Tag Archives: cartoons

On Jealousy

Doesn’t matter if they deserve it: criticizing the work of a creative person who isn’t successful is mean. Not to mention pointless. If they’re not doing well, and their work sucks, the system is working.

Take on a cartoonist or writer who is raking in the cash, on the other hand, and his fans will accuse you of sour grapes. “You’re just jealous!” they’ll say.

Which is true, but also not true.

I’ll start with the not-true part.

I’ll focus on cartoonists because that’s my chosen profession, and I happen to think I’m good at it, and I sometimes issue broadsides against cartoons I think are such an insult to my profession that their shitsmeariness literally takes money out of my pocket merely by toiling in the same genre.

Lots of cartoonists make more money than I do. Yet you won’t find me tearing them a new critical asshole. Matt Groening makes more money than he can count. Is he perfect? Hell no. But as far as I can tell, he deserves every cent. Charles Schulz, Gary Larsen, Garry Trudeau, Bill Mauldin, James Thurber — all cartoonists who made or make bank. Schulz still makes tens of millions a year, and he’s dead. All got more awards than I could dream of. As far as I’m concerned, the system worked in these cases.

If my criticisms of other cartoonists were motivated by simple sour grapes, by the simple equation of he-has-more-good-stuff-than-I-do, I would attack the most successful, richest cartoonists the most. Or I’d draw a line at my level of income and fame, and grouse about everyone above it. Of course, this would delegitimize my complaints.

Some of the cartoonists whose work I criticize respond by saying that my work sucks. In other words, I don’t have standing to attack them. Which, if true, is silly: you don’t have to be a (rich) film director to have a (valid) opinion on a movie. Then they fall back on the sour-grapes argument: I’m jealous of their talent.

Indeed, I am jealous of other cartoonists’ talent. I wish I drew as well as Matt Bors, wrote as brilliantly as Ruben Bolling, had as much passion as Stephanie McMillan, as much control as Jen Sorensen, as much crossover appeal as Shannon Wheeler, as much consistency as Tom Tomorrow. None of whom, by the way, make more money or have earned more awards than I have. Which, for me, is evidence that the system is not working. They should make more money and win more awards — not than me, goddammit! — than the hacks whose crap I ridicule.

Am I jealous? Damn right, I’m jealous.

I’m jealous when people get stuff they don’t deserve.

Tom Friedman, the New York Times columnist, is one of the worst published writers in an American newspaper, an insult to logical reasoning, and more damning of all, deadly wrong about major issues. His job is to prognosticate, yet he has no ability to see past his bushy porn-star mustache. He was, for example, in favor of invading Iraq because he thought the U.S. would do a good job there. He was wrong when a lot of other people were right. He was listened to. They weren’t. And the consequences were devastating. Friedman lives in a palace. Does he deserve it? Hell no. Do I deserve it? More than him, that’s for sure.

I recently applied to a minor cartooning contest called “Best of the West.” It’s for political cartoons that run in the Western United States. Since I do cartoons for The Los Angeles Times, I applied. When the results came out, I was disgusted. This is because (a) it turned out the judge for the contest is close friends with the first-prize winner. They’re co-hosting the editorial cartoonists’ annual convention in three months. Talk about conflict of interest. I was jealousgusted (new word! use it, spread it around) by (b) by no objective standard could the first- or second-prize winners of Best of the West be judged to have done better cartoons than me or, say, Jen Sorensen, who also applied. Jen’s worst-ever cartoon is better/smarter/more political than number one or number two’s best-ever cartoon. So is mine. It’s not even close. We wuz robbed. So were others, including third-place “winner” Matt Bors. No one with eyes would put number two — who the same week published an “editorial cartoon” that, if I were on a prize committee, would have by itself have disqualified him from consideration — above Matt Bors in an editorial cartooning contest.

I bring up “Best of the West” because it literally means nothing. Well, maybe 0.02% of nothing. No prize money. No acclaim. The only reason I applied was that it’s been years since I won any prize whatsoever, and in a tough environment even 0.02% acclaim might be worth having. So just to be clear: I’m jealous. Not of Matt Bors, who got screwed as much as I did, well, slightly less, but still. I’m jealous of numbers one and two, who hold jobs, with full benefits, while I don’t. And I’m angry at the judge, because he knew — or should have known — that he made a shitty decision, and one devoid of basic ethics to boot.

Now several of my colleagues have taken me to task for talking about how certain hack cartoonists have staff jobs, with medical benefits, while I don’t. This, they tell me, makes me look petty.

Well, shit.

If the homeless veteran on the street outside the Starbucks where I am writing this sees me typing this on my shiny $3000 laptop, a $2.40 coffee cooling at my side, $650 glasses perched on my nose, is he jealous? Well, he should be. I don’t blame him if he comes in here and beats me to death. The gap between what I have and what he doesn’t have is so huge that he would literally have to be stupid and crazy not to hate me. I don’t deserve what I have, not compared to him. I don’t deserve to be the beneficiary of that gap.

