Patrick Mcdonnell: This Is a Very Exciting Time to Be a Cartoonist

Comics Reporter Tom Spurgeon posts Patrick McDonnell’s commencement speech given to the first graduating class of the Center for Cartoon Studies.

We have a 100-year-plus history. You stand on the shoulders of some true giants. The classic illustrations of Winsor McCay, the poetry of George Herriman, the surrealism of EC Segar, the humanity of Charles Schulz, the power of Jack Kirby, the honesty of Robert Crumb, the autobiofiction of Lynda Barry, the intellectual angst of Art Spiegelman.

Of course they are all artists — in every sense of the word. Great artists. When I was in college this was debated, but now I think it’s understood.

This is a very exciting time to be a cartoonist. Just last year there was a major cartoon art show at Museum of Contemporary Art in LA and another show at the Library of Congress.

Graphic novels are the hottest thing in publishing today, with every literary magazine reviewing them. Many of the blockbusters now in Hollywood are animation. There are opportunities in self-publishing, magazine illustration, children’s books, website and computer game design, movie storyboardsââ?¬Â¦we live in a totally visual society.

Being a part of the first graduating class of the Center for Cartoon Studies, you are at the forefront of a new and exciting era.

4 thoughts on “Patrick Mcdonnell: This Is a Very Exciting Time to Be a Cartoonist

  1. I couldn’t disagree with McDonnell more. What fantasy land is he living in? I know one must deliver an inspiring address to a graduating class, but it’s also only half the story.

    The comic strip market might as well be declared dead. Newspapers are owned by a few media conglomerates, which has not only kept the weekly rates for comics from rising since the mid-1970’s, they’ve actually gone down. This, at a time when newspaper profits are among the highest of any industry. “Dead Cartoonists” continue to profilerate the comics pages, and new cartoonists are turning away because they can make more money working at McDonald’s.

    The children’s book field, while being the only field that is upholding artistic integrity, is also owned by a few corporations, preventing any negotiation between creators and publishers. The pay is abysmal for new authors, and the vast majority of children’s books are created for the so-called educational market, which are committee-created and, for artists, Work for Hire, which means all rights to the work are taken away from the artist.

    The graphic novel market could be inspiring, except that the majority of books in libraries and on book shelves are trade paperback collections of Batman, Superman and Spider-man comic books. This is a gross travesty. While the motion picture industry is eager to find the next graphic novel to turn into a movie, creators are paid a pittance for options, and rarely make enough money to speak of if a movie is actually made unless they work themselves in as a writer or producer. Mostly, though, everyone makes money except for the creator.

    Are there opportunities in self-publishing? The main opportunities are that one is allowed to pay for his own printing costs, fight the monopoly of Diamond Distributors for the privilege of having them distribute their comic or graphic novel to a virtually closed market of comic book shops, and spend untold amounts of money and time and travel promoting the book. The excitement that independent publishers have fostered, creating an entirely new market, has been descended upon by publishers who have the power but not the understanding to keep this market flourishing. Rest assured, the publishers who continue to enter the graphic novel market will screw it up, demanding control of what books are released and using Work for Hire authors and illustrators to make awful books about King Arthur and The Wizard of Oz.

    This is not to mention all the additional preproduction work that today’s cartoonists are expected to do. Our workload has been doubled with work that an intern graphic artist should be doing, and for probably less pay than said intern.

    When cartoons start being featured in museums, this is not a good sign. When cartoonists stand up and demand fair pay and fair rights for their work, then I will feel the inspiration of a hope for the future of cartooning. When cartoonists quit having annual parties and giving meaningless awards to middle-age cartoonists, and when cartoonists band together to challenge the Fair Trade laws that prohibit them from negotiating with newspapers, publishers and syndicates as a group, then I’ll feel inspired. When cartoonists no longer have to maintain a fund to take care of old, poor cartoonists, then I’ll see some hope. When the stars of cartooning start leading challenges to the corporations that rely so much on cartoonists, yet treat them in a substandard way, then I’ll think we’re on to something.

    This is the forefront of a new and exciting era only if we make it so. There are no new opportunities being created for us, but they are made by the sweat and blood and ink of a few dogged individuals. The rest of us seem to be happy just drawings whatever someone wants us to draw, for peanuts, and to be able to say, “I’m a published cartoonist! Isn’t that swell?”

    We have our cherised History, and the Future could be promising, but the Present is in drastic need of repair.

  2. I think there’s truth in both comments from McDonnell and Dawson. It all depends on whether you’re looking at the possibilities of the art form or the realities of the industry.

    The way I see it (from my admittedly outsiders’ perspective), there will never be a “fair” method of distributing and paying cartoonists. Whenever you have a group of artists who are uninterested in business, you will have exploitation at the hands of those who distribute and sell the art. The only real way for individuals to combat this is to become so well-loved, so popular, that you can use it as leverage the next time you go in for contract negotiations. You want to start a union? Okay. Are you volunteering for the job? Remember, it would take away precious time at the drawing board…

    Patrick McDonnell gave an inspiring speech to graduates at a college for comics. Do you want him to tell them they’ll be chronically underpaid and poorly distributed? No – he concentrated on the medium itself, which is, and I agree with his term, magical. Of course there’s a time to think about money, but a college commencement is not it.

  3. I believe the true state of the comics industry lies between McDonnell’s speech and Dawson’s rebutal. What it comes down to is that this is a time of great uncertainty and change. The business as it’s been for the last half of the 20th century or so is no more.

    When I was younger and studied the works of Winsor McCay I used to think how great it would be to be a cartoonist at the turn of the century and be a part of the group of people who helped shape the cartoon industry for the 20th century.

    Well, we’re still in the turn of THIS century and here are all the cartoonists who will help shape the cartoon industry for the 21st century. Who knows what that will be. However the talented individuals at the turn of the last century didn’t know either.

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