Borgman: Isn’t this profession due for a makeover?

Blaming it on the February blahs, Cincinnati Enquirer’s Jim Borgman asks a series of questions regarding the state of editorial cartooning. He asks:

Isn’t this profession due for a makeover? The last Renaissance was more than forty years ago when Oliphant came to the states (with Rigby, Low and Searle in his suitcase) and reinvented the artform here. Everything’s been incremental since. Why hasn’t a new messiah come along?

Does color improve an editorial cartoon? Is black-and-white drawing viable on a computer screen?

Is an original still an original if it’s significantly manipulated after scanning? Would you still want to hang a drawing on your wall if you know that the artist digitally edited it before publishing it?

21 thoughts on “Borgman: Isn’t this profession due for a makeover?

  1. How about these?

    Editorial cartoonists

    *on staff within consumer companies instead of just newspapers
    *or working independently in the field
    *with small wacoms they can draw directly on and upload their work from
    *drawing events live, from presidential debates to Oscar night
    * doing “news cartoons” as well as pontificating

    This and more is all in my business plan, which is getting closer to being funded all the time.

    It’s incredibly hard and seemingly takes forever to make things happen, especially with the downturn in the economy, which is making people less likely to put resources behind dramatic changes.

    I’m certainly not a messiah, but I am working on it, and no doubt others are, too.

  2. “*on staff within consumer companies instead of just newspapers”

    This makes them salesmen or corporate lobbyists, touting the company line rather than expressing independent opinion and satire. The most valuable asset an editorial cartoonist can posses is their integrity. That would be sacrificed if you’re doing cartoons under corporate direction.

    And, yes, I know newspapers are corporate, too. But their product is dispensing the news independently. Or at least it used to. But there’s a big difference between doing cartoons for a news organization and doing cartoons for, say, Coca Cola or the tobacco institute.

  3. Wiley, companies that the public want to embrace are increasingly moving away from canned PR.

    I’m talking about an honest view of a company internally. Yes, lots of companies won’t touch such a thing, but many are desperately trying to find a way to express a human voice. That’s what corporate blogs are all about. And it’s been happening for many years now. Robert Scoble was a Microsoft employee who communicated what was happening inside Microsoft via his blog and video channel, and there were no managers or “editors” telling him what to say. He was critical of Microsoft as much as he was complimentary, and because of that, Microsoft gained respect and credibility as an institution. Robert helped give a huge cold corporation a warm human face. Cartoonists could do the same thing.

    My own company will be the first to hire an internal cartoonist, one who will create a comic strip about us. I already offered the job to somebody, but he turned me down, because he can’t move to Oregon. It’s too bad. He would have been perfect.

  4. “Isnâ??t this profession due for a makeover?”

    Yes. Let’s start by abandoning tired old cliche driven work that became uninspiring and unfunny by the 50s. That stuff has been done to death– it isn’t humorous or insightful at all. It would be like modern day stand-ups regurgitating Charlie Chaplin’s routines. Very safe. Very easy. Very boring.

    There also needs to be a return to politically poignant comics. The “Newsweekification,” as it has been dubbed, is embarrassing to the profession.

  5. “Iâ??m talking about an honest view of a company internally. ”

    Oh, I see. I didn’t get that from your post. This is something that companies have done for many years, but they generally buy reprints of comics published in magazines and newspapers. It would be great if they hired their own, but that’s not likely.

  6. There are few mainstream cartoonists that draws multi-panel editorial cartoons.

    Chuck Asay is a good example. His cartoons are mostly four to six panels long, and it’s very rare for him to draw one-panel cartoons. (He does, however, use labels, donkeys and elephants, but he otherwise uses them very well)

    Unfortunately, Asay doesn’t appear in many papers. According to my Google search, he only appears in 60 to 80 newspapers.

    Multi-paneled ed. cartoons usually sell better to alt-weeklies. However, because Asay is arch-conservative, I don’t think he’ll fit in with them.

  7. I think Asay shows it’s not about one panels versus multi-panels, it’s just about doing good work (I vary from one to six as well). I could do without the donkeys and elephants myself, but I think Asay is an otherwise good cartoonist.

    80 papers isn’t many? The vast majority of cartoonists–dailies, alties, editorials–don’t appear in half that amount. You can pay bills with that many papers.

  8. Often innovation and change come from outside the traditional structure, so looking for the next Oliphant may be looking incorrectly. (Since Oliphant did it from within (from an outside perspective)) I may be likely that the largest change may yet come from the internet or be a by-product of what the papers end up becoming in the next 10-20 years. There are a few projects out there catering to cell phones and other digital devices, web comics, etc. but the problem is still one of figuring out a viable cost model.

