Bleak or Bright: The future of editorial cartoons

From an article in the L.A. Times we note that Daryl Cagle, editorial cartoonist and syndicate owner, and Bob Scheibel, a former journalism professor and comic collector, are neighbors – but their views of editorial cartooning are anything but.

Scheibel view:

Today’s political cartoons are too wishy-washy or wordy. He says newspaper staff cutbacks and a lack of editorial backbone are to blame.

“I think the newspapers have taken a conservative swing — certainly to the middle of the road,” said Scheibel, 82. “You get very weak cartoons that tell you what you already know. They don’t give you a whack. I think newspapers are playing it cowardly. They don’t want the impact that will offend anybody.”

Cagle’s view:

“Too conservative? Certainly most cartoonists are politically liberal. That’s because only the large papers hire cartoonists anymore, and they tend to be urban, liberal newspapers,” said Cagle, 51.

“As a profession, the work has just gotten better and better as time has gone on. Cartoonists have the widest style and statement of point of view ever. The problem is not the artwork. It’s the marketplace. Cartoonists struggle; a lot do it out of love,” he said.

35 thoughts on “Bleak or Bright: The future of editorial cartoons

  1. I think it’s both. Most editorial cartoonists are clearly liberal, but newspapers do play it cowardly.

    I definitely agree with the statement that editorial cartoons today tell you what you already know. If cartoonists could be out in the field again, the art form would be doing so much better.

  2. Not sure I agree that “Most editorial cartoonists are clearly liberal.” There are scores of editorial cartoonists who lean to the right. But as Daryl points out, the remaining staff positions tend a bit more toward the large urban dailies that may lean a bit more liberal — not that that hasn’t stopped the L.A. Times, San Jose Mercury News and other such papers from destroying their cartooning positions.
    The Internet age offers unlimited new forums for unlimited styles, but without revenue coming in to support the time and effort put into creating the cartoons, many practitioners won’t find it economically worthwhile, and without a forum where you know readers will see the work — such as in a daily newspaper — the online marketplace is not really going to make up for the loss of ditorial cartooning positions.

  3. â??Most editorial cartoonists are clearly liberal.â?

    No, they are not. Most editorial cartoonists are a mixed bag of liberal and conservative leanings, just as most people are. The target of editorial cartoonists is, and always has been, the ones in power. And since the conservatives and neocons have been in control of our government for many years now, naturally their arrows are aimed in that direction. Simply because one criticizes Bush doesn’t make them “liberal”. The cartoonist is hitting on a specific issue.

    To me, the absolute worst thing any cartoonist can do is allow themselves to be labeled either “liberal” or “conservative” as that makes all your work very predictable. And predictability is death for a cartoonist… unless you’re only interested in preaching to the choir.

    A satirist can’t afford to be tied to any one party or political movement, as that clouds objectivity. This either-or mantra that has permeated all of media is so tiresome… and stupid.

    I know a lot of editorial cartoonists and the vast majority of them are in the middle, some leaning slightly to the left and others to the right.

  4. I dispute Cagle’s contention that the large, urban papers that can afford to hire ARE liberal.
    As examples: New York, clearly a “liberal” constituency, but the NYT does not even have editorial cartoons. The Post? Give me a break!
    Chicago: The Trib has Locher ( clearly not a lib, but more moderately conservative ) and a round-robin of contributors and syndicated. The Sun-Times has Higgins, another middle of the road conservative.
    LA is only liberal with the stalwart but tiring Conrad.
    Name any other of the top ten markets in the US that are dominated by supposed liberals.

    As for Wiley’s comment about identification obscuring objectivity….I think that is an individual distinction. I clearly identify as a “liberal”, or more recently as a radical.
    I still find plenty of material to poke fun or derision at from all angles.

  5. Wiley, I’ve purchased the “best of” annuals for years, during Clinton’s presidency, too.

    If most editorial cartoonists aren’t liberal, then the editors sure are.

  6. For the umpteenth time…

    Editorial cartoonists are as “courageous” s their editors allow them to be. The cartoonist doesn’t have the ability to sneak comment past his editor, or to demand that his cartoon runs when the editor doesn’t want it to.

