Then came the attacks on New York and Washington, and making fun of public figures suddenly seemed impossible for a different reason. George W. Bush received a battlefield promotion from President with Asterisk to Commander in Chief. Rudolph Giuliani switched from playing the philandering husband in a bedroom farce to leading the chorus in a tragedy. Patriotism and duty shed their quotation marks. Lump-in-throat replaced tongue-in-cheek. Irony was dead.
While Sept. 11 didn't change everything, it changed the way everything looked, at least for a while. Millions of people found themselves facing the kind of Big Questions that get lost in everyday routine: Is my family secure? What's important in life? Does my work really matter?
That last question has been a staple of editorial cartoonists' bull sessions for decades, and the evidence isn't reassuring. The Chicago Tribune, which once boasted three full-time cartoonists, hasn't had any since Jeff MacNelly died 18 months ago and seems in no hurry to hire a replacement. Why pay an artist to draw national cartoons when syndicates sell them for pennies? No wonder the number of full-time editorial cartooning jobs in the United States has fallen for 20 years and now hovers around 120.
On Sept. 11, as if to underscore their own superfluity, nearly half the nation's cartoonists reacted to the collapse of the World Trade Towers by drawing a weeping Statue of Liberty surrounded by smoke. The following Sunday, The New York Times--which hasn't had a staff cartoonist in 40 years--chose not to include the usual cartoon roundup in its "Week in Review" section, figuring graphic commentary would be somehow inappropriate. I mean, cartoons. Aren't they, like ... jokes?
But then something unexpected happened: A newly sobered-up, grief-stricken, reality-confronting America didn't turn away from editorial cartoons, dismissing them as inappropriate snickers and childish sneers. It turned toward them, partly as a break from the grimness of the surrounding news, but also for solace and as a shorthand expression of serious views about serious issues. Mike Ritter's "Still Standing," reprinted here, was blown up to poster size and displayed in a New York rescue station.
The history of political cartooning in the United States can be seen as a never-ending argument between the slashing, fiercely partisan Thomas Nast, who saw himself as a warrior in a battle of good against evil, and his great rival Joseph Keppler, who viewed life as a comedy with many fools but few heroes and villains. Nast's great modern descendant was Herb Block, a.k.a. Herblock, whose career spanned 72 years (that's not a misprint). Herblock, who coined the word "McCarthyism" and created an image of Richard Nixon that stuck like a 5 o'clock shadow, died this October, two months after his last cartoon appeared in the Washington Post. His death ended one of the longest and strongest careers in American journalism.
Keppler's approach reached its modern peak in MacNelly, and it's largely due to MacNelly's influence that humor has been the dominant tone in editorial cartooning for the past 30 years. Too dominant, perhaps. MacNelly himself never fell into the trap of jokes-for-jokes'-sake, but his heirs tend to forget that editorial cartoons don't exist to poke fun; they exist to poke holes--in foolish thinking, in dangerous policies, in overblown reputations. Humor is one of the most effective weapons for poking those holes.
The events of Sept. 11 didn't kill humor--let alone irony--but they may have knocked some of the frivolity out of editorial cartooning. And that's no great loss. There's a huge gulf between the sins of an Osama bin Laden and those of a Gary Condit; and an Attorney General who exploits the public's fear of terrorists is playing a different game than a reporter who exploits its fear of sharks. The stakes seem higher now. If cartoonists start mixing a bit more Nast with their Keppler in this new era, so much the better.