Printer Friendly

Why political cartoonists sell out; in the rave for national fame, they ignore what matters at home.

In the race for national fame, they ignore what matters at home.

If George Fisher is such a good political cartoonist, why haven't you heard of him?


Fisher specializes in local issues. For him, local means Little Rock, Arkansas. Because he does so few cartoons on national issues, you'll rarely find his work reprinted in Time, Newsweek, or your city's newspaper But those who follow state politics in the Arkansas Gazette know Fisher is a powerful force.

In the early sixties, Fisher was drawn to the drawing board by the embarrassing antics of Orval Faubus, the segregationist governor of Arkansas. Fisher ridiculed him in one cartoon after another. A classic Fisher cartoon depicted Faubus as Betsy Ross-sewing George Wallace's likeness onto the American flag. In going after Faubus, remembered one of Fisher's old editors, "George swung his drawing pen like a battle-ax '" When Arkansas eventually rejected Faubus, Fisher took satisfaction in knowing he played an important role in stoking the fires of disenchantment.

"You know I voted for Faubus in his first run for governor," Fisher told Target, the political cartoon quarterly. "But when he called out the National Guard at Central High [over segregation], I opposed him. I simply came to cartooning with the Faubus regime and haven't had any ambition to go nationwide. I thought that it was an important thing for me to express an opinion locally because no one was doing it '"

Since the late sixties, Fisher has trained his sights on another target: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. By damming one free-flowing Arkansas river after another without any apparent regard for the ecological consequences, the Army Corps has taken plenty of heat-much of it generated by Fisher, who led the opposition to two proposed dams on the Buffalo River. Harold Alexander of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation says, "Fisher's cartoons were among the most effective weapons leveled at stopping the destruction of that beautiful river," which continues to flow freely (In fact, the Federation considered Fisher so effective they published a book of his cartoons.) Fisher's editor, Jerry Dhonau, says, "George has done a lot to shape public attitudes on public works projects '" He's shaped those attitudes with humor. One of his most devastating cartoons depicts two Army Corps officials, donning buttons that read "Keep Busy" as they look out over the state of Arkansas, depicted as one huge flood-control project. "God would have done it if he'd had the money," quips one engineer.

George Fisher's career is testimony to just how influential a political cartoonist can be in an age of media saturation. Yet, only about a dozen cartoonists out of more than 300 working in the United States devote the majority of their cartoons to local and regional issues. Instead they put their pens to national and international topics. Take a look at a few major papers from around the country during May. The Cincinnati Enquirer ran 25 cartoons on national issues by its own Jim Borgman and just six of his on local issues. In New Orleans, the governor is brand new and the economy is flat broke. But the majority of the cartoons in The Times-Picayune could just as well have run in Buffalo as in The Big Easy. Only six out of 26 by the paper's Mike Lukovich dealt with issues unique to New Orleans or the Bayou State, And The Washington Post devotes about as much cartoon space to its hometown as it does to Rangoon. The paper ran 49 cartoons in May. Not one dealt with the problems of local Washington government, namely Mayor Marion Barry and the wave of corruption that has swept over his administration.

You would think cartoonists would be aching to fill the breach. After all, editorial cartoonists, whether they'll admit it or not, surely want their cartoons to make a difference. Why not try to do a cartoon that will count-a seething portrait of that unknown, but important, tax commissioner rather than another Dukakis with a big schnozz or Bush with a dopey grin? Sure, national subjects can be fun-but local cartoons can be fun and effective. Why go after an elephant with a blow gun? Why not hunt smaller prey?

A Faustian bargain

A simple mantra draws cartoonists away from local issues: awards, syndication, money. Like boys in a locker room, cartoonists are constantly comparing their assets: who's seen in the most newspapers, who's won the most awards, who makes the most money? Unfortunately, few ask who's brought the most change to their community.

At the top of most cartoonists' list of priorities is seeing their work syndicated. When a cartoonist's work gets "picked up," it means that a company that sells features (such as horoscopes and opinion columns) to newspapers around the country agrees to distribute the cartoon for a fee. For the cartoonist on the staff of a newspaper, getting a syndicate contract means the opportunity to get paid twice, three times, a hundred times, for the same work.