    In terms of technological change, I draw everything into the computer via digital tablet and have for over 15 years now. Doing it this way, there is really no such thing as an “original” in the sense of one piece of paper that contains a unique hand-drawn sketch. The sketch may or may not be retained (e.g., invisible bottom layer) and may or may not ever even be printed.

    I think color can add to an editorial cartoon, but I also really appreciate the skills of those that do really bold lines and elaborate shading work. Color can dress-up a cartoon nicely, but a really good cartoons will stand on their own, color or not.

    In terms of corporations sucking all creativity and individually from it’s employees … well some do and some don’t. I don’t think you can rule out corporations possibly providing an alternative. As long as there is competition then varying points of view may be represented. Perhaps newspapers are suffering from not competing (with other newspapers in their towns), thus opening the door for other media to come in and report better.

    Just guessin’! 😉

  9. >Is herky-jerky animation the only thing editorial cartooning can look forward to?

    i think this style of animation retains the immediacy of a cartoon. it is a different form of sketchiness that gives the feeling of not being too fussy. it adds to the sense that the person doing the cartoon had a great comment or quip, got it out there, and is already on to the next idea.

    as for the messiah question, i think its a pretty good sign jim borgman truly is down to nothing to write about in his blog. â??isnt this profession due for a makeover?â? my first inclination is to say, well then make it over. if i design bridges and i dont think that i am designing them the best that they can be am i not going to have some idea of where the standard practice is lacking? and some ideas on how to advance things? and if i am a cartoonist with the reputation of jim borgman and the amount of freedom that comes with that, wouldnt i begin to work some of my ideas of the cartoon revolution into my cartoons? surely he is not waiting for someone to show up and show him how to change what he does.

    this really seems more like someone saying: â??change… discuss.â?

    there are, though, a couple of makeovers going on in the profession already, arent there? the transition from on-staff to syndicated editorial cartoonists should qualify. animated editorial cartoons, too, seem ready, with hints here and there of a growing demand, to revolutionize the profession.

    of course, it may be that the animated editorial cartooning ends up more of a new profession than a change to the old one. that would be the best outcome. even more cartoons. as long as it doesnt consume the old profession in the process.

    the christian science monitor is not looking for an editorial cartoonist to replace clay bennett. they are looking for an animated editorial cartoonist. if you are a traditional editorial cartoonist, you need not apply. do you mark that down as a lost editorial cartoonist position?

  10. i have always thought of chuck asay as one of the best candidates to do the type of animated editorial cartoons that most people are doing now, where the setup is stretched out. he naturally seems to lay his ideas out in story form. the journey to the punchline is usually an interesting one and the payoff is always pretty strong.

    i think ann telnaes, though, could reshape the animated editorial cartoon a little. like her print work, she is keeping things spare. she seems to be able to avoid padding and drawing out of the joke like others are doing.

  11. I hear what Matt Bors is saying. But when I left the Alternative newspaper that spawned the Alternative paper Matt’s work appears in Cleveland, to go work for a Major Daily, I got a very quick reality check in terms of what I thought I’d be able to do and what I was allowed to do. I hear alternative paper cartoonists gripe all the time about mainstream cartoonists….but they don’t work for mainstream editors who have to put out a product that appeals to an 80 year old as well as a 20 year old pot head . You can do all kinds of stuff when you have complete editorial freedom. I am, like most mainstream editorial cartoonists,required to submit several ideas a day to an Editor who then chooses one for me to draw up. Your average alternative cartoonist doesn’t have to deal with that. Some editorial page editors like substantive cartoons, some want gag cartoons that simply entertain. Oliphant which once ran in my paper, was later dropped,one reason given(too wordy) These discussions on the state and the quality of editorial cartooning always seem to leave out a pretty important figure…The Editorial page editor. Who has much to do with change as the cartoonist. More and More I think you’ll see alternative cartoonist moving towards becoming the new mainstream, much like REM has in music…but it’s not going to be next week. The reason this editorial cartoon format has lasted so long is because it has worked and it’s versitile in terms of what you can draw in that framework.
    Has anyone reinvented the wheel yet? And why not?

  12. One crucial point of distinction is in the content of the editorial cartoon. If â??all politics is localâ? there should be more recognition and support of cartoonists who deal with issues relative to their particular community. More often than not the drive to reach mass-markets results in catering the lowest common denominator, and we get generic work flogging metaphors in an echo chamber.

