This is one topic I’d really like to be able to retire: police brutality, racism and the viciousness of the system against the downtrodden. Here’s a selection of some of my “favorite” cartoons over the years about the po-po.
The email was from someone who generally supports me. And it was generally supportive: “I’m glad you still have a platform.”
Me too! But the generally nice email contained a qualifier.
“I do find a lot of your opinions repugnant.”
Whoa. Repugnant? Such a strong word. The Holocaust was repugnant. What did I write or draw that was so disgusting?
“[Your] most repugnant stuff is portraying powerful people as unmitigated evil,” my otherwise supportive correspondent elaborated. “Everyone is human, and some of them are even nice humans, which is actually a greater hazard since there’s no question that some of what they do is evil. But someone has to navigate these insane political terrains and actually lead/serve, even if they wind up being completely alien from who they started to be.”
I shan’t identify the letter writer. Partly, this is because I like him/her. (Generally supportive, you know.) Mainly, though, I suspect that many people — particularly liberal Democrats — feel the same way as she/he does about my cartoons and writing. If people are turned off, I want to know why. I appreciate feedback. Seeing such criticism spelled out forces me to take a step back, reconsider whether I’m being unfair or wrongheaded — in this case to the “powerful people” whom I portray as “unmitigated evil” — and either change my act…or double down.
This “I support you, but” writer is right about my work. Especially in my cartoons, I often portray powerful politicians and business executives as bad people. I drew George W. Bush, first as a deranged dictator complete with Augusto Pinochet-like epaulettes, sash and silly tyrant hat out of a Terry Gilliam movie, and then, after 9/11 and the beginning of the war on terror, as a hideous monster drooling coke snot over his fangs.
I’m so subtle.
I’ve been graphically kinder to Barack Obama — though some disagree — but in content I’ve been as mean to him as to Bush. I undermine his image as calm and reasonable with cartoons that show the cold-blooded automaton rubbing his hands with glee as he presides over one assassination-by-drone after another, and surrounds himself with luxury (golfing, hanging out at his multimillion-dollar summer vacation home on Martha’s Vineyard) while ordinary Americans lose their jobs and their homes. Obama, in Rallworld, is a murderous bastard who doesn’t care about you. As were Bush and Clinton.
The titans of capitalism come under heavy fire too. If you’re the CEO of a major company, pretty much the only feedback I’m going to give you is that you’re a greedy employee-firing price-gouging turd who exports American jobs to foreign hellholes because you don’t care about anyone else.
Guilty as charged: I do depict the rich and powerful as pure evil.
I don’t care about your intent. I don’t buy “gotta break a few eggs to make an omelet” justifications. If you have a hand in starting and/or continuing a war, an optional war of aggression, you’re a mass murderer. If you order killer robot planes to blow up people who haven’t been convicted of a crime in any court, and those killer robot planes blow up those people and other people who just happen to be nearby when the missile hits, you’re an evil person who did an evil thing, and it doesn’t matter one little bit that you have a winning smile, that you say you’re trying to keep America safe and strong, that you’re fighting “them” “there” so we don’t have to do it here, that you’re funny at the White House Press Correspondents Dinner, that you look adorable alongside your two beautiful daughters, or that you’re the first black president.
Save the qualifiers. You’re evil and I’ll draw you evil.
“We are condemned to be free,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre — free to choose between good and evil or, as in much of his literary work, between less evil and more evil. As such, he elaborated, we are defined by our worst act: a man who acts cruelly is, by definition a cruel man.
Sartre’s existentialism works for me better than any other codified system of philosophical or religious belief. I agree with him on most ethical issues. Killing thousands of people is evil, so people who order thousands of people killed are evil. Osama bin Laden is morally indistinguishable from Barack Obama.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be defined by the worst things we’ve ever done. Yet we are. As you read this, well over two million Americans are behind bars because they stand accused or convicted of a crime. Many of those inmates — probably most of them — have donated to charity, helped a stranger in need or donated blood. Very few people who have done bad things have mostly done bad things. Nearly 200,000 are military veterans, yet their service didn’t mitigate their fate. Their judges didn’t care because, as Sartre said, we are all defined by our worst act.
