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Political Animal

Funnies No More

By Brian Morton | Posted 12/14/2005

Politics and funny don’t go together as easily as you’d think. Well, not if you earnestly have a love for the process, anyway. You need to have a certain amount of nihilism in your soul to be a political cartoonist—“a pox on both their houses” and all that. Of course, you could be a libertarian, like many (including the excellent Steve Benson of The Arizona Republic), which fully allows you to spit a good loogie at the whole endeavor.

This week, editorial cartoonists around the nation—an anarchistic band of individuals if there ever was one—grouped together for “Black Ink Monday,” when they used their unique showcase to point out how their numbers are shrinking among the nation’s already hard-squeezed newspapers.

You could argue that the op-ed column is not only an original American form (see the book Poets, Pundits, and Wits by Karl Meyer) but indispensable as a record of American thought over the course of the republic. Franklin, Twain, Lardner, Rogers, Mencken, Lippman, Alsop, Baker, Trillin, McGrory, Will, Dowd—these are the names that have populated the column across from newspaper editorials. But even more so than the writers, the cartoonists have steered the opinions and conscience of a nation.

It takes a lot to write a column, but it takes more to draw a cartoon. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but an idea, a snapshot of a thought, requires more than 1,000 words to be described adequately. Yet a cartoon can clarify in a single frame what would otherwise require reams of words. A cartoon distills. And better still, it is funny. Or not. It could be wry, ironic, angry, or bitter. But a cartoon pokes delicately into the subconscious of our present-day minds and then jabs until it bleeds. People may ignore the columns—but they stare at the cartoons.

It was a political cartoonist, Thomas Nast, who in the late 1800s gave us the symbols for the two dominant political parties in America: the elephant and the donkey. Nast caused the leader of the predominant urban political machine in America to go into fits: William Marcy “Boss” Tweed of New York’s Tammany Hall machine went apoplectic because, while his constituents may not have understood the sentiments in the op-ed columns, he knew they sure as hell understood the pictures in Nast’s cartoons.

But the art form in America is dying, and it has as much to do with the current political climate as it does the economics of the newspaper business. The bean counter’s scythe has, over the last few years, taken the heads of Republican-leaning cartoonists—Michael Ramirez of the Los Angeles Times—and liberal leaners such as the Sun’s Kevin “KAL” Kallaugher, who recently took a buyout. It’s clear to all now that it has nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with money.

Major metropolitan newspapers have ceased having to do with anything concerned with journalism and the public good; those now are by-products. If the remote ideals that originated with the daily newspaper were still inherent, then the political cartoon might not be dying. After all, what’s simpler to “get” than a cartoon?

In my college years, as the editorial-page editor for the Diamondback at the University of Maryland, nothing was guaranteed to send various interest groups at the school (truth be told, usually the Black Student Union) into apoplexy more than the cartoonists. One half-page cartoon mocking the leader of the BSU on my watch led the group to come storming down to the paper’s offices like something out of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, leaving me relieved that pitchforks were not part of the average student’s possessions.

I’ve been a fan of editorial cartoons ever since. The late Herb Block of The Washington Post made his mark on America simply by giving Richard Nixon a 5 o’clock shadow, forever marking him as shifty in the eyes of editorial-page readers. Jules Feiffer’s delicate strokes adorned the pages of New York’s Village Voice for more than 40 years. Paul Conrad was the powerful artistic voice of the Los Angeles Times before Ramirez. While once visiting The Arizona Republic, I saw on the door of the aforementioned Steve Benson a handwritten note: “I have known many nice Bensons in my life. You are not one of them. Barry Goldwater.”

There are no wimpy editorial cartoonists—the job requires a strong constitution, strong opinions, and unwavering faith in one’s beliefs. These are days when opinions that vary with the prevailing winds are not rewarded. We’re headed toward times when if opinions can’t be bought they won’t be expressed, and cartoonists are far too mercurial to be owned, and the space in which they ply their trade is too valuable to take risks in.

Black Ink Monday signified the death knell for the political cartoonist. If you don’t care, then how long will it be before there is one for the newspaper itself?

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The Fix (8/4/2010)

Police State (7/7/2010)

Funny Business (6/9/2010)

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