Editorial cartoons: the end of an echo of an era

12. April 2009

When I was in college — at least, the first time around — my career goal was to ensconce myself in the editorial page department of some large metropolitan newspaper as the staff editorial cartoonist. To that end I got myself into the analogous position on my college newspaper, The Daily Texan, as soon as I felt my skills were up to it. At the time I was taken on, it was with a small pack of other cartoonists, the idea being that each weekday (the Texan being a weekday-only publication) we’d get a shot at the cartoon slot on the page. Through my 3-year “career” there I grew and shined and pretty much elbowed out my competition, except for a certain hot-shot from Los Angeles named Berke Breathed. But Berke was more interested in comic strips than editorial cartoons, so by the third year he had his regular comic strip (“The Academica Waltz,” which was a sort of precursor to his later and better-known strip “Bloom County”) and I had my regular editorial cartoon slot.

(I should also give a nod to another Texan cartoonist at the time, Sam Hurt, a law-school student who contributed numerous op-ed cartoons as well as a very original and mind-bending strip, “Eyebeam.” Sam’s a nice guy who still dabbles in cartooning although I haven’t heard from him in years, although he does maintain a website.)

By 1979, my graduate year, I’d become quite full of myself and hadn’t really done proper research of the market I intended to enter, or thought things through. At that time there were about 350 newspapers in the United States which had staff editorial cartoonists. Positions did open up from time to time, and I suppose I might have grabbed one in the year or two after I’d graduated except for one problem.

I’m a libertarian, and I don’t compromise my political principles.

I was vaguely aware that this was a handicap in the business — newspapers prefer to hire staff cartoonists whose views are compatible with the editor and editorial staff. This left me, really, only two possible employers: The Santa Ana Register (now the Orange County Register) in California, and The Colorado Springs Gazette, both owned by the libertarian-minded R.C. Hoiles family under the name Freedom Newspapers (now Freedom Communications) Inc. Both of these papers already had cartoonists they were happy with, and so I was effectively shut out of a career for which I’d spent the better part of three years preparing myself.

Aside from the blow to my ego, this dashed my hopes of immediate middle-class income and comfort. Those staff cartooning jobs started in the $25k per annum range, not bad at all in 1980 dollars. And syndication was likewise denied to me, as the syndicates would not take on editorial cartoonists who did not have newspaper staff jobs.

After a short span of time working as a small-paper news reporter and newsletter editor I more or less abandoned journalism and turned my attention to commercial art, further developing my skills in design and illustration so that I could design publications, and later, web pages, as well as illustrate advertisements and comic-books. By some luck I managed to spend a decade-plus doing animation and art direction for a computer game company.

And thanks to my connections in the libertarian and gun-rights movements, I even manage to sell a few editorial cartoons from time to time, on a pick-up basis, which get published in activist newsletters.

But through all those years I often paused to wonder how my life might have been different, had I managed to land one of those treasured editorial cartooning jobs. I might have gotten a house and started a family nearly a decade earlier than I finally did, and avoided several years of hand-to-mouth existence. I might have become nationally famous, with syndication deals bringing in a very comfortable income. I might have …

Fast-forwarding to today: I now think I was far luckier than I used to believe I was.

In 2009, thirty years after my last year on the Texan, newspapers across the continent are downsizing, even dying, and taking with them those cushy editorial cartooning jobs. Every week we hear of another editorial cartoonist, who’d been loyally serving his newspaper for 10, 20, 30 years, getting a pink slip. Just the other week, this happened to Ben Sergeant, who I’d long envied for having the job at The Austin American-Statesman. I often wished I could be him, not so much because I liked the A-S, but because it allowed him to live comfortably in Austin, Texas, which is still one of my favorite cities.

These are people who had spent a very long time developing a very specific skill, which does not really have any use in any other sort of job. And the market for this skill is going away. It must be a terrifying situation for these people, most of whom have mortgages and dependent children and who were counting on their jobs lasting until they reached a comfortable retirement age.

