The Year in Cartoons | News Feature | Indy Week
Pin It

The Year in Cartoons 

For most of the past year--and the past several years--the general feeling within editorial cartooning was that real life had become such a parody of itself that satirizing it was, if not impossible, at least redundant. White House love nests. Dot-com mania. Butterfly ballots. Sex With Interns, The Sequel: This Time It's Congressional.

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.

More by V.C. Rogers


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

INDY Week publishes all kinds of comments, but we don't publish everything.

  • Comments that are not contributing to the conversation will be removed.
  • Comments that include ad hominem attacks will also be removed.
  • Please do not copy and paste the full text of a press release.

Permitted HTML:
  • To create paragraphs in your comment, type <p> at the start of a paragraph and </p> at the end of each paragraph.
  • To create bold text, type <b>bolded text</b> (please note the closing tag, </b>).
  • To create italicized text, type <i>italicized text</i> (please note the closing tag, </i>).
  • Proper web addresses will automatically become links.

Latest in News Feature

Twitter Activity


I don't remember Obama being asked to apologize for the Black panthers during his administration. And I don't remember Obama …

by Timothy Oswald on North Carolina Militia Activists Take Up President Trump’s Fear of a Migrant, Muslim Planet (News Feature)

Most Recent Comments

I don't remember Obama being asked to apologize for the Black panthers during his administration. And I don't remember Obama …

by Timothy Oswald on North Carolina Militia Activists Take Up President Trump’s Fear of a Migrant, Muslim Planet (News Feature)

It seems to me all these people are looking in the wrong direction. If we wan't to protect our kids …

by Timothy Oswald on Why We March: Ten Thousand People Took to Downtown Raleigh Streets to Say Enough Is Enough (News Feature)

I read him all the time and reading thru these comments, Christian's are crazy and hateful. So glad I am …

by LisaNH on How Raleigh’s John Pavlovitz Went from Fired Megachurch Pastor to Rising Star of the Religious Left (News Feature)

The ease with which Google can install its fiber network depends on each city's infrastructure, size, permitting process and staffing. …

by Quality Backlink on What to expect when you're expecting Google Fiber (News Feature)

© 2018 Indy Week • 320 E. Chapel Hill St., Suite 200, Durham, NC 27701 • phone 919-286-1972 • fax 919-286-4274
RSS Feeds | Powered by Foundation