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Jim Borgman talks about how he tackles minorities as generic characters

Over on Jim Borgman’s blog he tackles a difficult topic of when he feels comfortable using minority characters when the editorial cartoon calls for a generic individual. His answer is interesting and he even redraws a few of his cartoons and changes the race of some of the characters so you can see how it affects the cartoon.

He writes:

The other part of the question interests me more. I have tried for a long time to represent a diverse cast in my editorial cartoons because that’s how I see life in our rich and textured society. But racial images are so charged in our times that it is harder than you’d think to represent a casually diverse world in cartoons.

Frankly, even doing this exercise for discussion purposes feels awkward, but I am trying to make the point that portraying a racially and ethnically diverse cast in editorial cartoons must be done with great sensitivity lest the point the cartoon is trying to make gets twisted by the baggage our culture brings to it. The same can be said for depicting women or any other minority as punchline deliverers.

At this point in history, in our American culture, White male cartoon characters stand for Everyman, whereas minority cartoon characters stand for Every Minorityman. I look forward to the day when we move on, as our children largely have, to a colorblind world. Maybe the next generation of cartoonists will show us how to do it.

Community Comments

#1 Mikhaela
January/17/2007
@ 9:00 pm

The aim is not a colorblind world in the comics, but a more representative and exciting one. White male cartoon characters only currently stand for Everyman in most editorial cartoons because too many of the white men who make up the majority of editorial cartoonists think that “white guy” is the norm or default.

As I said in my comments on Borgman’s blog: I don’t agree that using black characters automatically turns a cartoon into a commentary on race. For the most part editorial cartoonists draw the generic “straight white couple commenting on issues” out of short-sightedness, not sensitivity.

Most cartoonists do it because they see that as the “norm” or “default”–because the vast majority of editorial cartoonists are white and male. And they’ll only drag out black people for Hurricane Katrina or Martin Luther King, Jr. day or for specifically race-related stories.

Readers just need a little training. If readers were used to seeing and empathizing with all kinds of characters in editorial cartoons all the time, then they wouldn’t automatically assume a cartoon with black characters was about race.

And this goes for sexual orientation too–why do gay couples only turn up in cartoons about gay marriage or gays in the military? Perhaps I have an easier time of it as an editorial cartoonist for alternative papers. But I’ll often draw gay/lesbian couples reacting to events that aren’t specifically gay-related (for example real-estate prices or Bush’s Iraq policies), and I have yet to receive any complaints from confused readers (just occasionally from homophobic ones).

When you draw characters of a different background, you do run the risk of putting words in people’s mouths. But when it comes to commenting on generic news issues, the benefits far outweight the risks, as long as you do your homework. It’s not about tokenism, it’s about empathy and reflecting the concerns and situations of Americans of all different
backgrounds. Why can’t a black, Hispanic or Asian-American couple or an interracial couple comment just as easily on global warming or the economy or education or health care as anyone else?

#2 Brian Powers
January/18/2007
@ 10:13 am

Maybe he thinks that putting words in the mouths of a black, Hispanic or Asian-American character is disingenuous as he is a caucasion cartoonist. I once worked for a black newspaper and did a monthly editorial cartoon. I enjoyed it, but when I received an invitation to a young black professionals event – I felt that I was being deceptive in some way as I’m one of those white guys.

#3 Cindermain
January/18/2007
@ 9:13 pm

>>>White male cartoon characters only currently stand for Everyman in most editorial cartoons because too many of the white men who make up the majority of editorial cartoonists think that â??white guyâ? is the norm or default.

I disagree. The problem does not lie with the cartoonists themselves, but rather with the society that they lampoon and how they have to deal with that society as professional editorial cartoonists.

For example; letâ??s say a cartoonist submits a cartoon for publication, letâ??s use the gun control piece with the African-American children posted in Jimâ??s blog. Now letâ??s assume the artist saw no problems with it, no negative implications are meant by him/her, and so s/he sends it out.

Best Case Scenario: The cartoon most likely wonâ??t see the light of day. Most newspaper editors with any lick of sense would reject it on general principle to avoid the possible Worst Case Scenario.

Worst Case Scenario: The cartoon is run, various readers/groups/organizations/officials react negatively to what is perceived as a racial stereotype, lawsuits are filed (and believe me, that happens a LOT more than you think), and the paper loses readership.

Is that overreacting? Probably. But thatâ??s the viewpoint many newspaper editors ultimately have to take when dealing with editorial cartoons in a national forum. How might the public react to this? How will this affect the paper? Cartoons convey information much faster than any article can. Theyâ??re playing it safe.

Since many editors take this stance, who can blame a cartoonist for also taking that stance? They need to make a living! Selling to your audience just makes sense. Thereâ??s also a possibility that the cartoonist may be stuck with a negative public image due to the backlash that can limit his/her ability to sell to various markets severely diminishing their income.

You say you donâ??t agree that using black characters automatically turns a cartoon into a commentary on race. Many editors see it differently based on past experience. So whoâ??s right?

Usually the person signing the checks.

>>>Readers just need a little training. If readers were used to seeing and empathizing with all kinds of characters in editorial cartoons all the time, then they wouldnâ??t automatically assume a cartoon with black characters was about race.

Possibly. As the Beatles said; â??We all want to change the world.â? Then again, they also said; â??We’d all love to see the plan.â? Whoâ??s going to be training readers, and how? And what time frame? It wouldnâ??t be overnight, and would likely take years to accomplish. The training would have to be done slowly…preferably by adding â??minorityâ?? characters in a manner that they would be seen as part of the general public and not just as stereotypes. It would also have to be in a national forum, so it would have to appease the needs of newspaper editors as well.

So far, Jim Borgman has been doing just that. He should be praised for so successfully utilizing ‘minority’ characters in his comics. Heâ??s training the public right now simply by doing his job.

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