During the second World War, British cartoonist David Low was despised by Hitler because he relentlessly refuted the lies broadcast by the Nazi propaganda machine with every stark cartoon. We’re a long way from the age in which internationally applauded cartoonists such as Sir David Low were knighted for their heroic defense of liberty.
When I opened my annual trade journal, The American Association of Editorial Cartoonists Notebook, the bell tolled for my profession, page by page, cartoonist by cartoonist. This year our annual AAEC convention will convene in Ottawa, Ontario, with our Canadian colleagues because our numbers are so small we could meet in an abandoned Fotomat kiosk.
Political cartoonist Bruce Plante called me from Oklahoma when his paper, the Tulsa World, had just been acquired by Lee Enterprises. Needing reassurance I told him, “Lee values cartoonists.” When we began our careers four decades ago there were hundreds of us. Today there are 25 newspaper editorial cartoonists left drawing truth to power in the United States.
A lot of giants have been kicked to the curb. After winning the Pulitzer, Mike Keefe was laid off from the Denver Post. Pulitzer winner Steve Benson was laid off last year from the Arizona Republic. The Houston Chronicle, Knoxville News Sentinel and Indianapolis Star summarily jettisoned their beloved veteran cartoonists Nick Anderson, Charlie Daniel and Gary Varvel.
Most troubling, Rob Rogers, the popular political cartoonist of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, was fired by a pro-Trump editor who replaced him with Steve Kelley, a cartoonist who once informed me the most oppressed group in America was white men. Rob relies on syndication and Patreon online subscription patrons to get by.
Scott Stantis has a pseudo-freelance arrangement with his Chicago Tribune. Pat Bagley’s Salt Lake Tribune miraculously survives because it’s owned by a nonprofit corporation. Jack Ohman’s Sacramento Bee is part of the McClatchy chain, which just filed for bankruptcy. My friend and Tucson resident, Chris Britt, formerly of the Illinois State Journal-Register and News Tribune of Tacoma, transitioned to creating children’s books to supplement his syndication earnings.
Syndication is no longer reliable career insurance. Luckily, I’m syndicated to over 700 sites worldwide by Cagle Cartoons. In my AAEC Notebook, Daryl Cagle notes that newspaper chains are consolidating their editorial staffs into one central staff that generates cookie-cutter editorials for the entire chain, adding, “Newspapers are shutting down editorial page staffs faster than they are dropping editorial pages.”
When I was a kid I didn’t listen when the Master Sergeant sarcastically encouraged me to consider a backup plan.
“Carving gargoyles. See all the cathedrals in the want ads — hiring stone masons? Your odds of finding work are just as bright, Sunshine.”
I’m glad I didn’t listen. I got lucky. I drew in the last century during the Golden Age of Print and my luck continued through this century’s turbulent transition to digital. These days when young cartoonists ask me for career advice I tell them, “Learn to carve gargoyles.”
It’s impossible for cartoonists to keep up with today’s relentless whirlwind of news. By the time we’ve inked, scanned and uploaded our cartoons our subject’s been eclipsed by 12 new scandals. By the time we upload our hand-rendered cartoon it’s been preceded online by a multitude of memes and YouTube rants; not to mention overshadowed by the comic observers of late night TV. We can see why the producer of “This American Life,” Ira Glass, derided editorial cartooning as “a 17th century medium.”
Ironically, practitioners of our dissed and slowly dying 17th century art form are still sufficiently feared by tyrants to get killed, imprisoned or banished in this darkening century. To the benefit of tyrannies too many regions have become news deserts.
Too many citizens are now completely dependent on the internet for their news, a treacherous cyberswamp teeming with toxic lies and divisive disinformation. The radical right’s war to sow mistrust of the critical mainstream media, which began in the ’70s, along with the rise of Limbaugh, and the billionaire-funded right-wing propaganda mills like Fox, coupled with algorithm-driven cybermanipulation, have all been effective at rendering our citizenry ill-informed and factionalized — two outcomes fatal to democratic republics.
Undaunted by these challenges this “fake news peddler” and “obscene excuse for a mudslinging hack” is proud to be in the honorable company of those persistent resisters labeled the “Enemy of the People” by fascist despots.
Legend has it that David Low had designs for an underground shelter behind his modest London home into which he had placed supplies, a drawing board and a printing press. If his beloved nation were to fall to Nazi occupation, Low had plans to smuggle his family out of the country while he would remain behind, in hiding, churning out anti-fascist cartoons and spreading sedition until his home land was free.
My kind of cartoonist.
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