Big Noses, Little Impact

By Graham Clark

Traditional political cartoons have slipped between the cracks of mass media. Now few fight for the art form.
-Graham Clark

Cartoons and caricatures are creative, transparent and highly sharable forms of news media in an industry championing exactly those traits. They’ve skewered tyrants and fostered democracy for centuries. So why don’t they pay worth a damn?

The four political cartoon experts sat sunken in their chairs. It was a summit, a meeting of the minds to discuss the future of the craft. It was an informal get-together after a panel on the history of political cartooning at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.

Stewing together, they wax sarcastic and air rhetorical grievances as only the mutually dissatisfied can.

Robert Scheer is the Editor In Chief of Truthdig.com, and a fan of political cartoons for personal and professional reasons.  Drawing by Graham Clark.

Robert Scheer is the Editor In Chief of Truthdig.com, and a fan of political cartoons for personal and professional reasons. Drawing by Graham Clark.

“How about it,” says Robert Scheer, editor-in-chief of TruthDig.com, a website that aims to offer new perspectives on a broad range of issues. He’s a fan of political cartoons and caricatures. What’s more, the old-fashioned editorial form drives a surprising volume of page views to his site.

Victor Navasky replies, gently aghast: “What?”

“The issues.”

“What issues?”

Navasky is in the middle of promoting his book on the history of political cartoons, The Art of Controversy. Beside that he’s lived a lifetime of journalism, and occupies a position at the Columbia School of Journalism.

Dwane "Mr. Fish" Booth has recently been made the subject of a feature length documentary titled "Cartooning From The Deep End."  Drawing by Graham Clark.

Dwane “Mr. Fish” Booth has recently been made the subject of a feature length documentary titled “Cartooning From The Deep End.” Drawing by Graham Clark.

“Where are the issues?” pipes up Dwanye Booth. He’s a cartoonist, active online and in-print behind the nom de plume “Mr. Fish.”

Navasky again: “It’s so depressing.”

“The economy.”

“The issues!” echoes Scheer. “Where are the issues?”

His question hung in the air. With that, almost no sooner than they’d begun, they were at an impasse. It’s not that they were in disagreement. More supersaturated with accord. They all knew the long and short of it, so what was left to say?

Where were the issues?

Indeed. The political cartoon has not aged well. It has not scaled well. It has not gained a heck of a lot of traction in this century’s news landscape.

Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall famously accused cartoons of being a deciding factor in turning public opinion against his hands-on approach to politics. Comics and caricatures were instrumental in the drive to finance World War II for Axis and Allies alike, pushing war bonds and nationalistic fervor.

They sure used to matter. They sure used to pay—a recent made-for-TV documentary on the late, great American political cartoonist Herbert “Herblock” Block discovered that the D.C.-based penman left this world a multimillionaire.

Now, it’s all but impossible to imagine a single-panel caricaturist toppling public administrators. They’re barely squeaking by adapting to twists in the economics of news consumption. Political cartoons have survived due to the efforts of a few devoted individuals—Matt Bors, Brian McFadden and Erin Polgreen of Symbolia to name a few. Practitioners of the craft survive like daises growing through concrete, exceptions to the rule that live in this primarily digital age with online followers, digital publication and well-engineered crowdsourcing campaigns, e.g. Kickstarter. But the traditional art form of the caricature and the single-panel political cartoon has come along as an afterthought while immersive narratives and technological innovation take center stage.

The three men had spoken in the impromptu gathering. The remaining silent cartoonist in the room continued standing by without comment, drinking a glass of lukewarm water. But she could have answered the question, “Where are the issues?” She knew. She’d recently written about it.

Ann Telnaes has found success as a cartoonist and animator for The New Yorker and The Washington Post.  Drawing by Graham Clark.

Ann Telnaes has found success as a cartoonist and animator for The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Drawing by Graham Clark.

She was Ann Telnaes, best known for drawings regularly published by the New Yorker and Washington Post. Telnaes had recently given a piece of her mind to a notably less prestigious publication platform: the comments section of a colleague’s blog post. Although it was a mere comment on a mere blog post, it addressed the biggest issue facing contemporary political cartoonists head-on: they’re broke.

Or, as Telnaes phrases it: “the cycle of editorial cartoonists being paid practically nothing for their work.”

She was defending her choice not to donate to a fellow cartoonist’s crowdsourcing fundraiser. He, Bill Day, is a relatively established political cartoonist. Though his work has already been licensed for syndication through digital and print channels, evidently the income he received for his work no longer covered his living expenses.

Telnaes is something of a rarity, uncommon for the typical cartoonist in a number of ways. Among them is her success—including her New Yorker work, she has been noting as an outstanding artist, cartoonist and caricaturist in many ways. The creator of the “Pretty Good Cartoon” Tumblr page, a consistent and biting site for criticism of modern political cartoons, says that Telnaes is distinguished by her ability to “Draw the best Scalia.”

Telnaes comment read, in full: “It’s troubling that people are asked by the syndicate to donate money for a cartoonist to continue working for that syndicate, which in turn continues the cycle of editorial cartoonists being paid practically nothing for their work.”

It’s a disservice to everyone involved to have caricatures—base, cartoon portraits— stricken from the news media industry. We’re not quite there. But they’re so typically banished to the margins, while other forms of graphic storytelling are undergoing periods of innovation in content and distribution.

Either caricatures are a useless holdover from a previous era of news, or they’re a rarely mastered, timeless art. They’re supposed to be immediately accessible—one of comics’ advantages as a form of storytelling has always been the relatively low technical threshold facing would-be cartoonists. So that makes it even harder to imagine caricature as a diamond-in-the-rough kind of communication, practiced by a rarified, devoted, true masters of the craft.

So what are caricatures: vestigial artifact or artisan craft?

The people with the most hands-on, real-world experience doing caricatures aren’t on panels at book conventions. Nor are they trolling online comment boards. They’re occupying lawn chairs and working easels at hokey tourist destinations across the globe, like Michael Mickle.

Mickle has been a professional caricaturist for 45 years, solely supporting himself by drawing people with funny faces that entire time. He holds down a post on the beach near his home base in Santa Barbara. He knows exactly where the issue facing political cartoonists and caricaturists lies: in his bank account.

“The general opinion is we’re not getting as much work anymore,” Mickle says. “It used to be that magazines had a lot more really good caricatures on the covers. You don’t see that any more. It’s a sign of the times. I would say, the caricature, though it’s been around since the 15th century and was used to really lambast the ruling class, you don’t see that any more.”

He names two personal friends who had to stop practicing the craft and find new sources of income. “I’m the only one who’s lasted that I know.”

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