    Not everyone of quality is syndicated or necessarily wants to or should be â?? their relative strengths are instead focused on local politics, which while it wonâ??t connect with someone unfamiliar with local references, it will with a reader that lives there. Most hometown newspaper readers tend to first hone in on the births, deaths, letters to the editor and police reports â?? it follows their interests in where they live. I think everyone would agree that corruption, greed, idiocy, etc. isnâ??t limited to the federal level.

    Unfortunately this dovetails with the trend in corporate news media to consolidate and short investment in community-level content, not to mention the obvious reluctance editorial staff would have publishing material critical of Powerful and Important People who have Significant Business Interests in said community. Stripping the pages of potential controversy and avoiding conflict has probably cost more cartoonists their jobs than any failings in craft or skill. Jeffâ??s comments is dead-on along these lines â?? this is as much a business relationship as it is individual creative expression.

    If the unwritten rule in single-panel gag cartooning is that a good joke will sell a â??badâ? drawing, then a successful single-panel editorial cartoon will present its point in a unique, insightful way. So as far as messiahs and revolutions, change begins at home, and flipping over the rocks is one of the functions of the press and hence editorial cartoonists.

  13. Questioning if editorial cartooning as a profession is “due for a makeover” seems somewhat like forcing the issue. Just like anything else it’s a question of supply and demand. What do people WANT to see, how do they want to see it, and who is there to supply it to them? The changes in the industry will come naturally, for better or for worse, with the reader’s and subscriber’s change of habit, which we all see happening around us. Speculating what is next is like pissing in the wind. Stop trying to wag the dog.

  14. Interesting Jeff! Do you view this kind of interplay with your editor as beneficial or stifling? It sounded sort of negative, on the other hand thought it could work well with the right personalities involved.

  15. Jamie Smith said: “generic work flogging metaphors in an echo chamber.” Well said. Bors, Darcy comments: intelligent kick in the pants. National topics will always appeal to the Walter Mitty cartoonists w/ the Jeff MacNelly parlor tricks.

    While I put out national cartoons, for me the local cartoon is a much more sensitive communication and for obvious reasons -advertisers being number one. I’ve only been doing this 5 years and it took some adjustment (read: bollocks) in a town of 50K to skewer my neighbors in print. I doubt larger market cartoonists run into local developers, pols, hospital admin., historic preservation hi-brows, etc. in line at the market. I do.

    Some are not at all amused, but for the most part, they have the same Uncle Remus, Brer Rabbit reaction: “Please don’t put me in a cartoon.” Which of course is exactly where they would love to be put. (forgive ending preposition)

  16. Garey Mckee: “Just like anything else itâ??s a question of supply and demand. What do people WANT to see, how do they want to see it, and who is there to supply it to them?”

    That’s a grossly simplistic and wrong proposition. Are the comic pages filled with legacy strips because of unfettered free market forces? of course not. They are kept there by syndicates that want to maximize profits and cowardly editors too afraid to make changes. It’s not as if readers are examining all strips created with equal consideration and then demanding editors keep Hagar the Horrible.

    As Jeff Darcy notes, a lot of great work is probably kept from readers by timid editors. Many people who choose and edit strips for papers (I’m thinking of the roundups for the major dailies and Newsweek) pick comics according to their idea of what editorial cartoons should be–not market forces. Get real.

    It’s also not “forcing” an issue to talk about something. Presumably most change throughout history began with people discussing things they were unhappy with, not just spontaneously happening.

    Mike, the local cartoons are very important. I’m starting to do some local comics for the Oregonian when I have time. It’s fun to know that your targets may read the work. I’d love a staff job where I could do two of those a week.

  17. Matt, it may be grossly simplistic but it’s not a wrong proposition at all. The customer may be the editor more than the typical reader, but legacy strips survive by being good enough to do so. If market forces wanted something else, it’s a phone call away (an editor can get quite a variety of different strips now, even in the system many consider to be flawed) or perhaps 10 to 100 negative letters away for readers. So average Joe Bagofdonuts is content enough not to complain (or maybe even enjoys) what’s there, as are the editors. If the reader wants something the paper won’t provide, they’ll go elsewhere (which is happening to some extent) thus, the market adjusts with or without the editor. Of course, no one is more discontent that the new creators trying to get a foothold or one that feels they just “can’t be themselves” and play in the market the way it is. I think this is always going to be the case.

  18. Thanks Rich. You were able to word my thoughts much more elegantly than I. I apologize, Matt, for when I read my previous post it sounds alot more angry than I meant it to. But it’s true, I am simple and gross LOL

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