The lower your status in society, the more harshly you will be treated by the justice system. The darker your skin, the longer your prison sentence. The poorer you are, the higher the fine. The fewer resources you have to get through life — like, if you suffer from mental illness — the more brutality you will experience at the hands and fists of police and prison guards.
This, I believe, is the exact opposite of how it ought to be.
I’m with Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben: with great power comes great responsibility. (The corollary, which also serves as a handy definition of what it means to belong to the political left, is that with little power comes little responsibility.) If you’re privileged — rich and/or white and/or male and/or blessed with resources — you should be judged more harshly.
Which brings us back to my portrayals of the rich and powerful.
It is not actually true that “someone has to navigate these insane political terrains and actually lead/serve,” i.e., join and work inside and for the system — at least not as the point of the spear.
No one has to “actually lead/serve.”
True, opting out of the system entirely — refusing to pay taxes, for example — is so hard and carries such harsh penalties that it isn’t reasonable to expect of the average citizen. But it not asking much to suggest that we boycott the really horrible crimes the system commits. After all, most Americans do opt out.
Most Americans do not enlist in the armed forces. Yay, non-servicemembers! Most Americans do not harbor political ambitions. Good for you! Few Americans are corporate executives or in a position to ever become one. Your hands are relativelt clean!
Most Americans are, therefore, not evil.
By their nature, the biggest evils are those carried out on a grand scale: genocide, ethnic cleansing, mass poisoning by pollution, destroying the environment, huge frauds, systematic theft, racism, gender discrimination and so on. The only people capable of executing these humongous evils are those who possess wealth and/or power. If we don’t/can’t/shouldn’t call out the rich and powerful people who commit these terrible crimes because, hey, someone has to lead/serve, we are effectively saying that no one is responsible. That these crimes are authorless.
Depersonalization of crimes, absolving everyone of responsibility, is a historical whitewash and an insult to the victims. If there’s no criminal, did a crime occur? Logic says no. The fact that no one has ever been charged with a crime in connection with torturing Muslim detainees at Guantánamo concentration camp signals to the world that the torture either never really happened, that we can’t be sure whether it happened, or that if it did it doesn’t matter.
What about mercy? Don’t people, even powerful people, deserve a pass when they make mistakes? As I say above, more is expected of the rich and powerful. The ethical bar is higher. But yes, mercy is an important societal value, one that should be extended to the rich and powerful — when appropriate.
To me, you’re more deserving of soft treatment if you’ve learned from your mistakes. One of the reasons that I despise Hillary Clinton is that she has never met a war she didn’t like: Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and then Syria and Libya under her direct watch. She supported them all. None were morally or legally justifiable. With the possible exception of Bosnia, they spread misery and chaos, and hurt American interests. She’s stupid and mean. If anyone deserves a pass for warmongering, it isn’t her.
Like the former community organizer Barack Obama, former children’s rights advocate Hillary Clinton has become “completely alien from who they started to be”: a member of the board of the hideously anti-worker megacorporation Wal-Mart, a corrupted politico who sells influence to the highest bidder, an assassin.
She’s repugnant. I’m merely calling her out.
(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and the cartoonist for ANewDomain.net and SkewedNews.net, is the author of “Snowden,” about the NSA whistleblower. His new book “Bernie” about Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, is now available for pre-order. Want to support independent journalism? You can subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)
On Monday night, I was in tears.
The editorial page editor of The Los Angeles Times, which has run my cartoons for six years, had called me to tell me that the paper would run an “Editor’s Note” announcing that they were firing me because I had lied about my treatment by a Los Angeles police officer when he arrested me for jaywalking in 2001.
I was about to be disgraced. Compared to Brian Williams and Jayson Blair. As a journalist, nothing is worse than being accused of willfully lying about a story. It’s the end of your career.
Tuesday, when the piece appeared in print as well as online, word spread like wildfire that the police had a secret audiotape of my arrest. I had written in the Times that I had been treated rudely: shoved, handcuffed, and finally, the cop tossed my driver’s license on the ground. The audiotape, claimed my editor, proved that none of that had happened. It was, in fact, a polite encounter with a friendly officer.
The Internet exploded. Predictably, right-wing blogs led the charge, dutifully transcribing editor Nick Goldberg’s accusations against me, which he accepted at face value from the LAPD: Breitbart, Newsbusters, the usual gang of idiots. Soon Twitter was full of taunts. My email filled with mirthful, snarky insults.
