to-mid-1980s, which was settled out of court before it went to the jury, really frightened editors away from publishing biting satire as much as it seemed or was merely another excuse to avoid risking alienating advertisers and subscribers by publishing biting satire, it became a variable in the demise of political cartooning.

Another factor now contributing to the death of the political cartoon is the fear of the death of the cartoonists themselves--jihads and death threats by intolerant ideologues and those who would shoot doctors who perform abortions, as well as emotionally or psychologically unstable individuals who just happen to pick out public figures of any kind to target for assassination. (Some would argue that anyone who would commit murder is unstable.) Victor Navasky's book, Art of Controversy (2012), documents a number of attacks and assassinations of political cartoonists that were provoked by their cartoons. In the past decade, Danish cartoonists who depicted Mohammed in their cartoons have been receiving some protection from their government in the wake of threats that they will be killed because of their cartoons. After I drew a cartoon about the Symbionese Liberation Army in the 1970s a bullet missed my head only because I happened to bend my neck forward to rub it when I was riding my regular bus home a few nights after the cartoon was published. When I did a cartoon of Andrea Dworkin dreaming she was head of the "Female Supremacist State" and ushering a line of naked, emaciated men and boys with shaved heads and numbers tattooed on their foreheads into the gas chambers, I received numerous death threats. Unlike the cartoonists who are willing to take risks like these to oppose intolerant targets, most of the contemporary practitioners of cartooning at large daily newspapers are basically cowards and opportunists who were hired in the first place because they had nothing to say and were very bland and mushy in the way that they said it, so are in little danger of being threatened physically or even verbally. However, as my late friend Mel Jass--a local television personality who hosted afternoon movies so never took any kind of a controversial stand on anything and was almost universally beloved--could attest from his own experiences, even they are still at some risk of being stalked or shot at by deranged people who would never have noticed them had they not been in the public eye because of the nature of their work.

Editors who are satirically illiterate, visually illiterate and humor-impaired have been holding back potentially great or at least good political cartoonists since time immemorium. Those who become editors, by nature, by neurophysiology, are generally the least capable of anyone to judge whether a cartoon is good or not. In order to become editors, they have to be too left-brained to have the sense of humor or visuality to recognize what will work best in a cartoon. Hustler magazine, when they hired me to do political cartoons, had a cartoon editor who was himself a cartoonist. This is the only sensible way to oversee or edit cartoons. Writers are simply not qualified. The best editors I worked with were the ones who exercised an absolute minimum of control, the ones who knew that they did not know. This factor was nothing new, but in combination with the others, hastened the demise of the art form.
Cartoonists who are not really cartoonists, but opportunistic illustrators who invaded the field and made cartoons so boring and irrelevant readers abandoned them in droves from the late 1970s on really put the nails in the coffin. After the super-stars of cartooning drove up the salaries and syndication made cartoonists like Charles Schulz among the richest people in the country, artists with great drawing skills but absolutely nothing to say flooded newspapers with applications to become editorial cartoonists. They were perfect for the editors who wanted nothing but inoffensive eye candy that did nothing more than reiterated the headlines with mildly creative visual metaphors. The legions of "wrists" dumbed down, Disneyfied and dealt the final death knell to political cartooning.

I will discuss each of these topics in more detail if there is interest expressed and especially if a lively debate ensues.... However, if this blog attracts as little attention as the political cartoons themselves, I may devote precious little time or effort to it despite my great concern and regard for the art form.

Meanwhile, I invite you to take a look at my political cartoon website,, which at the moment this is being written is badly in need of being updated. (It was last updated in about November of 2004!) Frankly, much as I want to do my part to help improve the status and practice of political cartooning, I don't want to spin my wheels doing so in a climate where it is totally futile. But I invite anyone who shares my interest to initiate some efforts here.

Text and Images Copyright 2010 by Minne HA! HA! Magazine, Inc. /