And if I had been “luckier” in the early 1980s, I’d be one of those guys now.

Instead, I’d been obliged to learn other skills, including computer graphics skills, which are still very useful. I have joined the ranks of the web-cartoonists, who are still struggling, for the most part, but still have a brighter future than those guys who are only trained to produce single-panel, stylized drawings full of labels, using pencil, brush and paper. Whose minds are trained to gentle chastisement of political elites under direction and guidance of their own elites, the great newspaper editors.

Other forms of cartooning are finding new ways to thrive on the wild and woolly Internet, where there are few or even no intermediaries between cartoonist and audience. But classical editorial cartooning isn’t finding this, and can’t, really.

Which leads me to wonder what relevance editorial cartooning really has to the larger scheme of things, if it ever did.

Nearly all cartoonists know the story of Thomas Nast, the German-American illustrator, caricaturist and cartoonist whose career began in 1859 and lasted through the 19th century’s end. Mostly, he drew for the news-magazine Harper’s Weekly at a time when the news-magazines and their cousins the newspapers were the mass media. He was credited variously as President Lincoln’s “best recruiting sergeant” for his support of the War Between the States, helping to elect Presidents Grant and Cleveland, and perhaps most famously for bringing down Tammany Hall’s infamously corrupt Democrat power-broker William M. Tweed (although the Tammany Hall group managed to recover and regain its dominance of New York politics for decades afterward.)

Nast was also known for his sympathies for Chinese Americans, freed black slaves, and American Indians. He is less known for his antipathy for Catholics in general and Italian-Americans in particular, who he regarded as inherently corrupt and enablers of crooks like Boss Tweed. But beyond all that, he was regarded as not just the father of American political cartooning but the inspiration for all political cartoonists who followed him.

And yet — who among those who followed enjoyed the real-world influence of Nast? Did any other cartoonist significantly contribute to the election or defeat of a President, or even the downfall of a big-city power-broker? I can’t think of any. Perhaps the only political cartoonist to even approach Nast’s relevance was Bill Mauldin, who is best known for the cartoons he drew for the military newspaper Stars & Stripes during World War II. These cartoons were a-political, slice-of-life pieces focusing on the trials of front-line troops (of which he was one). After the war, his left-of-center, civil-libertarian cartoons were not well-received, but in 1958 he managed to get a job working for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, moving soon afterward to the Chicago Sun-Times, and his star rose again.

His most famous post-war cartoon remarked on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In it, he drew the famous statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial — the statue is leaning forward, face buried in its hands, presumably weeping that a successor should meet the same fate as he.

Mauldin and several other 20th-Century political cartoonists have been well-regarded: Herb Block, Jules Feiffer, Jeff McNelly, Paul Conrad, Jim Borgman, Patrick Oliphant, Don Wright, Doug Marlette, and dozens more … and yet, what were their accomplishments compared with Nast’s?

It seems to me that throughout the last century, and into the first few years of this one, editorial cartoonists lived in the glow of the 1800s. In those days, newsprint was the only mass medium; the only images viewed and shared were the illustrations, drawn in ink and charcoal and painstakingly hand-engraved. It was only in such an environment that a cartoonist could play the role of king-maker or king-breaker. The first crack in that edifice came with chemical photo-engraving, which allowed photographs to convey news stories in a way that was once the sole domain of the illustrators.

Then, radio arose to challenge the pre-eminence of newspapers, and cinema and television ended the cartoonists’ monopoly in the words-and-pictures department.

Some cartoonists moved into comics-books and fantasy illustration, where they could create the sort of fantastic visions that the camera could not capture. Political cartoonists filled a different sort of niche — instead of challenging people to think, or to take action, they became little more than entertainment for political junkies, and a sort of prestige emblem for the great newspapers. Nobody to my knowledge offered a 20th Century political cartoonist a half-million-dollar bribe to close shop and go away, as Boss Tweed had to Thomas Nast. Many politicians instead rather enjoyed the cartoons that poked fun at them, appreciating the attention. A few even sought to purchase the original drawings of published cartoons skewering them. In my Texan days I even sold a half-dozen drawings to Governor Dolph Briscoe, one of my frequent targets (hey, I needed the dough.)

