It’s been fifty years since The Saturday Review declared American editorial cartooning a moribund art. In the three-page autopsy, the magazine’s staff coroner of all things cultural, Jerome Beatty, argued that the cartoonist’s lifeblood had been quieted by taboo-conscious editors who bent “over backwards” to avoid offending readers, publishers, and advertisers. Eager to display a pulse, cartoonists responded by setting up the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC), and throughout the following decades punctuated a professional renaissance with strong and consequential drawings.
But, alas, plus ça change…
As the AAEC prepares to celebrate it’s half-century anniversary in July, cultural coroners are once again issuing death certificates, some remarkably similar to Beatty’s. For instance, David Wallis, editor of Killed Cartoons, a new collection of 100 nixed panels from the past century, argues that cartoonists have been silenced by “fearful editors” who avoid race, religion, corporate power, and other subjects that might offend. At the same time, they’ve been smothered by a play-nice media that “bends over backwards—and sometimes just bends over—to appease conservatives.” In other words, see Beatty, 1957.
Whether or not Wallis and Beatty have it right, there is cause for concern. Since 1957 the number of full-time newspaper doodlers has fallen from 275 to eighty-four, with most cuts coming since 1980, according to the AAEC. Today less than one-tenth of American newspapers have staff cartoonists. That means that a baby born today is roughly five times more likely to play in the NBA than draw full-time for a newspaper. And it’s not just Podunk papers cutting back. The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, San Jose Mercury News, and St. Louis Post-Dispatch have jettisoned cartoonists or left vacancies unfilled in recent years. The New York Times hasn’t had it’s own cartoonist since the 1950s, when publisher Adolph Ochs reportedly said that the problem with cartoons is that they can’t be made to say “On the other hand….”
But what troubles today’s publishers and editors is less a matter of subtlety than cost. Faced with declining advertising revenues and evaporating print audiences, newspapers increasingly opt to buy cartoons through syndication, which offers access to hundreds of prints for as little as $35 a week, compared to more than $35,000 a year for a staffer. Faced with such an opportunity for savings, many penny-pinching outlets forget loyalties and lose their honor fast. In the late 1990s, for example, The Village Voice told cartoonist Jules Feiffer that, after forty years and a Pulitzer Prize, it wanted to squash his $75,000 salary but still run his work. Universal Press Syndicate offered the rights for some $200 a week.
A full accounting of what is lost with the dwindling number of staff cartoonists is difficult to measure. Cartoons excite readers in ways that editorial essays can’t. Their simple strokes allow complex ideas to bypass the mind and kaboom through the nervous system, offering instantaneous understanding, and depending on one’s personal politics, an unalloyed dose of pleasure or pain. That’s one big reason why the vast majority of U.S. papers still float funny panels between banks of gray prose: they poll well with readers. However, that may change. Over the last few years, an unlikely alliance of academics and AAEC members has emerged, publicizing the downsides of the industry’s diminishing support of cartoonists. They say that newspapers are committing the editorial equivalent of weight-loss through limb removal, a metaphor that dominated “Blank Ink Monday” on December 12, 2005, when dozens of cartoonists expressed through images “the wholesale weakening of the daily newspaper” due to layoffs.
Hitting the high points, this unofficial union of ponytails and tweed jackets maintains that syndication tends to discourage controversial work and reward vanilla gags. The game is one of pleasing the greatest number of readers rather than distinguishing oneself through editorial fireworks, and the result is “a cartoon graveyard” on most editorial pages, according to Pat Oliphant. Writing in a special 2004 edition of Harvard’s Nieman Reports, the Pulitzer prize-winning caricaturist damns the New York Times “Week in Review” section as a necropolis of cartoon humor. “It illustrates how the true use and purpose of a political cartoon…[can] be replaced by a frozen assemblage of sausage-fingered big-nosed giggle panels.”
Also, at a time when the “fake” news of The Daily Show and the false certainty of “answer” shows like Lou Dobbs Tonight are ascendant, it’s surprising that newspapers aren’t expanding their investment in smart cartoons. After all, editorial cartoons offer a print equivalent of easy-to-absorb punditry and satire, and in this multimedia world, are ideally suited for the Web. What’s more, in an age of political theatrics and shape-shifting stagecraft, cartoonists can take us past surfaces and behind masks to reveal truths that photographers can’t capture.
Finally, to under-fund cartooning is to forfeit payloads of cultural authority. It’s from cartoonists such as the nineteenth century’s Thomas Nast that we inherited the iconic symbols of Uncle Sam, the GOP elephant, and the Democratic donkey, and it was cartoonist Herb Block of The Washington Post who coined the phrase “McCarthyism.” Cartoonists also focus national attention and prick the skin of Power. “Boss” Tweed boiled over Nast’s “damn pictures” prior to elections in the 1870s, allegedly offering Nast $100,000 to quit drawing. Richard Nixon thought enough of Paul Conrad’s powers to put the Los Angeles Times cartoonist on his “Enemies List,” a roster of political foes.
No wonder the columnist H.L. Mencken said, “Give me a good cartoonist and I can throw out half the editorial staff.”