While the reprint fees the client papers pay for any one cartoonist's work are modest-usually $500 to $1,000 a year (and even then it's split 50-50 with the syndicate company), they can still add up. Pat Oliphant of re Universal Press Syndicate has about 450 papers; the Chicago Tribune's Jeff MacNelly, 400 papers; and Mike Peters of the Dayton Daily News, more than 250 papers. The money is surely important to cartoonists, whose newspaper salaries tend to fall in the $25,000 to $75,000 a year range. But as much as anything, the syndication is a kind of validation for the artist, the simple yardstick for telling who's up and who's down.

Of course, syndicates couldn't care less about that cutting cartoon on the state welfare office that's wasting millions or the unsafe plant that's belching thick smoke. "What do readers in San Francisco care about the Omaha sewer system?" says Lee Salem, editorial director for Universal Press Syndicate. Syndicate executives want cartoons they can peddle from Birmingham to Berkeley. So most of their contracts with cartoonists require a minimum of four national or intemational cartoons a week. It's a Faustian bargain, bestowing upon the cartoonist a bigger audience but leaving him with only one or two unclaimed cartoons a week, (Ben Sargent of the Austin-American Statesman told Target that he felt his syndication is "financially worthwhile. It's an all right tradeoff. I'm not really suffering under the constraints of one [local cartoon] a week, but it would be more fun to do two a week .") And one or two cartoons is just not enough to really tackle local issues. It's one of the truisms of the business that to be effective, you have to repeat themes and images to get your message across (think of Garry Trudeau's wimpy George Bush or Pat Oliphant's depictions of a tiny, pathetic Jimmy Carter). George Fisher was so effective in Arkansas because he hammered away at the Army Corps of Engineers month in and month out. He also didn't have any syndicadon obligations to distract him.

The management of newspapers are rarely cheering for their cartoonists to take on tough, local issues. Editorial writers dub it "Afghanistanism"encouraging the cartoonist to go after the most distant , least controversial topic. The editor who thinks a savage attack on the vice president of the United States is hilarious may fail to see the humor when the victim is a city council member or major advertiser he'll be sitting beside at tomorrow's Rotary breakfast. The irony is that plenty of newspapers are expanding their local coverage, launching suburban editions. But just as those new editions have been long on school lunch menus and short on investigative reporting, they've eschewed the hardhitting editorial cartoons.

Prize juries display a similar lack of interest in local issues. They simply don't have the time to educate themselves on the local doings of dozens of communities so that they can appreciate the power and salience of the local cartoon. The Pulitzer, the nation's most important cartooning prize, has never been awarded to a local cartoon. And while there are other cartoon awards, like the Sigma Delta Chi award, none have the clout of the Pulitzer Since they only hand out one Pulitzer a year and the average cartoonist, in a career, has a couple of dozen shots at winning it, you don't have to be Carl Sagan to figure out that the vast majority of cartoonists will never win the big prize.

As enticing as it seems, the prospect of syndication success remains elusive, even for most of the best cartoonists. About four out of five political cartoonists who are syndicated fail to attract the number of papers necessary to stay syndicated, says John McMeel, president of United Press Syndicate. Of the 40 or so cartoonists syndicated nationwide, perhaps six have more than 100 papers each. They earn anywhere from $25,000 to $100,000 a year from syndication. Much more common is the cartoonist with fewer than 100 papers whose syndication earnings bring in $10,000 or less. It's too little to be satisfied with, but too much to forsake. And, as McMeel points out, it's not going to get any better. Syndicates are signing up more and more cartoonists with fewer papers around to buy them.

When you get right down to it, very few cartoonists, certainly less than a dozen, have been successful in the syndication-awards-money game. That leaves well over 90 percent of the profession that has sacrificed crusading on local issues yet has little in the way of profit or prestige to show for its work.

"Let's stop them damn pictures"

It wasn't always this way. In the nineteenth century, American political cartoonists were crusaders in the fire-breathing, take-no-prisoners style. Thomas Nast ofHarper's Weekly led the way. While Nast favored national politics in his work, he achieved everlasting fame not through his cartoons on Presidents Johnson or Grant but through his local cartoons on New York City politics.

New York's Tweed Ring was arguably the most corrupt political organization in American history. The greed of its members was colossal, far outstripping dieir woeful inability to cover it up. One favored plasterer did nine months' words of work for the city, services for which the Tweed Ring duly recorded payment of $2,870,464.06. Of course, a significant amount of that money found its way back to the pockets of Tweed henchmen.

