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.