This is not principally the fault of the cartoonists. The newspapers which were their platform had become more tame and staid, increasingly so through the century; their kept cartoonists enjoyed just a little more room to poke at their targets. But only a little. I know that Ben Sergeant used to chafe under the restrictions he faced, but he kept his head down and kept his job for more than 30 years — up until last month.

And now that those platforms are withering away, political cartoonists are desperately casting about for ways to shore up those platforms, because they can’t see any alternative platforms on which to perform. For most of them, there may not be any — at least, not for the sort of performances they’ve been doing for the last several decades.

I don’t see much hope for shoring up most of those dying platforms. Perhaps, in 20 years, a few dozen major newspapers will successfully transform themselves into news websites, and bring their kept cartoonists with them. Perhaps a few dozen more of these cartoonists will find a way to continue their work freelancing for various print and web publications. Most of them will either have to do other sorts of illustration work, from greeting cards to children’s book illustration to advertising, or retire from cartooning.

But the true glory days of editorial cartooning died with Thomas Nast. His echo lasted a century, but that echo is now fading away.

Kategorie comics, Free speech, Webcomics | 5 Kommentare »

Chinese cop-killer becomes internet hero

28. August 2008

I don’t want to make a habit of link-blogging but here is something that came to me via Brad Spangler that I want to share.

Yang Jia, a 28-year-old unemployed man from Beijing, appeared in court in Shanghai charged with an alleged attack against the police on July 1, the anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.

Mr Yang is said to have thrown molotov cocktails into a police station in Zhabei, a northern suburb of the city, before entering the building and attacking a group of unarmed officers with a knife. He was arrested at the scene.

However, instead of condemnation, he has received widespread approval from Chinese internet users, or netizens, for his apparent act of defiance.

You can read the rest of this story here.

Kategorie anarchy, Free speech, Posts | 3 Kommentare »

Civil War: The fascists win

27. February 2007

Earlier last year there was a dust-up among libertarian bloggers concerning a just-launched Marvel Comics series titled “Civil War.” In this story a massively-deadly disaster prompts the U.S. government to pass a Superhero Registration Act, commanding all super-heroes to register with the government, reveal any secret identities they may have, and either become government employees or retire from super-heroing.

Very quickly, different heroes lined up on opposite sides of this issue. Iron Man joined with the government and became leader of the government superheroes. Captain America understood what was at stake and became leader of the heroes rebelling against the new order. A bona-fide war ensued between the two camps, causing considerable damage to New York City which, this being Marvel Comics, where nothing outside of The Big Apple really matters, became the hapless battleground.

Many libertarian commentators protested vociferously and called for a boycott of Marvel. I’m no fan of that company but I was among those adopting a wait-and-see attitude. We had a conflict-in-progress here, one mirroring fairly closely a conflict our culture is actually dealing with now. Let’s see how the conflict plays out in the Marvel Universe before we pass judgement.

Well, the seventh and final installment of the series hit comics shops last week, and the winner was: Iron Man and his Safety Nazis. And by default. Captain America and his team had beaten the pro-government forces on the ground, but Cap looked at the damage all around him and decided that while he was winning the battle, he was losing the argument. So he surrendered.

Okay, now libertarians should boycott Marvel, The House of Really Bad Ideas. No doubt Jack Kirby is spinning in his grave, and Steve Ditko would be too if he were dead. Stan Lee seems to be mostly detached from all this, still living in the 1950s and 60s which were his heyday.

This is going to inconvenience me some, as one of my favorite comics writers, Warren Ellis, has been doing a fair amount of work for them lately. But I can always find that stuff for free on the ‘Net and I can send Warren a small check to cover what would have been his share of sales. And of course I have no illusion that a libertarian boycott of Marvel will even be noticed by them. It’s just the principle of the thing.

