What Makes a Good Editorial Cartoon

Maui Time | April 18, 2013
Earlier this week, I posted a couple of long essays about the anticipation of the announcements for the Pulitzer prizes in editorial cartooning as well as the results, which could easily have been the same had they been announced 20 years ago, completely ignoring developments that have modernized the profession.

So it occurred to me that I should probably weigh in on what I think an editorial cartoon should be – or even more importantly, what it should not be.

I had a boss – not a very good boss, but still, what she had to say stayed with me for a long time – who was fond of saying that a business was defined not by the assignments and lines of business that it accepted, but rather by the business that it refused. That is so true of so many things. When it comes to editorial cartoons, I think that you can define good ones by what they are not.

Mostly, I think editorial cartoons tend to be really awful. More so than in the usual way that most of anything is awful. All you really have to do is look at any round up of mainstream editorial cartoons online or in a newspaper or magazine to see what I mean. So when I say what I think editorial cartoons ought not to be, I am mainly reacting to what they mostly tend to be.

A good editorial cartoon should never be fair, balanced, moderate or so evenhanded that it is impossible to tell what the political orientation of the cartoonist is from that cartoon. This rules out a lot of them. Unfortunately, cartoonists believe – and editors have given them a lot of reason to believe – that they tend to be more successful when they avoid strong or strident political opinions. The result is that you get a lot of work that simply illustrates the news, in other words, it shows what is going on without stating that anything is wrong or, if it does state that something is wrong, fails to place the blame on who is responsible. One of my first tests when I am judging an editorial cartoon – as I sometimes am as a contest judge – is to ask myself: does this cartoon express a political point of view, or does it illustrate the news? If it illustrates the news, then I don't consider it to be an editorial cartoon at all and I tend to disqualify the artist right there.

A good editorial cartoon should never squander an opportunity to say something that matters about an important issue. Unfortunately, many of my colleagues miss a lot of chances to make a point. There are a lot of topics that simply should never be fodder for an editorial cartoon. For example, Steve Sack's winning portfolio for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize includes a cartoon that simply depicts people mobbing stores as they are trying to buy the new iPhone 5. Not only does this cartoon not make any political stance – my colleague Matt Bors, on the other hand did a fantastic job when Steve Jobs died of making a point that Apple uses slave labor in China – but the mere topic of the iPhone 5 release takes up space that would have been better used for any number of more important topics: the environment, unemployment, drones, torture, Guantánamo, hell, just about anything else. If I had sat on the jury, the iPhone cartoon would have immediately caused Sack's portfolio to be set aside and disqualified from the award. Go through the portfolio. Sack is a liberal, but it's not evident from his cartoons. For the most part, these cartoons simply depict. They don't comment.

Originality counts for an awful lot, at least it does with me if not for the jurors of the major prizes and the editors of major newspapers. If I have seen a cartoon structured exactly or very closely to one that is presenting itself as something new, I turn away in disgust. This is a very small profession, most of us see other people's work, and we know when gags are lifted. Not cool.

On a meta-level, originality and style also matters. Although every artform has mainstream tropes and styles that defined them, editorial cartooning is a particularly generic artform. This is because back in the 1960s, Chicago Tribune cartoonist Jeff MacNelly revolutionized the form. Before him, most cartoonists drew in a vertical style using ink smudge pens. He turned things 90° to the horizontal form that we know today and introduced what we call the crosshatch school of cartooning. Many of today's cartoonists began by copying him, and you can really tell. For me, you get extra points either for having developed your own style from the start or at least for having abandoned the old house style of American editorial cartooning that has prevailed over the last 40 years.

There are, of course, a lot of highly subjective and taste related considerations when it comes to judging an editorial cartoon, and I am just as opinionated as anyone else. I simply don't relate to the metaphor school that the older cartoonists use: donkeys, elephants, labels, etc. I don't know many people who do. At least people under 50. Younger readers, those under 30, often tell me that they don't even understand them. There is no doubt about it, that format has a long history dating back at least 200 years. But it just doesn't make any sense to me, anymore than opera does. Maybe it mattered once, but it just isn't relevant anymore.

I had an interesting conversation with Matt Bors. Sometimes it's really hard to see how editors can look at the kind of work that he and I do and dismiss it in favor of the kind of work that, well, they like better – the older stuff. And what really mystifies us, and especially me, is that the old-school cartoonists look down on us, don't think we're really serious. I had a very good friend, one of the older guys, tell me that I shouldn't be surprised that I wasn't winning awards because, after all, I was essentially doing avant-garde work and being surprised that it wasn't being recognized as mainstream. Of course, in my mind and certainly in those of my readers, what I do is hardly esoteric or avant-garde, just trying to reach as many people as I can.

But anyway, Matt made an interesting point: the older cartoonists and us alternative cartoonists – at 49 years old, I can only say that I feel young, only in editorial cartooning could anyone say or think they are young at my age – are in a completely different business. What those guys are trying to do is continue a tradition. It might be a tradition, like driving a penny farthing bicycle or smoking cigars or ventriloquism or phrenology, that we deem archaic and passé, but that's what they're trying to keep alive. For us, we're trying to be sarcastic and ironic and meta – in other words speaking to current generations using current visual and other language. Needless to say, when we argue about the future of the form, we talk past each other because we're really not even in the same line of work. So really, it may be that it's time to start thinking of the Pulitzer Prize as the Pulitzer Prize for old-fashioned cartooning rather than the Pulitzer Prize for all editorial cartooning. Or maybe it's time to start thinking of editorial cartooning as something else, and political cartooning as what we do. So much editorial cartooning has become so devoid of politics.

So what is a good political cartoon?

To me a good political cartoon is something that makes you think about things in a new way. It's not necessarily going to change your mind. But it might get you thinking, get you started along a line of thinking, that causes you to check things out more thoroughly. It might make you more able to articulate opinions that you already had. It doesn't regurgitate talking points, it doesn't reflect conventional wisdom, it doesn't say things that you already know – like a lot of people want the iPhone 5.

Maui Time

Maui Time Weekly provides insightful analysis and in depth reporting. We believe some issues are so important they require thoughtful consideration. We are not a “paper of record”—a daily journal of government meetings, ribbon-cuttings and corporate announcements. We decide what’s...
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