Herbert Block, born 112 years ago yesterday, had a long and successful career drawing a salary from newspapers and syndicates. Thousands of other editorial cartoonist did the same during the 20th century. These days maybe two dozen political cartoonists hold a staff position with the attendant security of salary and benefits.
As Liza Donnelly writes, openings for those salaried jobs are rare now
and even the opportunities for freelance editorial cartoonists are shrinking.
Editorial cartoons have played an important role in driving the democratic conversation since the founding of the republic. During the suffrage movement in the early 1900s, the cartoons of Rose O’Neill and other artists helped reshape America’s image of the women who wanted the right to vote and thus generated sympathy for the cause. During World War II, cartoons by Herblock, Edwin Marcus of The New York Times, and many others rallied support for the war effort; Bill Mauldin won the Pulitzer in 1945 for his “Up Front” cartoons for United Features Syndicate, which helped bolster morale among the troops and on the home front.
In the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, cartoons commented on and satirized our divisions over the Vietnam War, civil rights, Watergate, and the sexual revolution.
Ironically, the national tragedy of 9/11 may have been cartooning’s finest hour. Cartoons channeled our collective trauma, fear, and nationalism—and helped with our eventual recovery.
You know there is a “but” coming:
But something started happening in the early 2000s to erode cartooning’s place in our society, just as the internet started undermining the business model of print journalism. Staff cartoonists at newspapers, who had been an integral part of a dialogue with readers—one that could get heated but usually remained civil because the players belonged to the same community—found themselves out of work as the number of local and regional papers dwindled. Many of the papers that survived were sold to chains and other faraway owners, severing the ties between a publication and its local public.
Read Lisa’s essay, at Persuasion, on why editorial cartooning is in decline
and what needs to be done to save the art and commentary format.
Elsewhere it is
Early editorial cartoons were distributed individually only as the artist was able to hand-produce them. But when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th Century, satirical cartoonists were able to reach a broader audience with a more consistent message. This increased the cartoons’ exposure exponentially; it also made it more difficult for those they were mocking to ignore.
Kings, clergymen, and other powerful institutions were known to tax, threaten, and even imprison cartoonists who dared to subvert their authority. This drove independent cartoonists into a symbiotic relationship with another relatively new mass media invention – newspapers.
They can range from an innocuous “gag” to a deliberate slap in the face to a specific individual or group. What makes these cartoons either detrimental, or harmless is completely in the eye of the beholder. The point is to have that reaction, whether it’s just a small giggle or a seething enragement.
After a recent visit to two Chicago exhibits (one showing two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Bill Mauldin and the other a display of dozens of Chicago’s comic artists), I returned to find a modest treasure: a copy of 1952’s “The Herblock Book” autographed by a cartoonist hero: Herblock.
But Herblock wasn’t mentioned in either show, an awkward oversight, especially close to the Association of American Editorial cartoonists yearly convention Oct. 8-9.
Herbert Block – born in Chicago 112 years ago this week (he also died in October: Oct. 7, 2001) – deserves a prominent exhibition…