In 1870, an outraged Nast began a blistering graphic assault on Tweed and his cronies, literally picturing them for what they were: pillagers, vultures, and thieves. Harper's Weekly buttressed Nast's cartoons with documentation and The New York Times exposed the inner workings of the Ring as well. But Tweed himself said it best when he declared, "I don't care so much what the papers write about me-my constituents can't read; but, damn it, they can see pictures. Let's stop them damn pictures."

Tweed tried to bribe Nast and then threatened him and his family. The artist stood firm. Come election day 1871 Nast was widely hailed as chief engineer in the destruction of the Tweed Ring. As Nast biographer Draper Hill has written, Nast and The New York Times bot"closed in on ring corruption during the latter half of 1871 and were joinly responsible for the voters' repudiation of Tweed and Company at the polls in November'"

The following decade saw an explosion in the use of political cartoons, largely due to advances in printing technology that permitted their use in daily newspapers. By the 1890s, most American newspapers had their own cartoonist. As their forces multiplied, few attained the national stature of a Nast, but all became kings of their own domains.

In New York in 1897, Homer Davenport of Hearst's Journal was credited with having provoked an anticartoon bill introduced into the state legislature and having then effectively killed it as well. In Philadelphia, Charles Nelan of the North American so virulently attacked the Republican candidate for govemor, Judge Samuel Pennypacker, that upon his inauguration Pennypacker focrced into law a remarkable measure that made it a crime to depict public officials as animals. Nelan and his artist colleagues on the North American immediately flaunted the bill by picturing the governor as one unattractive inanimate object after another. Their open disregard for the law subverted the ordinance and, after a few years, was responsible for its repeal.

From World War I into the sixties, only a few crusaders continued to work for daily newspapers, most notably D. R. Fitzpatrick of the St. Louis PostDispatch, Rollin Kirby of the New York World, and, of course, Herblock of The Washington Post. Those who were numbed by the Eisenhower years found in Herblock's cartoons a glimmer of hope. One of his most famous drawings shows a ladder propped against the Statue of Liberty. A figure, labeled "Hysteria," is yelling "Fire!" and frantically running up the ladder carrying a bucket of water, ready to douse the torch.

But the majority of cartoonists during this period lacked energy and creativity. They relied heavily on tired symbols (John Q Public, the war-weary world) and dogma (Americanism is good, Communism is bad). Political cartooning fell out of favor because it became cliche-ridden and visually boring.

Enter, in 1964, Pat Oliphant. He came from Australia with a bag of tricks that included satire, wit, caricature, and, most of all, irreverence-just the sort of political commentary the increasingly skeptical children of the sixties were craving. Instead of propounding time-worn truths and predictable dogma, Oliphant went straight for the president. He sent America a simple message: LBJ, and then Nixon, were liars and buffoons. In one cartoon, for example, LBJ is frantically driving a horse-drawn wagon called "Great Society" into the new year 1968. The vehicle is literally disintegrating underneath him.

This message reached Jeff MacNelly attending the University of North Carolina, Tony Auth at UCLA, Mike Peters at Washington University in St. Louis, Doug Marlette at Florida State University, and dozens of other aspiring artists around the country. Oliphant awakened them to the potency of political cartooning; it could be made as irreverent as the times. As these protestors turned professionals in the seventies, their work sparked a rebirth of interest in American political cartooning.

Suddenly, it seemed, every political cartoonist could become a rock star. By sticking to national issues, they found there was an expanding market for their work: newspapers competed for them, syndicates enticed the most promising ones into the fold with comic strip options and other money-making ventures, and TV newscasts broadcast animated political cartoons based on their newspaper work.

Now we're at a point where most cartoonists focus completely on national politics. Yes, a Herblock may make a difference nationally. And a series of "Doonesbury" cartoons can affect the way the country views the vice-president. (It was Garry Trudeau's Bush who "put his manhood in escrow.") But these are the exceptions that prove the rule. And most cartoonists today go so far as to dismiss altogether the importance of being influential. "Changing the world would be nice, but I don't think that's really what cartooning's all about," says Tony Auth, a nationally syndicated cartoonist with The Philadelphia Inquirer "I tend to think all of us [commentators] are contributing one particle a day to a torrent of information, public relations, propaganda, analysis, lies, truths. . .so that the effect of any one particle is greatly diminished."