And Mark Millar, who wrote this trainwreck, can kiss my shiny metal ass.

Marvellio dalenda est.

Kategorie comics, Free speech, Posts | 5 Kommentare »

And now you know…

27. January 2007

The blogosphere is abuzz over a CBS news report from Iraq filed on Jan. 17 by Lara Logan, which was aired on the CBS website but not included in their on-air broadcast. The report is about the war raging between Iraq security forces and Sunni militia on Haifa Street, just a few blocks from the secure “Green Zone” where U.S. FedGov forces are headquartered.

The link on the CBS site is here. It requires the Real player, but if you don’t have that it’s also up on YouTube, via this link.

It’s not by any means the most grizzly news report I’ve seen from that sad place, but it paints a gruesome picture of the violent chaos which has enveloped Baghdad and much of that country.

Logan is unhappy her report was not broadcast on the air and is asking for people to write to CBS News and protest the exclusion. CBS has already responded to the effect that they already had a lot of Iraq reporting that day and didn’t have time to include Logan’s report.

Subsequently, on Jan 24, CBS did air a story which contained a few selected images from Logan’s 1/17 report but did not include the dead bodies, the complaints from Haifa Street residents about the chaos and the failure of the U.S. here. This and several other tidbits are offered in the Daily Kos report on this matter. (Yes, the Daily Kos. Did you expect to see this on Free Republic?)

Anyway, Logan has asked bloggers to post a notice about the situation, and I’m now doing my part. I have to say that I know nothing about Logan other than what I’ve seen here, and we may have very different views about a lot of things, but I have enormous respect for her for not only braving the dangers of living and reporting in Iraq, but of bucking her corporate honchos at CBS. You go girl!!!

Kategorie anarchy, Free speech, Posts | 3 Kommentare »

Hillary and BigFoot

18. January 2007

The other day my wife picked up a copy of that most under-appreciated humor magazine, Weekly World News. The “world” here of course being Earth, not Mars, but out here we’re used to the hubristic imperialist assumptions of the Terran media.

But all that aside, WWN brings lots of chuckles. The headline story shows Hillary Clinton teaming up with Bigfoot — the composited photo shows a happy Hillary standing next to a large, hairy man-ape thing.

We laughed because we know that whoever Hillary winds up actually chosing to run with her is going to be known as “Bigfoot,” at least around these parts.

More hilarity:

* In the latest threat to the environment, trees take up smoking! (apparently picking up discarded cigarette and cigars, like hobos do)

* “Hockey heroes” lead a team of zambonis to restore the melting arctic ice-cap.

* Anthropologists discover ancient gymnasiums used by the Neanderthals, where they worked out to reduce stress.

* Astronomer rebuked and threatened with dismissal for excessive star-gazing.

* New development: Bandages for alien abduction scars! (Not clear whether the bandages are for the aliens or the abductees.)

But the real surprise was that WWN has a comics section. And not just measly little 3-4 panels strips, either, but double-decked, 6-8 panel strips! Including one strip, “Spy Cat,” drawn by Ernie Colon. Colon is perhaps, or perhaps not, more famous as the artist who drew the “Official 9/11 Commission Whitewash” graphic novel. Hey, there’s some gravitas for you. Ernie fucking Colon draws for Weekly World News. (Wait, that didn’t sound right.)

But getting back to the headline story, the scariest part is a photograph showing an electronic voting-both screen, listing as presidential candidates Hillary Clinton with Bigfoot, and John McCain with Dan Quayle. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!

Kategorie comics, Free speech, Posts | 3 Kommentare »


1. December 2006

I’m not sure why but in the last two days I got as many e-mails commenting on a cartoon I drew five years ago: I call it my “Sept.11 cartoon” because the sobriquet “9/11″ referring to the terrorist attacks that day had not yet come to be firmly established. For those who haven’t seen or don’t remember it, here it is:
Sept.11 cartoon

I know that this cartoon has been copied to all manner of web-sites, mostly gun-rights sites, and likely some other sites I may not approve of. I have no idea where these two recent correspondents saw the cartoon.