Amid the chaos of my career falling apart. I asked people familiar with audio technology to check the LAPD-supplied tape, which contains about 20 seconds of talk and 6 minutes of unintelligible noise, for signs of tampering — and to see if there was any way to clean it up.
On Friday morning, I woke up like a kid on Christmas morn. But what I found in my in box was better than a bike and a skateboard: an enhanced audiofile that proves, unequivocally, that I was telling the 100% truth when I wrote that essay in May.
On the tape, you can clearly hear a female bystander shouting at the LAPD officer who’d stopped me for jaywalking to “take off his handcuffs.” She yells this twice.
Officer Will Durr responds first with a “No, no, no … ” and then by whistling loudly into the mic.
The enhanced tape clearly proves that the cops are lying, not me — and it even suggests cops might have knowingly tampered with the tape.
You can listen to the tape at ANewDomain.net. My incident is at the 03:30 mark.
You can hear a female witness — a witness the LAPD convinced my editors at the Times did not exist and I was making up — on the tape. She protests: “He was just jaywalking … you need to take off … you need to take off his handcuffs.” She says that at 3:30 and repeats it at 3:50.
To this, LAPD Officer Will Durr replies: “No, no, no, no, no.”
When the bystander persists in protesting the cop’s handcuffing my wrists, LAPD Officer Durr whistles. At the time of the incident, I was puzzled by his whistling, which seemed like unusual behavior. Now I believe I understand, that it is the officer’s technique to tamp down sounds (like protesting bystanders) that he doesn’t want on the recording.
The recorder was on his uniform secretly. I had no idea the encounter was being recorded or that a copy existed until this week.
Any way you look at it, the Los Angeles Police Department is lying. Cops lied when they said that I didn’t get handcuffed. They lied when they said I was mistaken about the presence of protesting witnesses. And they lied when they told my editors at The Los Angeles Times that I’m a liar who should be fired.
And the Los Angeles Times believed the LAPD, not me, their columnist. So they sacked me.
We know the officer deliberately used whistling to alter the recording. It is also clear that he deliberately muffled it.
It is the job of the media to question authority, not to blindly defend it and eat its own.
Even in its defense of the LAPD, the Times couldn’t be bothered to do due diligence. Editors made no effort to investigate longtime traffic Officer Will Durr’s bizarre claims that he has never, ever handcuffed anyone. I exposed that lie yesterday. The Times didn’t even bother searching its own website before siding with the LAPD.
If they can’t type “Will Durr” into a search field, I suppose it’s too much to expect the LA Times could be bothered to track down a sound engineer in L-friggin’-A?
Classic Streisand effect: In their attempt to discredit me and destroy my reputation as a journalist, the LAPD wound up discrediting themselves and further eroding its own reputation. And they’re taking the Times with them.
But the LAPD’s reputation has, of course, already been destroyed by decades of police brutality, systematic corruption and fatal police shootings of one unarmed black man after another.
Will the Times do the right thing: apologize, issue a retraction, and return my cartoons and blogs to the pages of the newspaper? I hope so.
What a week.
(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and the cartoonist for The Los Angeles Times, is the author of the book “Snowden,” the biography of the NSA whistleblower, to be published August 18th. Want to support independent journalism? You can subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)
COPYRIGHT 2015 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM
“Who had a good year?” my friend and cartoonist colleague asked me. Again. “Who’ll win?” We have the same conversation every April.
A couple of weeks ago, it was time once again for an annual ritual familiar to thousands of journalists: attempting to predict the winners of the Pulitzer Prizes.
“They’ll give it to some loser. Like they always do,” I replied. “Or they won’t, and someone good will get it. Who knows? When are you going to accept that the Pulitzers are a completely, totally random occurrence?”
This is the biggest unspoken truth about the most respected award in American mediadom: there is no rhyme or reason to who wins a Pulitzer.
Theoretically, Columbia University awards the Pulitzer to the best work done the previous year in each given category: best play, best biography, best news photography of 2014, etc.
In reality, anyone can win. Anyone can be snubbed. It’s like a tornado tearing through a neighborhood, leaving one house standing intact while the others all get their roofs ripped off. Why that one? Who knows?