Now let’s take a detour down Theoretical Lane: Imagine that — and that this is somehow provable — that by objective standards, he has led a better life than me. That he has worked harder, made better choices, been nicer, more creative, etc. Let’s further imagine that he and I both know this fact. Does he have a right to be jealous? Damn right he does.  Would it be petty for him to express this fact? To tell passersby: “Hey, look at that (relatively) rich asshole in there. I spent my life saving children, creating great art and giving generously to the poor. All he’s done is draw pictures and whine about the president.”? Of course it wouldn’t. He’d have every right. Not only that, he’d be wrong not to make such a point. Because it would make a Very Important Argument: that the System does NOT work. If the system, which governs everything, doesn’t work, then everything is suspect. Clearly this calls for radical and immediate reassessment. It’s like capital punishment: a faulty tax audit is an injustice, but putting an innocent man to death represents such a grotesque and immense gap between the way things should be and the way they actually are that you have to stop executing people entirely.

I’m not comparing my loss in “Best of the West” (or, for that matter, the Pulitzer Prize) to the case of Todd Willingham, the innocent man poisoned to death by the state of Texas under Governor Rick Perry (who then tried to cover it up). What I am arguing, in certain cases, is that to reflexively accuse a critic of petty jealousy/sour grapes is to automatically assume that injustice either (a) doesn’t exist or (b) shouldn’t be complained about — in other words, to assume the role of the oppressor.

When I write about bad cartoons, I mention the Pulitzers and six-figure salaries of their creators first, in order to show my hand (a key component of integrity in arguing): I’m annoyed at said bad cartoon not because it is bad per se (there are millions of bad cartoons by, say, high school newspaper cartoonists that don’t deserve mention); and second, to make the case that the system is disproportionately rewarding those who don’t deserve it at the expense of those who do. This is important, because there are people like Lisa Klem Wilson, my former boss at a newspaper syndicate that has since gone out of business called United Media, who believe, as she said at a morning meeting, that “we live in a meritocracy. The best stuff rises to the top.” I remember thinking and saying: “What world do you live in?” When you look at, say, the list of Pulitzer Prize winners and compare them to some of the high-profile creators who lost those same years, it’s hard to see where people like Lisa are coming from. But they’ll never change their minds unless those of us who see things differently point these things out.

I am envious of anybody who has more than I do. Who, besides a monk, doesn’t want a nicer house? A bigger bank account? A good job? But I’m not angry about it, except in the generalized rage I feel about inequality in general, which informs my politics. No one deserves more anything than anyone else. To believe otherwise is to accept and enable evil.

Matt Bors won a major cartooning award, the Herblock Award, two years ago. $15,000! They cover the taxes! Tom Tomorrow won this year. I was envious, but I wasn’t jealous. They’re both great cartoonists. They deserved it. Jealousy is directed at the undeserving. As long as they have nice things that other people deserve more — a lot more — I’ll be jealous.

Why I Draw Like I Do

So the topic of artistic style in editorial cartooning came up over the weekend, and it occurred to me that it has been a long time since I stated publicly my personal philosophy of how and why I draw in a certain artistic style. In my case, it’s a combination of what I like to see personally – the kind of cartoons I like to read – and what I think goes best with the message, obviously affected by my personal limitations as an artist. That said, as the cartoonist Tony Millionaire learned when he commissioned me to substitute for him on Maakies one week, I can draw a lot more detailed and tightly than I do.

I have noticed that a lot of editorial cartoonists, and most notably the newer alternative ones whose work is, I think the best in the profession these days, tend to work in a cleaner, tighter, more cartoony style than I do. I have a theory about why that is. I think that what they have learned, and I agree with it, is that most readers tend to find that the rough edges of harsh commentary about American culture and politics goes down more easily with art that is pretty and round and fun to look at…easier on the eyes.

I’m a little bit older than most of my alternative cartooning peers, with the exception of Tom Tomorrow. Both he and I came out of the punk rock and New Wave periods of the late 1970s and 1980s, and we are much more into the harsher angular look that reflects the harsh times that we grew up in and obviously the very tough society that we have before us as America becomes increasingly authoritarian.

I like artwork that reflects and challenges more than art that goes down easily. I don’t feel that the American public deserves or needs to be catered to, but screamed at and shouted at. Obviously a lot of readers agree, which is why I have a fanbase, but it’s still interesting that this is not a topic that people talk about a lot. For the most part, there’s just aren’t many political cartoonists who draw in a rough, punk rock-influenced edgy style anymore. Someone like Ralph Steadman, who obviously was a brilliant artist and illustrator, is an exception.