Don Wright of the Miami News, whose work is also nationally syndicated, is equally modest. While he hopes his cartoons force his readers to think about issues they hadn't considered, he suggests that's "a very lofty ambition," and adds, "Ideally, effecting change would be wonderful. But I'm really not so sure that happens. After all, my cartoons are just an extension of my own feelings."

"That's real stuff' .

Still, a Touch of Nast is out there waiting for any cartoonist willing to take on local issues. Cartoonists can be important if they take up a worthy cause in a small forum. Signe Wilkinson, of the Philadelphia Daily News, can attest to that. "Local officials get their pictures in the paper, sober stories written about diem, and ponderously critical editorials wagging fingers at them, but when they feel the unexpected sharp point of a cartoonist's pen, they squinn and they hate it," she said. Such was the case of Diane Semingson, a city official in charge of the U.S. Constitution bicentennial celebration. Wilkinson's cartoons, based on reports in the Philadelphia press, depicted her as an autocratic, secretive, and ineffectual leader There was Wilkinson's cartoon, "I call this meeting to order," that showed Semingson in a giant conference room, with armed guards blocking the doors and behind her a giant banner saying "Me the People." Semingson called the cartoon the last straw and resigned.

"When Signe focuses on sensitive local issues, readers raise all kinds of hell," says the paper's deputy editorial page editor, Don Harrison.

Dennis Renault, of the Sacramento Bee, has been a frequent critic of California House Speaker Willie Brown. In 1983 Renault drew a cartoon that suggested Brown benefited financially from lobbying efforts to get San Francisco apartments converted to condominiums. The cartoon shows two shadowy figures holding a newspaper with Brown's likeness. "We used to rent legislators, now we own them," says one. Brown devoted an entire news conference to attacking Renault, but he failed to deflect the charge. In part because of this, the bill failed to pass.

Even cartoonists who focus on national issues in their work attest to the power of local issues. Mike Keefe of the Denver Post draws a local cartoon every Friday. He gets more reader reaction to that cartoon "than all of my other cartoons combined."

Milt Priggee knows all about tile pressures on local cartoonists to cool it. Last year, he was just settling in to his new job as the Spokane Spokesman-Review cartoonist when he took on Duane Hagadone, a local developer hot to exploit the commercial possibilities of Lake Coeur d'Alene. Priggee's caricature: Hagadone as a slimy sea monster.

The management of the Spokesman-Review, in a show of courage, ran an editorial saying they regretted printing the cartoon; its general manager characterized it as "one of the worst I have ever seen in my life'" Pfiggee was put on extended probation, but the public loved it. Cars in the Spokane region began sporting "I heart Priggee" and "I don't heart Priggee" bumperstickers with, at last count, proPriggee bumperstickers outnumbering anti-Priggee bumperstickers 30 to 1.

These successes may seem puny compared to, oh, fighting global hunger. But the fact is, cartoonists can do offly so much. The choice isn't gening a bad law off the books or stopping hunger. It's between gening a bad law off the books or having nothing of substance to show for your work.

Political cartoonists need to enlarge their definition of achievement. They should stop asking who's won the most awards, who's earning the most money, who's got the most papers, and start asking who's having the most impact,

Those cartoonists who devote themselves to local cartoons may not find riches and national fame, but they're more likely to look at their city or region and feel that the work they've done has made a difference.

Tim Menees knows. He's the local cartoonist for the Pittsburgh Post- Gazette and he doesn't syndicate his political cartoons, concentrating instead on two to four local issues a week. He told Target: to the Monongahela area and find out how many people are concerned about the Middle East versus when is Dad going back to work. . .1 mean, drawing Carter seeing the big rabbit in the swamp. Give me a break! Everybody did that, you know? When you have a problem like a corrupt police department, that's real stuff. I mean, that affects you and me and how we live."
COPYRIGHT 1988 Washington Monthly Company
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1988, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:West, Richard Samuel
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Sep 1, 1988
Previous Article:Men of Zeal.
Next Article:The African killing fields; you heard all about the Ethiopian famine. Here's the story that President Reagan, relief groups, and the media didn't...

Related Articles
The birth of a cartoon.
Black cartoonists missing from pages.
Credibility not subject to caricature.
Save the cartoonist.
ArtEd online.
Cartoonists say: ready, set, draw. (Convention Panels).
Tom Tomorrow. (The Progressive Interview).
Political cartoon.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters