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Payne to Borgman: you’re missing the evolution

Detroit News editorial cartoonist Henry Payne has responded to Jim Borgman’s “February Q’s?” in which he asked if the editorial cartooning profession was due for a make-over. Henry responds:

I think you have missed two evolutions in cartooning.

First, the Oliphant formula has not been the newspaper standard for some time. Cartoonists as varied as Clay Bennett, Sean Delonis, and Ted Rall have found their inspiration from computer animation, Mad Magazine, and comic books respectively. Their work is as different from Oliphant as he was from Herblock or Conrad.

Second, and more importantly, there is a whole new satirical art form that newspapers have missed entirely. This new form is embodied by images like the following (posted here on The New Republic) that get emailed around everyday.

They use a different medium (Photoshop) and they are cutting edge, funny, controversial, sometimes tasteless. In other words, they are cousins of the hugely popular Family Guy sitcom – itself a major evolution from the traditional TV sitcom of Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart.

What you are feeling in your “February blahs” is not a decline in editorial cartooning but a decline in newspapers. In terms of content, there are simply more choices out there today. Just as broadcast news now has cable to compete against, so do we have the Internet. Satirical humor is forever-evolving, but in media that accept that evolution: The Internet, Wired magazine, etc.

Check out Henry’s blog for the image that he references above.

Community Comments

#1 Ted Rall
February/20/2008
@ 10:20 am

I agree with Henry. Graphic political satire is anything but moribund. So is the profession editorial cartooning, if–which most mainstream media accounts do not–one includes alternative editorial cartoonists. Cartoonists including, but hardly limited to Tom Tomorrow, Stephanie McMillan, Mikhaela Reid, Ward Sutton, Ruben Bolling, Matt Bors, Tim Kreider, Shannon Wheeler, Andy Singer, Llyod Dangle, Eric Millikin, August Pollak, Stephen Notley, and Jen Sorensen drew the funniest, hardest-hitting, and most relevant political cartoons of the decade.

Unfortunately for them as well as the daily newspapers who desperately need the infusion of vibrant controversy young and innovative editorial cartoonists would bring to their pages, these artists and others like them don’t get many reprints in the dailies. None have been offered jobs as staff cartoonists. Incredibly, young cartoonists do land slots at daily newspapers–but only when they draw in the ancient MacNelly “house style” that began in the 1960s.

The editorial cartoons that appear in weekly round-ups of editorial cartoons (USA Today’s Friday editorial page, Washington Post’s Saturday op/ed, New York Times’ Sunday Week In Review, Newsweek’s Perspectives section), as well as on most daily newspaper editorial pages, is almost exclusively wimpy, boring, cliché-filled hack work.

To be sure, there is a small number of mainstream editorial cartoonists who do quality work. But the overwhelming majority are content to crank out meaningless sh– that illustrates the news (if you can’t tell from the cartoon whether the artist is liberal or conservative, it’s not an editorial cartoon), tackles trivial content (drawing about Britney while torture continues at Gimto is vile), and/or relies on antiquated metaphoric style (Uncle Sam, donkeys, elephants, labels). Go to Cagle.com or pick up “Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year” if you don’t believe me.

No wonder so many people think the artform has become boring and derivative. The examples that most people see in print is. As a result, editorial cartoons have become less and less relevant to ordinary people’s lives. That makes it easier for editors to eliminate them from their pages altogether.

Yet there’s lots and lots of GREAT stuff out there. The truth is, never have so many brilliant editorial cartoonists been creating so much important work. Sadly, never has a profession so consistently ignored its biggest talents in favor of its biggest hacks.

Who’s to blame?

First and foremost, editors–for refusing to recognize new trends in editorial cartooning.

Second, cartoonists themselves, for continuing to crank out crap. Last week’s spate of sentimental campus shooting cartoons (Uncle Sam crying, anyone?) er, illustrate the point. Newspapers can’t run crappy cartoons if cartoonists don’t make them.

Third, readers, (a) for not complaining about crap and (b) not demanding that their papers hire editorial cartoonists who draw in current styles.