Given everything that’s going on, from Guantánamo to Iraq to Afghanistan to drones to domestic spying and torture screams for a look at the country that makes people understand that they do not live in a pretty place. That’s why I show everything scuzzy and litter-strewn and broken down, and as the Empire crumbles, I try to do artwork that reflects that.

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Who Polices Political Cartooning?

An Art Form in Crisis Ignores the Rot Within

“Ted Rall, mop-headed antiestablishment political cartoonist, has abundant talent, a 1,400-drawing portfolio, seven years’ experience, the acclaim of peers and the approval of newspaper editors who, every so often, print his work. What he lacks is someone who will hire him full-time.”

That’s from The New York Times.

In 1995.

Editorial cartooning, a unique art form whose modern version originated in 18th century France and has become more pointed, sophisticated and effective in the United States than any other country, was in big trouble back then. Newspapers, the main employers of political cartoonists, were closing and slashing budgets. Those that survived were timid; cowardly editors rarely hire, much less retain, the controversial artists who produce the best cartoons, those that stimulate discussion.

Things are worse now.

Much worse.

Hard numbers are difficult to come by but the number of full-time professional political cartoonists now hovers around 30. In 1980 there were about 300. A century ago, there were thousands.

Cartoonists blame tightfisted publishers and shortsighted editors for their woes. Many decry news syndicates for charging low rates for reprinted material. “If an editor can get Walt Handelsman and Steve Kelley for ten bucks a week, why would he pay $70,000 a year for a guy in his hometown?” asked Handelsman, then the cartoonist for The New Orleans Times-Pacayune, in the 1995 Times piece cited above.

There’s also the Internet. As happened across the world of print media, the Web created more disruption than opportunity. Dozens of cartoonists tried to sell animated editorial cartoons to websites. Two succeeded.

Digitalization decimated the music business, savaged movies and is washing away book publishing. If the titans of multinational media conglomerates can’t figure out how to stem the tide, individual cartoonists who make fun of the president don’t stand a chance.

We can only control one thing: the quality of our work. It pains me to admit it, but to say we’ve fallen down on the job would be to give us too much credit.

We suck.

Day after day, year after year, editorial cartoonists have been churning out a blizzard of hackwork. Generic pabulum relying on outdated metaphors—Democratic donkeys, Republican elephants, tortured labels, ships of state labeled “U.S.” sinking in oceans marked “debt,” cars driving off cliffs, one hurricane after another, each labeled after some crisis new or imagined. Cut-and-paste art styles slavishly lifted from older cartoonists down to the last crosshatch. Work so bland and devoid of insight or opinion that readers can’t tell if the artist is liberal or conservative. Cartoons that make no point whatsoever, such as those that mark anniversaries of news events, the deaths of corporate executives like Steve Jobs, and even holidays (for Veterans Day: “freedom isn’t free”).

To be sure, editors and publishers have hired and promoted the very worst of the worst. Prize committees snub brilliance and innovation in favor of safe and cheesy.

In the end, however, it’s up to the members of any profession to police themselves individually and collectively. I often say, no one can publish your crappy cartoon if you don’t draw it in the first place. Amazingly my colleagues have chosen to ignore the existential crisis that faces American political cartooning. Rather than rise to the challenge, their work is becoming even safer and blander.

Moreover, we cartoonists are failing to hold one another to basic journalistic standards. This year political cartooning has been hit by two plagiarism scandals. David Simpson, a long-time Tulsa political cartoonist with a history of this sort of thing, was fired by the weekly paper there after he got caught tracing old cartoons by the late Jeff MacNelly on a lightbox. Jeff Stahler, a cartoonist familiar to readers of USA Today, was recently forced to resign by The Columbus Dispatch after long-standing rumors of stealing ideas exploded into a series of too-close-for-comfort pairings of his work and classic material from The New Yorker.

They’re only the tip of the iceberg.

There are plagiarists who have Pulitzer Prizes sitting on their shelves. There are even more “self-plagiarists”—people who shamelessly recycle the same exact cartoon, changing labels on the same image in order to meet a deadline. They shortchange their readers and their clients—and collect the biggest salaries in the business.

Meanwhile, it is impossible for the “young” generation of talented cartoonists who came out of the alt weekly newspapers—those under 50—to find work at all.

Within the mainstream of the profession the general consensus is that we should keep quiet and wait for the storm to pass. They make excuses for serial plagiarists, self-plagiarists, and hacks. At this writing the professional association for political cartoonists, which in 2009 imposed its first penalty for plagiarism in its 50-year history under my presidency, has still failed to act to enforce that rule or issue a code of ethics.

“This is bad for the profession,” I heard from more than one colleague after the Stahler story broke. “Let’s be quiet.”

No.

What’s bad for the profession is bad work. How can we expect editors and publishers to respect us unless we respect ourselves?

(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2011 TED RALL