Many groundbreaking, big-name cartoonists get snubbed their entire careers, yet the list of winners includes many forgotten even to geeks of the genre — who remembers Edmund Valtman and Casey Orr? One recent April, I had to Google the name of the winning cartoonist. In a profession with fewer than 30 full-timers, I’d never heard of him (nor had many of my colleagues).
To call the Pulitzers quirky would be putting it mildly. There are repeat finalists who never win the actual prize. An artist may make a big splash in a given year, creating a single piece or series of cartoons widely discussed in the media, yet get passed over, even as a finalist. When the winner is announced, whether we love the cartoonist’s work or think he or she is awful, the selection always feels like it comes out of left field — not least to the winner himself or herself. It’s like — really? Him? Me?
Disclosure: I have been a finalist once. Feel free to call it sour grapes — you wouldn’t be the first. But not every cartoonist has gotten to be a finalist, so I have little reason to complain (not that it stops me).
Truth is, I’m fascinated by systems, particularly those in which subjective human beings are assigned to decide objective truths; whether it’s guilt or innocence at trial or who drew the best cartoons over a 12-month period, I am fascinated by process (procès is the French word for trial.)
Alongside my colleagues I have studied and discussed the outcome of the Pulitzer Prize for my category (editorial cartooning) for more than 20 years. It’s an obsession, and perhaps not a good for my psyche, but there it is. Over the years, many members of the cartooning award committee, which picks the three finalists, have confided the details of their deliberations. I know how they winnow down stack of entries down to a small group of contenders, what criteria they consider, how they discuss their final choices.
So what accounts for the Prize’s wild unpredictability?
For a long time, I was convinced that the explanation for Pulitzer weirdness lay primarily with process.
You’d think every committee member would look at every entry, right? No. To make the job easier, committees some years divvy up the entries among the jurors. Let’s say there are 80 entries and four jurors. Each juror reads his 20-share of entries, then divides them into “yesses” and “nos.” The yes entries go the next round while the nos are purged. The other jurors will never see a portfolio rejected in the first round. Since the identity and the tastes of the juror who first (and second, and third) winds up with your portfolio, luck plays a big role.
Some years, the committee comes up with an ad hoc point system to winnow down the stack of entries: rank quality of drawing between 1 and 10, say, and quality of the writing between 1 and 5, and add the two together. Points are a sort of math, so they feel rational, but of course they’re inherently arbitrary.
I have disabused myself of the notion that Pulitzer committee members want to send some sort of message, as in “it’s time that a woman won,” or a young person, or a Republican (though that last one is highly unlikely, because only 7% of American journalists identify with the GOP). Everyone I’ve talked to who has sat in the room has told me that making a statement isn’t a major consideration, and I believe them. In fact, they usually don’t spend much time talking to each other.
I’ve heard some crazy stories.
The big one comes up every year: what with everyone in a hurry to make it to the open bar, judges rush through the process. If you’re a long-winded, wordy cartoonist, your stuff might not get read.
One year, I was told, all the entries by the “young” (i.e., under age 45) cartoonists were set aside because one of the judges couldn’t understand them, with the agreement that, later in the winnowing-down process, the youngsters would be revisited. Everyone forgot.
Every year, at least one of the jurors has never seen a political cartoon before, and has to have the form explained to him or her by other jurors. No one suggests that the judge recuse himself.
Where I am now — and this could change — is that the choice of jurors determines the winners. Specifically, and especially in the cartooning category, jurors have no taste.
Please understand! I am not saying this colloquially, as in, they have bad taste. That is not what I mean.
What I mean is that the Pulitzer jurors have no taste.
They don’t know anything about cartoons.
To have bad taste as a judge, one must possess knowledge about a subject. For example, were I to judge the Heisman Trophy, I would need to know a lot about football, especially about up-and-coming college players. If I had bad taste, I would, as a well-informed panelist, give the trophy to a player who didn’t deserve it. However, I don’t know anything about football. I don’t watch it or even read about it. I don’t even know the names of all the teams. I should not judge the Heisman Trophy because I am an idiot when it comes to football.
I have no taste in football. Indeed, to have bad taste in football would reflect a massive increase over my current knowledge.
Every year, an examination of the list of Pulitzer Prize jurors in the editorial cartooning category reveals a startling absence of basic knowledge, much less expertise, about editorial cartoons.