#2 Mike Lester
February/20/2008
@ 11:52 am

While he is a well known seditionist, troop-hating Marxist, communist sympathizing, moral-relativist who, according to The Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 (FARA), should register w/ the U.S. Department of Justice as a foreign agent, Ted does know his cartoons.

#3 Daryl Cagle
February/20/2008
@ 12:44 pm

Would you give us a list of cartoonists who are the biggest hacks, Ted?

#4 John Cole
February/20/2008
@ 1:02 pm

Well. We’ll just see who buys YOU a drink in San Antonio.

#5 Ted Rall
February/20/2008
@ 1:04 pm

Like pornography, Daryl, you know hacks when you see them.

It would be imprudent and a distraction to name names.

Anyway, Daryl, don’t take my referencing your website personally. I could just as easily have referenced the AAEC site, editorialcartoonists.com. Any compendium of editorial cartoons has an amazing quantity of terrible cartoons.

#6 John Cole
February/20/2008
@ 1:39 pm

Man, haven’t we beaten this topic like an abused beef cow in other forums?

Not to drag this out because the bottom line here is taste, but…

… you might already have crossed the “imprudent” threshold, Ted. You cited Bolling, Reid, etal as the unsung and ignored saviors of a craft currently wallowing in “meaningless sh–,” so it’s understandable that others might wonder just who the future AAEC prez considers, in his opinion, cartooning’s “biggest hacks.”

#7 Daryl Cagle
February/20/2008
@ 2:16 pm

I’ve drawn Britney while “torture continues at Gitmo,” and I draw donkeys, elephants and Uncle Sam; I also use labels. The same is true of Mike Lester and John Cole.

Would the incoming president of the AAEC describe the overwhelming majority of AAEC members as “content to crank out meaningless shâ?? that illustrates the news” or “almost exclusively wimpy, boring, cliché-filled hacks”?

I think the overall quality of work being done by editorial cartoonists now is better than it has ever been.

#8 Ted Rall
February/20/2008
@ 2:44 pm

Would the incoming president of the AAEC describe the overwhelming majority of AAEC members as â??content to crank out meaningless shâ?? that illustrates the newsâ? or â??almost exclusively wimpy, boring, cliché-filled hacksâ??

Sorry, but I won’t be baited into naming names. McCarthyism is over; neo-McCarthyism is winding down.

But come on–do you really think this is some sort of secret? All anyone has to do is actually look at any online compendium of editorial cartoons and they’ll likely be appalled.

I think the overall quality of work being done by editorial cartoonists now is better than it has ever been.

On this point I agree.

For all of my complaints about practitioners of the old-timey labels/donkeys/elephant style, they have improved a lot in the last few decades. There are fewer labels, fewer tortured metaphors. Of course, one Uncle Sam is one too many.

And modern editorial cartoonists are doing just fantastic work.

Between the two genres, the work has never been better. But it has a long way to go.

Getting back to my main point, the terrifying part is that the worst work pays the best and the best work pays the least.

(For the record, looking at my own stuff makes me cringe 95% of the time. I could do SO much better.)

#9 Rick Stromoski
February/20/2008
@ 2:54 pm

>>>(For the record, looking at my own stuff makes me cringe 95% of the time. I could do SO much better.)

One should really be careful about lobbing such softballs considering everyone here has a Louisville slugger and is willing to use it.

#10 Stacy Curtis
February/20/2008
@ 2:54 pm

The number of editorial cartoonist positions is shrinking so fast that any thoughts towards evolving the profession has shifting towards keeping your job and keeping the profession from becoming extinct. Until those empty positions start getting refilled, I don’t see the profession evolving. The cartoonists who are still in the boat are too busy bailing water to worry about oher things.

I can see a revolution in the profession happen (a big fat) IF those positions ever get refilled.
I would love to see those positions filled with cartoonists who had diverse drawing styles and were allowed to draw cartoon about things besides a beagle winning the Westminster Dog Show. For that to happen, editorial cartoonists AND newspaper editors need to drop their idea of what an editorial cartoon should look and act like….a Jeff MacNelly cartoon from 1980.

