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.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.