The United States has two dozen or so professional political cartoonists and perhaps an additional two dozen comics museum curators, academics and editorial cartooning historians. For reasons unknown, the Pulitzer folks carefully avoid inviting any of these people, who live and breathe comics, to judge the cartoon category.
This year, one of the jurors was a freelance tech writer who has written a handful of short bits about cartooning-related controversies but no, as far as I can find online, analysis or reviews. The committee for 2014 also included an adjunct curator of comics — perhaps the chief curator was busy — for an institution that doesn’t have, you know, an actual comics museum.
There was also a pair of executive editors. Unlike opinion editors and editorial page editors, executive editors don’t deal with actual cartoons on the job. They don’t choose cartoons, or work with a staff cartoonist. Indeed, these two executive editors work at papers that don’t have a cartoonist, and run few if any syndicated cartoons.
The committee’s chairman is the editor-in-chief — a position that doesn’t work with cartoons — for a paper, in San Antonio, that fired its cartoonist years ago, and never replaced him.
A two-time Pulitzer-winning political cartoonist did judge the Pulitzer this year — but not in the cartoon category.
What you have, then, are five people, chosen basically at random off the streets, asked to look at more than a thousand cartoons and decide which ones they like best.
“I like this one.”
To be fair, other categories have fewer spectacularly unqualified jurors. Breaking news photography was judged by five photographers. Poetry, by two literature professors and a poetry columnist. History, by three historians.
Each committee of judges sends its three finalists up to the big Pulitzer Board who can select one winner, decide not to award the prize in that category at all, or select some random fourth winner outside of the three finalists.
If that’s not random enough for you, the eclectic group of editors, academics and journalists who comprise the Pulitzer Board decide winners of prizes in everything from best editorial writer to best biography to best play to best poet to best cartoonist.
These are not stupid people. But they’re also not experts in the subjects they’re asked to judge.
Steve Coll’s writing on the Middle East, South Asia and the war on terror is some of the best. But I’m not sure I trust him to pick the best editorial cartoon AND the best poem out of the, oh, two of each he reads of them each year. Because he’s an editorial page editor, I’d have faith in Paul Gigot to judge political cartoons, except for the fact that he’s at The Wall Street Journal, which doesn’t publish any. I love Gail Collins’ columns for The New York Times, but I’ve read her for decades — and never once has she mentioned political cartoons, which leads me to doubt she follows them attentively.
Assign random judges to carry out random judging processes and you get random outcomes. That’s my theory.
For now. It could change.
Because it’s all so incredibly weird.
To paraphrase Elvis Costello, I used to be disgusted. But hey — now I get it. They’re not ruling against me! It’s all random. Who knows? Maybe I’ll win! Or not. Whatever, it’s. All. Random.
Now I’m highly amused.
Here’s what you need to understand the state of political cartooning in the United States:
After the massacre of four cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo last week, 25 remain on staff at the French publication, whose circulation ranges between 30,000 and 60,000 per week.
In the United States, a total of 25 staff political cartoonists are employed by the nation’s 1,350 newspapers, which have a combined circulation of 44,000,000 daily in print, plus 113,000,000 unique online visitors.
The total number of political cartoonists employed on staff by all American websites is one.
The total number at all magazines is zero.
It wasn’t always like this. According to a report issued by the Herblock Foundation, there were 2,000 political cartoonists on staff at newspapers a century ago.
Sure, print media has had to cut back due to a half-century of declining circulation. Writers, photographers and others have all suffered. But cartoonists have been eliminated at the highest rate of any journalism category by far: 99%.
New online media outlets like the Huffington Post, Salon, Slate, Vox, Yahoo News and The Intercept have hired hundreds of journalists — yet no political cartoonists.
There are more political cartoonists working in Iran and China than here.
Why has the U.S. become such a satirical desert?
In candid moments, editors confess that they’re afraid. They’re scared of angry emails from readers. (Prose doesn’t elicit as much reaction.) They’re worried their boss’ country-club buddies will complain about a cartoon. They’re terrified that a major advertiser might cancel its account. Narrowing profit margins and post-9/11 conservatism have amplified editorial cowardice.
When cartoons make the headlines, like last week, it’s another story.