You make good points, Ted. But I hardly see poorly-drawn, over-wordy cartoons as evolving the profession. If you replaced the cartoons (you refer to as CRAP) in the newspapers with alternative cartoons, I think readers would beg for the “crap” to return. I’m not saying alternative cartoons don’t have their place, but when the knight on a horse shows up to save the profession, it ain’t going to be an alternative cartoon.

-stacy.

#11 Matt Bors
February/20/2008
@ 3:23 pm

Stacy,

I’ll take exception at your saying alternative comics are “poorly-drawn, over-wordy cartoons.” Among the people Ted cited are Ward Sutton, Ruben Bolling, and Jen Sorensen–all accomplished artists. I’d like to think I can draw pretty well myself. Wordy? sure, but it doesn’t detract from their work the way I see it.

#12 Charles Brubaker
February/20/2008
@ 3:47 pm

I always read about alt-weekly cartoonists pining for a staff position in a major daily, but have any of them ever thought of becoming a staff artist for an alt-weekly?

I mean, I guess you’d get more exposure and money if you’re with a major daily, but I always imagined that you’d get more creative freedom if you’re on-staff with an alt-weeklie, and presumably an actual salary, even if it’s pathetically small.

Of course, I know nothing about what goes on inside an alternative weekly building, so I may just be talking out of my butt.

#13 Matt Bors
February/20/2008
@ 4:02 pm

Most altweeklies pay between $5 and $50 a week for a comic depending on their size.

#14 Ted Rall
February/20/2008
@ 4:39 pm

I always read about alt-weekly cartoonists pining for a staff position in a major daily, but have any of them ever thought of becoming a staff artist for an alt-weekly?

This reminds me of my favorite question: Have you ever thought of running your cartoons in The New Yorker?

Alt weeklies have, on occasion, hired staffers. The Village Voice had Jules Feiffer and Stan Mack on salary, and my understanding is that Metro in San Jose had one too. I think that’s about it, though. Unlike dailies, weeklies really are cash poor.

Good point, Rick. I’ll restate: I hate looking at my own work. All I can think about is the thousands of things I should have done better.

#15 Rick Stromoski
February/20/2008
@ 4:58 pm

>>>I hate looking at my own work.

sample retort: As do most people..

I dunno Ted…still a softball…just from a different mound.

#16 Chris Hardiman
February/20/2008
@ 7:40 pm

I think that most alt-weekly strips are love-it-or-hate-it by nature, whereas many newspaper strips are more mundane in that they can appeal to a broad audience. I’ve heard a lot about “Pearls Before Swine” and “Lio” each being a love-it-or-hate-it kind of strip (based on newspaper polls at least), and I guess that they are a little more edgy and a little less broadly appealing than most newspaper strips. I come down on the love-it side in both cases, by the way.

But back to alt-weeklies — they are often excellently drawn, and sometimes they benefit from the bigger space provided for them. I really enjoyed reading “Sutton Impact,” both because of the funny commentary AND because of the engaging art. And “Tom the Dancing Bug” is a classic.

Matt B. did you end “Idiot Box”? I noticed they took it down from GoComics a while ago but I wasn’t sure…

#17 Charles Brubaker
February/20/2008
@ 8:07 pm

Chris,

Matt Bors became syndicated by United Media late last year, which is a reason why GoComics took the strip down.

United syndicates Matt’s ‘toons by his name only, although some papers still use the “Idiot Box” title. This is similar to how Village Voice use the “Search and Destroy” title for Ted Rall’s cartoons.

#18 Malc McGookin
February/20/2008
@ 10:26 pm

Boring derivative editorial cartooning isn’t necessarily evidence of a boring and derivative cartoonist but a boring and derivative cartoon EDITOR.

#19 Mike Lester
February/21/2008
@ 8:06 am

My wife finds these little artist spats amusing for their earth-in-the-balance irrelevence -after all the stakes are so low. But those of us who love and live off the art form are advancing it, however little. (thanks for the forum Alan Gardner)

Irony of ironies, I saw a cartoon today that criticizes B.Hussein Obama for plagiarism drawn in this particular cartoonists (Pulitzer Prize winning) style of Jeff MacNelly. Now THAT is a softball.

Cartooning is a music job: art and message are as inextricably linked as melody and tempo. Expecting to read a compendium of great cartoons is as much folly as watching American Idol w/ a similar expectation. Heard any good “Fantasia” lately?