Now, I can take a challenge to my opinions so long as they’re expressed in a civil manner. The first e-mail was civil, and went like this:

You said on your website “Bill of Rights Enforcement note: The Sept. 11 mass-murder could not have occurred had airline crew and passengers been able to exercise their civil right to bear arms, as emphasized in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”

But to point a gun at someone who was willing to die would have proven useless. To fire a gun in an airplane would have killed everyone on board.

I understand there are a thousand ways we wish we could have prevented those attacks, but having nothing that could be used as a weapon would have prevented this attack as well. Everyone wants to change the past for a better future.

I’m sorry you have to feel this way about all Arabs for the rest of your life. Don’t let hate consume you like it had consumed them. How will we ever understand?

I responded in a similarly civil manner, correcting his misconceptions about what a stray bullet will do in a pressurized airline cabin (nothing much, really — explosive decompression from a bullet fired through a window only happens in James Bond movies), and explaining that I don’t hate Arabs, or Muslims, I just hate murderers. I pointed out my opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions (many countries harbor murderers and we don’t invade, overthrow governments and occupy those places indefinitely just to nab the badguys).

This corresponded and I exchanged a few more debate points until the argument had run its course and I didn’t hear from him again.

In stark contrast to this, the following day I got the following from another critic:

If you think guns on planes is a good idea think about how good of an idea it is to have gangs with guns on the streets. Think of how many people would be shot on planes. Also if any of the chickenshit cowboy americans in your little picture had shot their guns off, the plane would de-pressurize and crash anyways you fuckin idiot. If more guns save lives and keep people safe why does america have the HIGHEST GUN RELATED CRIME IN THE WORLD? In Canada it is much less, but you know what we have more of? Fist fights between real men who aren’t so scared to get hurt they want to press a button and end anything scary. People who carry guns are afraid of getting hurt because they’re pussies, a gun doesn’t make you tough, it just means you spent $200 to escape any situation you’re scared of instead of facing it head on like humans have for thousands of years. I would love to hear what you have to say about this, unless you actually read this and realized what a scared little cowboy you are.

And here is how I responded:

You clearly don’t know what you’re talking about, and get your idea of how the world works from movies. Talk to aircraft engineers. They’ll tell you that a stray bullet, or even six stray bullets in random directions, will NOT cause a pressurized aircraft cabin to rapidly depressurize. It just doesn’t work that way, Poindexter.

And the United States does not have the highest gun-related crime rate in the world. If you read the fine-print in statistics usually quoted by your gun-grabbing masters, they restrict comparisons to “the industrialized world.” And the reason for this is that several “Third World” countries have higher gun-crime rates than the United States, as does the formerly “Second World” Russian Federation, despite the much more draconian gun laws in those countries. Gun crimes have been rising in Britain and Australia at the same time gun laws are becoming more strict. Violent crimes of all types have fallen in those American states where gun restrictions have been relaxed.

You seem to want to return to a world where the biggest, strongest tough-guy in town lords it over everyone else, or where an elite class of families who can afford to invest thousands of hours learning the sword can lord it over entire nations. That was the state of the world before guns made everyone equal, you elitist snot.

You would rather see your mother, your sister, your wife, or your daughter raped and strangled to death with her own pantyhose, than see her with a gun in her hand and able to defend herself against a man twice her size and strength.

Fuck you and the constipated weasel you rode in on.

I haven’t heard back from this guy since.

The moral to this story is, if you want to express a disagreement with me, fine, but be civil. If you come at me with belligerence and insults, I will answer in kind.

Kategorie anarchy, Free speech, Posts, Wyoming | 8 Kommentare »

Counter update

15. November 2006

After mulling things over, Bill St. Clair has determined that the way we’ve had the counter set up makes it too difficult for people to install and use, especially on WordPress blogs. So he’s put together a server-side version that generates an image which gets displayed on the client-side’s site.

