Cartooning is an honorable thing.
-Bill Sienkiewicz 

 

Graphic/Cartoonist Rights Network

INNOVATIONS: Web-Wise Political Cartooning 

Article by Dan Murphy

An ed-page cartoonist doing an ed-page cartoon about what it's like to be an ed-page cartoonist right now -- relying of that Big Book of Cartoon Tropes -- might draw a figure at the crossroads with signposts reading "Oblivion" pointing one way and "Worse" pointing the other.  While a web cartoonist, doing their cartoon for Internet, print, t-shirt, coffe mug -- along with signed Giclée prints thereof and the original art just a paypal click away -- would add a third signpost, this one pointing up and labeled "Independence."  And, yes, they'd both be awful cartoons, but still make their points.

If staff newspaper cartoonists are currently going the route of steam locomotive engineers only without the folk songs, the prototype for the post-Internet political cartoonist could well be Canada's J.J. McCullough.  The website for McCullough’s editorial cartoons and illustrated essays  -- which he started as a teen in 2001 -- became his calling card for Huffington Post, where he's now a paid media columnist, and his entrée into a weekly gig as political commentator on CTV, Canada's most-watched television network.

J.J. McCullough, Filibustercartoons.com, used courtesy of J.J. McCullough

J.J. was following advice that ed-cartoonist Mark Fiore gave in an essay accompanying the Herb Block Foundation 2010 study of the changing landscape in the editorial cartooning game -- before Fiore even gave it.

 "We've got to change our mindset from the days of staff political cartoonists and look at ourselves as free-agent personalities," wrote Fiore.  Having successfully pioneered the animated political cartoonPulitzer- prize winning Fiore proposed apps and public speaking as other ways for ed-cartoonists to 'build their brand.'

"What will save political cartooning," Fiore says, "is our elemental skill at satire and our adaptability.”

Some fancy career footwork is called for based on the HBF snapshot of the industry in the U.S., which concluded that the golden age for political cartoonists at that nation’s newspapers was over.  The study’s title: The Golden Age for Editorial Cartoonists at the Nation’s Newspapers is Over.

"At the start of the 20th century," the HBF paper begins, "there were approximately 2,000 editorial cartoonists employed by newspapers in the United States. Today there are fewer than 40 staff cartoonists, and that number continues to shrink."

“Unfortunately,” says Irish cartoonist Aongus Collins, “the story for cartoonists in Europe seems to be as bad as in North America.

“In Ireland, the total sale of daily newspapers has fallen to around 80% of what it was in 2008.  And the trend is continuing . . . The New Statesman magazine published an excellent survey on editorial cartooning in the UK a while ago.”

Dire stats. Though not world-wide as yet.

Guy Badeaux (Bado), longtime cartoonist at Ottawa's Le Droit, says that Quebec, for example, has bucked the trend evident in English-speaking North America and so far side-stepped full-blown ed-cartoonist attrition.  In part, Badeaux says, because "We're a distinct society and never experienced syndication."

And, according to The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, “The growing newspaper business in Asia has more than offset circulation losses elsewhere in the world.” 

India, for example, is now the world’s number one consumer of printed news.  With expanding literacy, the easing of  foreign-ownership regulations -- and Internet access below 2% -- industry analysts predict a17% growth in newspapers there over the next five years.  Along with that growth, one hopes, there will be burgeoning opportunities for India’s political cartoonists.

“I think cartoonists in the the Arab world are doing fairly well,” notes cartoonist and Cartoon Movementdirector Tjeerd Royaards.  “Lots of publications that publish lots of cartoons.  Of course, they do have another big problem, which is censorship.”

Even The Economist, which in a 2006 cover story energetically eulogized the newspaper racket in the Western World, has back-peddled on its direst predictions.

That having been said, the need for ed-cartoonists to build their brand by embracing the Internet to expand their audience, their revenue sources, their independence and their influence makes sense whether a cartoonist right now is flush or getting frogmarched from a newsroom.

And a lot of those new cartooning niches are new to political cartoonists only in that they now launch on the web.

Cartoon Journalism

It’s a discipline that in North America Joe SacchoSarah GliddenMolly CrabappleJosh NeufeldMatt BorsJen SorensenSusie CagleChester Brown and Ted Rall champion among a growing cadre.  Cartoon Movement hosts a selection of international practioners, docu-comics on everything from theArmy of God to Bahrain’s Pearl RevolutionOccupy sketchbooks  to life in Rio’s slums.