A list of bad cartoonists serves no purpose unless you don’t know what a bad cartoon looks like in which case you’re in the wrong pissing match. You want “editors who think they’re cartoonists” two doors down the hall.

I’m going to leave someone off but of the “NEW GENRE”, I love Jen Sorensen, Ruben Bolling, Bors, Lloyd Dangle even Mr. Fish. And back to the original thread, Borgman and Payne maintain a standard that is impressive and like it or not, marketable. As Wiley and Stromoski have said many times when discussing legacy strips, it’s a business. Do something better if you don’t like it.

P.S. If you’ve never seen, read “The Dingles” by Comrade Ted Rall (and if it’s still on his site), it’s hilarious.

#20 Ted Rall
February/21/2008
@ 8:06 am

I dunno, Malc–I’ve never been a staff cartoonist so I don’t know what it’s like to be forced to blandify one’s work in order to keep making the mortgage payments. Still, I can see putting up with such nonsense for a while, but ultimately–why not quit if all the anarchic joy of cartooning has been sucked out of it? There are other jobs, and many of them pay better.

#21 Matt Buck
February/21/2008
@ 8:19 am

@ Mike Lester

>Cartooning is a music job: art and message are as inextricably linked as melody and tempo.

That’s a nice piece of translation. You know when you see or hear something good; and you get respect from your peers when you don’t ask for it.

#22 Rodney King
February/21/2008
@ 10:07 am

Can’t we all just get along?

Sorry. Couldn’t resist.

#23 Rodney King
February/21/2008
@ 10:09 am

Hey! My hyperlink didn’t work on that last post. Let me try that again…

#24 Nick Anderson
February/21/2008
@ 11:06 am

I think Henry P. got it about right with his post. I think there’s a quiet renaissance going on in editorial cartooning, and Borgman just isn’t noticing because it’s not happening with a big, obvious splash. I’d add Steve Sack, Matt Wuerker, Anne Telnaes, Matt Davies and (grudgingly) Mike Lester to his list of people who are branching out a bit. There are several others, IMHO. Ted’s list of alties further makes the case, but I simply don’t agree with Ted that the conventional approach to editorial cartooning is played out. I like the variety of work that is out there. It’s a shame it isn’t reflected in what is reprinted, but we all know the editors are to blame there.

I also tend to agree with Ted when I’m assessing my own work. I’m not happy with a hell of a lot of it (this is one of those weeks). Mostly, I agree with Mike Lester’s wife, and I have trouble getting overly worked up about these spats anymore. They’re getting more familiar than some of those hack images everyone’s complaing about.

#25 John Auchter
February/21/2008
@ 1:41 pm

This editorial cartooning biz continues to fascinate me: Iâ??ve never met a group of people more morbidly concerned with the state of their profession. And as an extension, so convinced as individuals that they know the true way forward (which typically dovetails nicely with their particular style).

As somebody who has never been fully employed as a cartoonist or in the newspaper industry (thereâ??s a softball for you!), perhaps itâ??s easier for me to see. Certainly doctors, teachers, custodians, technical communicators have strong feelings about their career identities, but they donâ??t seem to compare work to the point of distraction.

Honestly, if you step back and take a look (as I think was Henry Payneâ??s original point), right now there exists remarkable work in many, many forms — and it continues to evolve and grow in ways beyond our individual capacity to qualify. (Lots of stuff sucks, too. Duly noted.)

For what itâ??s worth, hereâ??s my theory on why these dust-ups continue: In a profession where hyperbole and gross over-simplification are the acids used to leech out the truth, making a point can easily be interpreted as personal attack. And for that I blame all of you morons who I will not identify by name….

#26 Nick Anderson
February/21/2008
@ 2:15 pm

John, I think you said it better than I (and Rodney King) did.

#27 Abell Smith
February/21/2008
@ 3:28 pm

Agreed… well said, John. The hilarious image of two lawyers arguing over whether one’s work is “too wordy” popped into my head.

In our case, it’s artistic self-expression… there are no rules here. Genres evolve with the times, and it’s pretty silly for people to sit around arguing whether something (e.g. web-based animation) should be allowed to be considered an “editorial cartoon.”