We have this version up now on L. Neil Smith’s blog. There is a “wide” version and a square version, as before, but now to install either of them on your site, all you need do is copy the following code:

Wide version:

img src=”http://billstclair.com/aic/wide.php” alt=”America in Chains” width=”420″ height=”134″ /

Square version:
img src=”http://billstclair.com/aic/sq.php” alt=”America In Chains” width=”226″ height=”225″ /

In either case, add opening and closing brackets < and > at each end of the code string to make it work.

Bill likes to display the days in red text, and since I’m not paying him to do this, I won’t argue with him. I’m going to keep the older version on this site, with the white text. Just because I can.

Kategorie anarchy, Free speech, Posts | 3 Kommentare »

My purty counter

12. November 2006

I know I’ve been neglecting the blog. Too much stuff to do. But I wanted to announce my purty new counter, marking the days since newly empowered Democrats have failed to end the war, repeal the Patriot Act, abolish the Heimatsicherheits Amt, and restore the Bill of Rights.

Concept by L. Neil Smith, counter coding by Bill St. Clair, graphics and final coding by me.

I have it installed up in my header. If you’d like one of your own, you can get a zip file containing the html doc and the images needed — there are two versions, the “wide” one above and a 216×216 pixel “square” one that might work better with your own site design. You can get ‘em at square.zip
and wide.zip

(You can also see both versions on The Libertarian Enterprise, although there seems to be some error in Ken’s coding which is messing up the counter display. Hopefully he can fix it soon.)

[Edited to add: The problem on the TLE site has been fixed. Apparently the problem is an incompatibility between javascript, which runs the counter, and certain versions of HTML, as specified in the header of TLE's pages. HTML 4.0 doesn't like it, but HTML 4.0.1 Transitional is fine with it. Also, XHTML 1.0 Strict doesn't like it either. However, it seems to look okay on MIE 6 no matter which HTML or XHTML form is specified in the header.]

Kategorie anarchy, Free speech, Posts | 5 Kommentare »


24. August 2006

I’ve been directed to a highly intelligent essay concerning the best way to combat terrorism: stop being terrorized. It’s at Bruce Schneier’s blog, here.

Here’s an excerpt:

I’d like everyone to take a deep breath and listen for a minute.

The point of terrorism is to cause terror, sometimes to further a political goal and sometimes out of sheer hatred. The people terrorists kill are not the targets; they are collateral damage. And blowing up planes, trains, markets or buses is not the goal; those are just tactics. The real targets of terrorism are the rest of us: the billions of us who are not killed but are terrorized because of the killing. The real point of terrorism is not the act itself, but our reaction to the act.

And we’re doing exactly what the terrorists want.

Kategorie anarchy, Free speech, Posts | Comments Off

Nudie Villa

16. June 2006

In my e-mailbox this morning came a message from Terry Liberty Parker, a reminiscence of a very interesting community I was part of back in the late ’70s to early ’80s.

The community was, in form, a clothing-optional apartment complex, situated in an “economically disadvantaged” — that is, black — part of Austin, Texas. The place had been run down and destined for the bulldozer, but Parker managed to convince an investor that the place could be re-habbed profitably, under his management philosophy. Parker re-named the place “New Manor Apartments” but most of its residents came to affectionately call the place “Nudie Villa.”

That philosophy was libertarianism, somewhat simplified and re-cast as a “non-aggression truce.” Residents and guests could do as they liked, so long as they did not threaten or commit violence against other persons or their property. At any given time, only a small minority of the residents (such as myself) considered themselves “libertarians” but nearly everyone understood how the “truce” worked, and supported it.

The experiment ended in 1988, about the same time I left Texas for California. Parker gives a very good summary of how the place worked, and what it was like to live there, in his message available here. Anarchists interested in intentional communities would, I think, profit from studying this bit of history.

And yes, I went naked quite a bit of the time, myself. When I was in my 20s, I looked pretty good.

Kategorie anarchy, Free speech, Posts | 8 Kommentare »