    Non Sequitur has ten times more chance of getting a hard-hitting comment into a large paper than its own editorialist, and I have seen that strip make waves in the Muslim world.

    TV satirists, like Maher and Stewart, have been the courageous ones, and even they need the support of their network or their comments won’t air. It’s they who have flown the flag for American freedom of speech, not the craven print media.
    The US print media (editorialists included) were chicken**** scared to criticize Bush and the Iraq campaign for far too long.

  7. We label cartoons “Liberal” or “Conservative” on our syndicate site ( because conservative editors told us they would never even look at cartoons by liberal cartoonists (most cartoonists, as they see it), including some who occasionally drew conservative cartoons.

    The labels have been largely successful in convincing these editors to print occasional cartoons from cartoonists other than the few cartoonists they saw as conservative. We don’t see that problem from editors who describe themselves as liberal, they seem happy to look at anything.

  8. Perhaps I’m being naive, but I always had the impression that many editorial cartoonists hold up the mirror, reflecting the events around them. Granted, cartoonists put their own slant on those subjects, and I suppose that includes “liberal” and “conservative.” But don’t you think that those two distinctions are too cut and dry? I believe the best editorial cartoons allow the reader to take from them a basic truth, no matter what that reader’s political or social leanings may be.

  9. I think that not being able to tell the politics of the cartoonist isn’t necessarily a good thing. In many cases, it just means that the allowable subject matter has become so watered down that either side can do it.

  10. But you’re still thinking in terms of “sides.” I believe the point of editorial cartooning is illustrating a truth. I feel the exact opposite Dawn, I feel that being hit with a cartoonist’s obvious political agenga makes for bad cartooning.

  11. If outstanding political cartoonists are only going after “the truth,” why is it that almost all of the noteworthy cartoonists can be easily categorized as liberal or conservative? Examples: Conrad was (is) obviously liberal, the late, great Jeff MacNelly was a conservative, Ted Rall is a liberal (oops, I mean a leftist), Stayskal is a conservative, etc., I could go on and on. Editorial or political cartooning requires passion – strong feelings about the political scene, and most of us gather those feelings into either a liberal conservative perspective. Any cartoonist who isn’t clearly in one camp or the other is wishy-washy.

  12. If outstanding political cartoonists are only going after “the truth,” why is it that almost all of the noteworthy cartoonists can be easily categorized as liberal or conservative? Examples: Conrad was (is) obviously liberal, the late, great Jeff MacNelly was a conservative, Ted Rall is a liberal (oops, I mean a leftist), Stayskal is a conservative, etc., I could go on and on. Editorial or political cartooning requires passion – strong feelings about the political scene, and most of us gather those feelings into either a liberal or conservative perspective. Any cartoonist who isn’t clearly in one camp or the other is wishy-washy.

  13. Sorry Carl, no matter how many times you post it, I disagree (LOL). I don’t think a cartoonist has to be in one camp or the other, and I don’t think that means a cartoonist is wishy washy. In fact, I think that’s the very thinking that serves to spur the whole doomsday debate over the future of editorial cartooning.

  14. Often, the simplest cartoon…the captionless one, has the most impact. It is then that the stereotypes of the reader are exagerated. On the same cartoon, I have been praised by opposite sides. Conversely, I have had some criticized from polar viewpoints.
    ( One of my favorites was of Clinton after the site for his Library was established. I illustrated a vacant lot between a burlesque bar and some hamburger and pancake joints. Bill had his hands upraised in joy…”Perfect!”. This basic concept was repeated by others. Inventive minds do think alike. )

    I have been sincerely advised by more than a few other fellow editorial cartoonists that unless I toed the line and did “conservative” cartoons, that my stuff would not be marketable.
    To those nameless friends I have replied, “Do I look like a prostitute?”.

    I know that I will offend some here, but the reality is that the definitions are mushy.
    I dare anyone to name a contemporary cartoonist that is as liberal as Boardman Robinson, or Robert Minor, or Art Young.
    Other than Ted Rall and Tom Tomorrow, I can think of no others.