#28 Mike Rhode
February/21/2008
@ 7:52 pm

The Washington City Paper, recently bought out by whatever the alt chain out of Florida is, laid off all their freelancing cartoonists (Sean Belschwender, Rob Ullman) and dropped all their strips (Lynda Barry, Derf, Red Meat, Lulu Eightball and at least one more) except 1 local one where I think the guy’s on staff anyway. Alt papers are not a growth industry except for the bloated plutocrats at the top.

#29 John Cole
February/21/2008
@ 9:03 pm

“95 percent of everything is crap. Except crap. 100 percent of crap is crap.”

– Too Much Coffee Man

The economic model that fostered editorial/political cartooning for – what? – the past 150 years is either dying or dead, depending on who’s doing the prognosticating.

One crystal ball reader recently predicted that as newspapers become predominantly online, service-style operations, their exclusive focus will be on hard news gathering, editing and presentation. Opinion – including but not limited to film/art/food criticism, political commentary and (sigh) cartooning – will be outsourced and bought piecemeal. The result will be that only the best of the best (i.e. the most popular and marketable) will be able to make something approximating a decent living off such pursuits.

The rest’a yez? Get a job.

Here’s hoping that’s not the case.

#30 Rich Diesslin
February/21/2008
@ 10:24 pm

Nice to see Too Much Coffee Man being quoted. I would have to disagree though, I’m guessing that crap is only about 95% crap too! Hmm.

#31 Tim Kreider
February/29/2008
@ 10:06 am

Full disclosure: I am one of the cartoonists championed by Ted as an example of innovative and hilarious editorial cartooning. I will thank him for the compliment but leave any consideration of my own work aside.

Additional disclaimer: I always submit my work to the Pulitzer committee every year. As you may be aware, I have not won. So feel free to adjust my comments for the sour-grapes factor.

I don’t think that at age 41 I qualify as a representative voice of the younger generation or anything (I don’t have a page on MySpace or Facebook or play video games or use my phone as a camera, and it takes me like ten minutes to send a text message), but I do have to say that nobody I know reads daily editorial cartoons. Most of my friends read newspapers online; they get their political satire from The Onion or The Daily Show. The kinds of cartoons that run in family dailies are the equivalent of network sitcoms or easy listening radio stations or “Prince Valiant”–whenever you have occasion to be reminded of their existence you’re kind of bemused to remember that they’re still out there, plodding away to who knows what geriatric audience. It’s not just that so much of it is mediocre and uninspired, square and out of touch, the visual equivalent of golf humor–it’s just irrelevant, obsolete.

Look, I don’t have to run through the standard litany of what’s gone horrifyingly wrong in this country in the last decade: things are just plain catastrophic, and anyone in a position of power is doing either a.) nothing or b.) everything they can to make things worse. An inoffensive daily chuckle doesn’t cut it anymore. I understand that in family dailies you’re not free to say any crazy radical thing you want, but this is part of what renders most mainstream cartooning so timid and impotent. In times like these, when torture–which some of you may recall not so long ago used to be about as controversial as rape–has become a campaign issue, if you want to say anything reasonable or sane or true, you’re going to provoke some subscription cancellations. Like that the Bush administration is not just impeachable but imprisonable, or that what we’re doing in Iraq is not just ill-advised or mismanaged but evil, with a capital E.

I’m really not trying to hurt anyone’s feelings or bum everyone out. Pissing people off is for me a regrettable but inevitable side effect of what I do, rather than the gleeful raison d’etre it is for Ted. Doubtless there are some mainstream cartoonists doing superior work, given the constraints under which they have to labor. (I’ve always had a hometown affection for Kal of the Baltimore Sun.) I am admittedly writing from a position of ignorance here, since I frankly don’t know the work or even the names of most of the editorial cartoonists mentioned in this discussion. But this in itself is kind of my point.

Tim Kreider

p.s. In the unlikely event that anyone is moved to check out my website to see who I am and what my deal is, please bear in mind that this week’s cartoon was drawn by a friend of mine, the equivalent of Bil Keane letting little Billy draw the Family Circus for a day.

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