News outlets couldn’t get enough political cartoons post-Charlie, noted Tjeerd Royaards, editor of the Dutch cartoon web magazine Cartoon Movement. (Disclosure: Cartoon Movement has published my work.) But they wanted it all for free: “the majority of media website[s] simply embedded the cartoons from the[ir] Twitter feed[s], foregoing the courtesy of asking the artists for permission to show their work, let alone pay for it.”
Royaards continued: “Although the media certainly seemed to wholeheartedly support cartoonists in the wake of the [Charlie Hebdo] attack, this support proved to be dubious, and might even be considered a greater threat to political cartooning than any terrorist attack could ever hope to be.”
Writing about the state of the profession this week, my colleague the alternative political artist Mr. Fish painted an even bleaker portrait of the future:
“The significance of those [declining cartoonist job] numbers might best be understood when compared to the dwindling numbers of an endangered species, not unlike the polar bear, who draws worldwide sympathy primarily when pictured drifting forlorn and alone on a shrinking block of ice or lying skinless and butchered by mindless thugs on a crimson bank. Likewise, it should be noted with some urgency that something systemic in the culture (similar to global warming, corporately inspired, government subsidized and willfully ignored by a disempowered public) is substantially diminishing the cartoonist population and threatening the very survival of the rendered word and the contemplative caption — and the very essence of creative dissent.”
Mr. Fish’s biological metaphor is an apt one.
Over the past few decades we have warned editors that we were in trouble. It’s worse now.
We are probably already past the tipping point after which political cartoonist extinction becomes inevitable.
One major threat is the loss of artistic diversity. In the same way that insufficient genetic diversity can cause a species to enter a death spiral — the cheetah is a famous example — American political cartooning no longer has enough practitioners to grow via cross-pollination, by being influenced by and against one another the way that I, for example, saw the work of the cartoonists Mike Peters and Pat Oliphant in the 1970s and wanted to ape the first and rebel against the latter. Most working political cartoonists in the U.S. are over age 55. So many have been laid off or discouraged that, even if I were given a zillion dollars to hire all the best cartoonists left, I’d have trouble finding 10 or 20. A profession that offered a dazzling variety of styles as recently as 2000 looks increasingly cut-and-paste.
There are only two basic styles left: the older, crosshatched, donkeys-and-elephants single-panels influenced by the late Jeff MacNelly, and the wordier, multi-panel approach that emerged in alternative weeklies during the 1990s.
Getting back to the polar bear analogy, there aren’t enough “newborn cubs” — young political cartoonists in their 20s — to form the roots of the next wave of political cartoonists if and when editors gain the courage to start hiring. Aside from the fact that there’s no way for a young political cartoonist to earn a living, young adults don’t see political cartoons in the media they consume.
The top websites read by Millennials, like Vice, Upworthy and BuzzFeed, refuse to hire political cartoonists. You can’t get inspired to pursue a profession if you don’t know it exists.
What to do?
I’m hoping for greed. Nothing gets clicks like a political cartoon. At some point, some twentysomething editor at a news start-up is going to figure that out.
(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and cartoonist, is the author of the new critically-acclaimed book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan.” Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)
COPYRIGHT 2015 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM
When you tell people you’re a cartoonist, one of the first things they ask you is whether you’ve ever had a cartoon published in The New Yorker. I don’t blame them. Everyone “knows” that running in the same pages that showcase(d) Addams and Chast proves you’re one of the best.
The marketing hype behind New Yorker cartoonist and cartoon editor Bob Mankoff’s new memoir — featuring something I really am jealous about, a “60 Minutes” interview — further cements the magazine’s reputation as cartooning’s Olympus.
“For nearly 90 years, the place to go for sophisticated, often cutting-edge humor has been The New Yorker magazine,” says Morley Safer.
As is often the case, what everyone knows is not true.
Here’s a challenge I frequently give to New Yorker cartoon proponents. Choose any issue. Read through the cartoons. How many are really good? You’ll be surprised at how few you find. But don’t feel bad. Like the idea that the U.S. is a force for good in the world, and the assumption that SNL was ever funny, the “New Yorker cartoons are sophisticated and smart” meme has been around so long that no one questions it.
From the psychiatrist’s couch to the sexless couple’s living room to the junior executive’s summons of his secretary via intercom, New Yorker cartoons are consistently bland, militantly middlebrow, and mind-numbingly repetitive decade after decade.