  15. I never thought editorial cartooning should be about advancing a political agenda. Tearing one down, maybe, but not advancing. But I do understand perfectly what Daryl is talking about with the need for “liberal” and “conservative” marketing brands. I once had an editor ask me in an interview which “side” my personal political beliefs fell. I told him neither — I am a confirmed contrarian. A good answer. A truthful answer. But not a helpful one for selling comics….

  16. Firstly, there are no courageous editorial cartoonists, as their work doesn’t see the light of day unless a courageous editor passes it.

    Wiley causes more waves (even in the Muslim world) through his syndicated Non Sequitur than any newspaper cartoonist working for a paper could do.

    Secondly, I sincerely doubt whether there are any curmudgeonly cartoonists who are at odds with their host paper’s political line, throwing out pithy or incisive comment and being indulged by the editor in the interests of political balance.

    Therefore an editorial cartoonist merely bolsters or backs up the view of their host paper, at least until he/she gets sacked for being boring and irrelevant, that is.

  17. Malc,

    I would point to Tom Toles at the Washington Post, who is most decidedly at odds politically from his editorial board.

    The editors of today’s papers, who fear losing the decreasing number of readers they continue to have, don’t want to run the risk of losing them by running a controversial cartoon. I think that’s the largest impediment facing the cartoonists lucky enough to have a soapbox to speak from.

    That and a desire for cartoonists to get syndicated, which means watered-down national cartoons vs hard-hitting local cartoons that can really have an important impact among readers and politicians.

  18. “The editors of todayâ??s papers, who fear losing the decreasing number of readers they continue to have, donâ??t want to run the risk of losing them by running a controversial cartoon.”

    That’s what is known as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
    Sad, isn’t it, that editors and publishers today are so utterly clueless about their own product.

  19. I’ve gotten about 20 local subject cartoons into the Chicago Tribune over the past two years, and have been doing a weekly online, Chicago political cartoon since August. I’m decidedly right of center and am in hog heaven in this blue state Daley town, but I would not hesitate to go after “one of my own” if they deserved it, and have often.

  20. Rob,
    You’re looking (understandably) from an Amrican perspective, as Tim does. “Red” and “Blue” state means something to an American, whereas to a European, Australian, or even Canadian, they are indistinguishable, as are Democrat and Republican.
    Oddly, “Republican” seems to carry less stigma than “Liberal” when describing someone’s political persuasion, the latter often being a term of abuse.

    Toles out of step with editorial line? I don’t think so. Take a look at this comment, which infers Cheney and Bush are now poison to the GOP. Even Republicans support this view.
    Whatever small divergences they may have, I definitely see Toles lighting up cigars with the editor at the bathhouse.

  21. â??The editors of todayâ??s papers, who fear losing the decreasing number of readers they continue to have, donâ??t want to run the risk of losing them by running a controversial cartoon.â?

    To add to Wiley’s comment (with whom I agree), controversial editorial cartoons don’t cost newspapers readers. They are circulation builders.

    I lost some papers after the country shifted radically to the right after 9/11. But those who kept running my work consistently report that it’s among the most read of their features. Readers love me, hate me, read me, and write in about me. William Randolph Hearst learned that controversy sells. Why have so many editors forgotten such an obvious truth?

    Reading some of the above clients is weird, because they’re all in conflict about essentially true stuff. First, most editorial cartoonists are left of center–as are most journalists. Second, there are plenty of conservative cartoonists (though not as many). Third, good editorial cartoonists don’t promote their point of view. They tear down points of view–including, when they can, their own. I love going after Obama, who is about as progressive a presidential candidate as I’ve seen in my lifetime, although not nearly progressive enough.

    Daryl is right that there have never been as many great editorial cartoons being produced by as many great editorial cartoonists. The artform is at its zenith. But the best work does not collect plaudits, much less awards, staff jobs, or positions in the main weekly roundups (Newsweek, New York Times, USA Today). Those spots are reserved for the worst cartoons by some of the worst cartoonists.

    It’s absolutely the weirdest situation ever: lots of great work, unrewarded and unremunerated; lots of crappy work praised to the high heavens and paid for handsomely. My fear is that those doing the good work will get tired of it and quit. My secondary fear is that millions of readers, and hundreds of editors, will look at the crap and think that’s all there is.

