This week I’ll be traveling to Seattle for the annual Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC) convention. In recent years, the convention has had the flavor of a wake, as cartoonists mourn the loss of full-time newspaper positions. Ironically, the loss of jobs hasn’t resulted in fewer political cartoons or fewer political cartoonists, as the cartoonists continue to draw on a freelance basis when they lose their jobs and more people are attracted to the art-form through exposure on the Internet. Our cartoons are more popular than ever, but the profession, and the AAEC are troubled.

Many newspapers used to cover the cost of their employee/cartoonists attending the long, four-day AAEC convention and now cartoonists have to find a way to cover the cost on their own. The group depends on newspaper sponsorship to subsidize the conventions and this year’s get-together is slated for Seattle because it was sponsored by The Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper, which then went out of business, leaving the AAEC in a pickle. It seems likely that there will be few or no newspaper sponsors for the conventions in the future. Compounding the problem, the AAEC lost money on a recent convention in Washington, DC, cleaning out their coffers. AAEC president, Ted Rall, wrote a public letter to the membership detailing the quest for solutions to the question of “The Future of the AAEC.” One paragraph from Ted’s letter piqued my interest:

“Should we merge with NCS (National Cartoonists Society)? Proponents say we could take advantage of NCS’ ability to negotiate discounted rates at convention hotels, not to mention save on the doubling of membership dues for editorial cartoonists who belong to both organizations. Others, like me, worry that AAEC and NCS have different goals and cultures and would therefore make an uneasy fit. Either way, we have to consider it.”

I’m a member of both groups and I enjoy both conventions, but I’m more active in the NCS. At the NCS’s recent board meeting in Los Angeles, I mentioned Ted’s public letter, and that the AAEC “has to consider” merging with the NCS, and I asked if anyone was aware of that ““ no one was, and some of the NCS board members, like most NCS members, had never heard of the AAEC.

I’m reminded of teenage girls, who “consider” their weddings to boys they’ve never dated, and never talked to.

Cartoon by Andy Singer.

The NCS has only slightly more members than the AAEC, but it has more, better-known cartoonist members. Syndicated newspaper cartoonists, who still tend to be the best known cartoonists, make up about 25% of the NCS’s membership, which is broadly open to different kinds of cartoonists, including comic book, animation, greeting card, advertising and editorial cartoonists. The two groups sometimes schedule their conventions as close as a week apart, insuring that some editorial cartoonists will only attend one of the events ““ a conflict that hurts the AAEC more than the broader NCS. Some editorial cartoonists prefer the NCS and always skip the AAEC, thinning the ranks at the AAEC convention.

The biggest difference between the groups is that the NCS has higher standards for membership, rejecting applications from students and semi-pro cartoonists. The AAEC seems to admit anyone who will pay their dues, including amateur and student cartoonists. The difference can clearly be seen on the AAEC’s web site, which displays the work of amateur cartoonists mixed in with professionals. There are probably a thousand “wanna-be” cartoonists for every cartoonist who actually makes a living as a professional, and it is a temptation to lower the bar to fill the membership roster with eager applicants. The AAEC has “portfolio reviews” at their conventions for aspiring cartoonists, and posts the information about their convention location and times for the public to see on their web site. In contrast, the NCS has no student events, no portfolio reviews and keeps their convention information private.

The NCS conventions cost about the same as the AAEC conventions, but are held at nicer hotels, with nicer food, longer open bars and a more festive atmosphere. The NCS does a better job of creating an atmosphere that attracts the top cartoonists in their fields to attend the NCS convention, and those top cartoonists attract the other professionals.

Some AAEC members have a caricatured view of the NCS as rich, snooty, comic strip cartoonists, with expensive conventions, who party just to party. The NCS members (those who have heard of the AAEC) think of the editorial cartoonists convention as austere and overly serious, filled with back stabbing, job-coveting, gossipy whiners. Both views are silly. The groups have the same “goals and cultures.”  Both are run by struggling volunteer-cartoonists and filled with struggling professionals looking to draw inspiration from their peers in challenging times.

The NCS simply manages their conventions and their membership better than the AAEC.

Since Ted is openly calling for suggestions, I thought I would post a few suggestions for the AAEC here:

Don’t allow amateur or student members. Show a professional face to the public. Don’t post amateurish work on your web site.  Dare to edit.

If your association management company fails you, drop them and hire a better one. (The NCS has a better management company.)

Have a shorter convention. Schedule it within a weekend and think about how big a crowd can be attracted by the hotel, city and amenities. Conventions get a bigger turnout in New York than in San Antonio.  Negotiate better deals and get multiple bids from competing hotels.

Don’t be so serious; this is not a wake. More fun = better attendance.

Have a president and board that serves for more than one year, so they have time to get something done and there isn’t constant chaos from turnover.

Make more of an effort to encourage the attendance of top professionals. Consider that the AAEC is competing with other events, like the NCS convention, for the participation of top cartoonists.

Plan around other events or coordinate with other conventions; maybe the NCS, but I’d suggest considering the Social Studies teachers convention ““ editorial cartoonists are rock stars to Social Studies teachers and the AAEC could ride along as an interesting feature of their big, national convention. The AAEC might benefit from an association with an interested university.

The AAEC should talk to the NCS; get to know them and plan a first date before considering marriage. It is a good idea to date a few interested parties before considering who to marry. My guess is that a marriage with the NCS wouldn’t work out, but a first date might be fun.