Which is fine.
What is not fine is not seeing fluff for the crap that it is.
They pay pretty well. Which prompts too many talented artists, who under a better economic and media model would produce interesting, intelligent, great cartoons (and did so, in the alternative weekly newspapers of the 1990s, for example), to pull their satiric punches and stifle their creativity. Of course, not every cartoonist follows the siren call to Mankoff’s office in the Condé Nast building. It is possible to make a living selling cartoons to other venues. I do. Still, the New Yorker casts a long shadow, silently asking a question one fears is heard by art directors everywhere: If you’re so smart and so funny and so talented, why aren’t you in The New Yorker?
Mankoff and his predecessors have created a bizarro meritocracy in reverse: bad is not merely good-enough, but the crème-de-la-crème. It’s like singling out the slowest runners in a race and awarding them prizes and endorsements. Some runners, devoted to excellence and the love of competition, will keep running as fast as they can. But fans will wonder why they don’t wise up.
What makes a cartoon good/funny? Originality, relevance, insight, audacity and random weirdness. (There are other factors, which I’ll remember after a minute after it’s too late.)
Originality in both substance and form, and in both writing and drawing, is the most important component of a great cartoon. It is rare to find. Cartooning is a highly incestuous art form; most practitioners slavishly copy or synthesize the work of their forebears. Editors and award committees (composed of editors) have short memories and no historical knowledge, which feeds lazy cartoonists’ temptation to present initially brilliant, but now hackneyed and recycled, ideas as their own. Other cartoonists’ punch lines, structural constructions, even their drawing styles, are routinely stolen wholesale; alas, media gatekeepers never have a clue. All too often, the plagiarists collect plaudits while the victims of their grand larceny of intellectual property die sad and alone.
Well, maybe not sad or alone. But annoyed over beer.
Give The New Yorker its due: since it reacts to trends and news in politics and culture, the magazine’s funniest cartoons can be relevant. Sadly, their single-panel gags say less than Jerry Seinfeld’s jokes about nothing. At best, name-checking Lady Gaga or hat-tipping Instagram elicits a knowing ha ha, they read the same stuff I do (i.e. The New York Times).
Mankoff’s book takes its title from the line of perhaps his greatest hit: “How about never — is never good for you?” This is an “nth degree” concept. What happens if the back-and-forth busy people often experience when they’re trying to set a rendezvous achieves its ultimate, most extreme conclusion? It also showcases anxiety and insecurity among the aspirational bourgeoisie, the not-so-secret sauce of New Yorker humor, for nearly a century. But what does Mankoff’s cartoon say? What does it mean?
A cartoon doesn’t have to be political to matter. “The Far Side” wasn’t political, but most of Larsen’s work reveals something about human nature to which we hadn’t previously given much thought. To be funny, a cartoon must rise above it’s-funny-cuz-it’s-true tautology. Mankoff’s “never” toon does not. Nor does the magazine’s famous “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” piece, drawn by Peter Steiner in 1993 (though Matt Petronzio’s post-Snowden update does).
If you can credibly reply “so what?” to a cartoon, odds are it’s not worth your time.
A great cartoon is funny because it’s dangerous.
A 19th century relic of the degrading “shape ups” depicted in the film “The Bicycle Thief,” The New Yorker‘s submission policy is a system — intentional or not, no one knows — that filters out originality and rewards a schlocky “throw a lot of shit at the wall and see if anything sticks” approach to cartooning. Every Wednesday morning, Mankoff holds court, looking over submissions of cartoonists who must present themselves in person rather than, say, email or fax their work. Because submissions must be fully drawn and the odds of acceptance increase with the number of cartoons presented, New Yorker artists deploy dashed-off, sketchy drawing styles that haven’t changed much since the 1930s.
Editors at other publications work with professional cartoonists they trust to consistently deliver high-quality cartoons, and help them hone one or two rough sketches to a bright sheen. The results are almost always better than anything that runs in The New Yorker — yet “60 Minutes” doesn’t notice.
“How much do the cartoonists make? Editor [David] Remnick will only say: nobody’s becoming a millionaire,” Safer says in the “60 Minutes” piece.
Well, Mankoff did. But that’s another story for another time.
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