Molly Crabapple for VICE, used courtesy of Molly Crabapple

And while the field has its precursors -- from Gustave Doré’s London: A Pilgrimage to Ralph Steadman’s assault on the Kentucky Derby to Gerald Scarfe’s Vietnam war journal – it has never before been undertaken by so many proponents, or with more focus, energy or number of publishing platforms.  Molly Crabapple has taken readers into Guantanamo for Vice and the Bradley Manning trial for The Guardian, Susie Cagle has been tear-gassed for GOOD, and Mat Bors produced a web essay for CNN onmillennials versus the press that was Facebook-shared more than 100,000 times its first day online.

Cartoon Movement also serves as a matchmaker between advocacy groups and NGOs and cartoonist illustrator/designers.

Cartoonist Movement's Tjeerd Royaards, on hooking up NGOs and cartoonists

Self Publishing/Book Wrangling

Cartoonists now have KickstarterIndiegogo and other revenue-raising sites to crowd-source funds and become their own publishers.

Which is what Canadian activist-cartoonist Franke James did after she was blacklisted by her government.  To get the story of the Canada’s censorship of her artwork -- and some exhibition-sabotaging government e-mails unearthed through freedom of information requests -- James went to Indiegogo, raised the funds and published her J'accuse to great reviews (one, full disclosure, by me).

At the 2013 Association of American Editorial Cartoonists convention in Salt Lake City, webcartoonistHoward Tayler also presented a slideshow on just how to turn one's website into a successful and lucrative, head-office free publishing platform.  Scott Kurtz and company have put together a well-received book on the topic as well.

Cartoonist Conventions

“These are the places all the web cartoonists go and sort of exhibit and they have panels and they’re huge, “ says J. J. McCullough. “Web cartoonists, they always talk about con season – or convention season – when they just sort of all pack up and go on the con circuit.”

Jen Sorensen: “I’ve been to several.  SPXMoCCASan DiegoAPE, and Stumptown.

“My very first was actually Dragon Con in Atlanta, back in the ‘90s. But the one I’ve attended most is SPX. It’s gotten a lot bigger and more diverse since I first went in 1997.

“My colleague Keith Knight has been very successful at them over the years.  Ted  Rall and Matt Bors go to a fair number.  (We’re all both web cartoonists and print cartoonists.  For me, conventions are as much about networking that leads to freelance work (and sometimes a bit of media coverage) as they are about selling books."

McCullough: “If your living is as a web cartoonist, you basically have to go to these things because they’re where you sell a lot of your merchandise; they’re where you make a lot of your contacts.”

And speaking of merchandise…

 Merchandise

Cartoon originalssigned prints (Mr. Daumier, meet the inkjet printer), bookscartoon emblazoned t-shirts,pewter collectables –  the cartoonist’s art attainable for fans and fellow travelers through a few online clicks. A Giclée print just takes a printer and paper -- acid-free paper and fade resistant inks if you want the print to last a couple of centuries -- and, most importantly, remembering to use the term "Giclée" in place of "ink jet."

Beyond prints and originals, outfits like Cafe Press can stock a cartoonist's webstore with the cartoonist's work on t-shirts, mugs and fridge magnets.  That company takes care of manufacturing, packing, mailing and billing and -- they're very up front about this -- keeping most of the profit.  But outfits like this also give cartoonists a financially risk-free opportunity -- unheard of in the days of David Low and Bill Mauldin -- of offering followers their favorite cartoon reproduced on a dog hoodie.

Things, as the HBF's paper noted, are changing for a lot of political cartoonists.  And, considering that the best known political cartoonist in the world at the moment, Banksy, works on walls with spray paint, so is the art -- or at least how it’s disseminated.

But taking the long view of a vocation the spititual founder of which – James Gillray -- never even worked at a newspaper, it's hard to see it as ever having been truly static.

Despite the changes, the HBF study concludes, “the digital age presents more potential outlets for editorial cartoons than at any time in the history of the news media."

“It’s really quite inexcusable, I feel, for someone in the 21st century not to have a web presence,” says McCullough.

“You want people to search your name and you want to control what they see – and you want that to be a very tight and self-contained portfolio . . . That’s just how the world works these days.”

Last word to Mark Fiore: "This is an exciting/important/scary time of change, but we are better equipped than most to have careers that are truly entrepreneurial."