    I actually am bullish about the profession for several reasons: animation, the viral nature of edittoons is good for online media, and Gen X editors with decent taste and interest in graphics replacing Boomers. But this stuff is going to take time. Will the poor great cartoonists working for a couple of alt weeklies be able to hold on until reason prevails? I dunno. I hope so.

  22. “Why have so many editors forgotten such an obvious truth?”

    That’s an easy one to answer: political correctness.

    PCism isn’t just about watering down work so that it doesn’t offend anybody, it’s about reducing the offender to ash when somebody does stray from the party line. Since we don’t have direct access to you editorial cartoonists, the editors take the bullets.

    I remember when my father would get angry and write a letter to the editor. Even in his anger, he was always civil and respectful. He was never rude or threatening. That’s no longer the case.

    Editors don’t like controversy because controversy affects them so much personally. I bet they even get death threats nowdays.

  23. Ted Rall: thank you for contributing here. Even though I think you are younger than myself, I include you in my panoply of heroes.
    Unsurprisingly, I find much to agree with in your comment.

    Much of the battle by mainstream cartoonists labeled “liberal” by a compromised ‘in the pocket’ media is breaking the established stereotypes.
    My most frequent Freudian compliment when I show my stuff around is “These are GREAT. They oughtta be in the newspaper!”.
    Then I have to explain that they are.

    I have a unique position in that my editor and publisher are VERY supportive.

  24. “controversial editorial cartoons donâ??t cost newspapers readers. They are circulation builders.”

    Yes, as are any controversial items, but today’s newspapers are not about building circulation – they can fake circulation figures in a hundred ways, it’s about attracting advertising, and it’s advertisers who editors are afraid of alienating.

    Papers long ago gave up on explaining their falling circulations, especially in a one paper town, and anyway the Internet gave them the best excuse ever.
    As an editor, if circulation is halved and advertising revenue is up 10% you’re still in a job.

  25. This one’s easy, guys. Lib or conservative? Not the “crux of the biscuit” (F.Zappa / R.I.P.). Cartoons, like art are either good or they suck. The market gets to decide.

    If you’re not drawing your convictions, you’re a liar and people know it. My greatest reward is the occasional attaboy from another cartoonist who shares few if any of my politics. And vice versa. Just because I think global warming is one big ponzi scheme doesn’t mean I don’t like U2.

    P.S. Refreshing to find a contentious thread where no one’s invoked “Godwin’s Law”. Where for art thou, Stromoski?

  26. Meanwhile, back to the question at hand, BLEAK OR BRIGHT: THE FUTURE OF EDITORIAL CARTOONS.

    Newspaper editorial cartoons future is/are not bleak. Newspapers is/are bleak.

  27. I agree with Ted that as a new generation of editors take over more alt cartoons will find a home in mainstream papers..and it’s only a matter of time. I still remember when REM was considered alt. But in the meantime, no matter what you think of the quality of cartoons run in USA Today, The New York Times and Luckovichweek. I’m glad those publications contunue to run cartoons every week giving the profession a much needed soapbox to doodle on.

  28. I have to go along with everyone else. I’m about as liberal as they come, but I find lots of humor on both sides of the aisle, and any good cartoonist should be willing to make the joke, no matter whose expense it’s at.

  29. Alan, it used to be two links that triggered the spam filter. Is it now just one?

    Two links will trigger the built in WordPress anti-spam feature. In this case, it appears that the Akismet spam filter is getting aggressive again. Email me if you believe your comment isn’t posting and I’ll review the filters.

  30. “If youâ??re not drawing your convictions, youâ??re a liar and people know it.”

    Very well put Mike. Thank you for posting that.

  31. I am an editorial toonist (inkslinger) from a little town called Waterloo, S.C. Most of the papers here in SC that I draw for are indeed conservative. HOWEVER, there are those precious few who dare to let me speak my mind ….or as I prefer to think of it…I ‘say’ in a toon what the vast majority of folks here are thinking but are too scared of being labeled ‘politically incorrect’ to say themselves. I get paid to make people mad….while drawing cartoons! GOD bless America!

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