The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC) has been meeting annually since it was formed in 1957. Their sixtieth meeting was held September 22nd-24th in Durham, North Carolina, in conjunction with Duke University’s Satire Festival. During the opening reception, show co-organizer J.P. Trostle said, “Wow, North Carolina is hell-bent on making this one of the most interesting and timely conventions we’ve ever had.” Trostle was referring not just to the passage of the odious anti-trans law HB2, but also to yet another victim of police violence, this time in nearby Charlotte. Indeed, there was some internal debate within the AAEC as to whether the festival should be held in Durham, given HB2, but it was decided that an organization whose purpose is to make pointed political commentary would be an ideal match for this controversy.
What interested me most about this festival was what factors went into it being considered a success. Editorial cartooning jobs have been shrinking steadily for years as newspapers fold and budgets decree that such posts are luxuries for the survivors. Of course, people have been shoveling dirt on the relevancy of political cartoons as early as the founding of the organization, and yet it continues to adapt and persevere. From the heydey of alt-weeklies in the ’80s to the movement to the web and multimedia platforms in the last few decades, editorial cartooning’s ability to provoke with a stark image is still powerful and threatening, a fact reinforced when one considers the fate of many such cartoonists around the globe.
The AAEC convention has been held all over the continent throughout its history, making stops in Washington, New York, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Chicago and Toronto, among many others. The nature of each convention depends not only on its location, but also the level of interactivity between the cartoonists and local institutions. For the festival in Durham, success was going to be defined as a close working relationship between the 74 cartoonists in attendance and the school, especially since Duke was not only hosting nearly every event, but was also a major sponsor of the convention. As such, the AAEC programming was both topical and often directly aimed at the students.
The meat of the AAEC programming was a slate of panels held in a theater on Duke’s campus. The subjects ranged from craft-related topics to larger political issues, and true to the AAEC’s history, the ideas came from both sides of the political aisle. For example, there was a panel called “Finding The Elephant’s Funny Bone”, which was about humor from a Republication perspective. There were panels on cartooning in the age of social media (both in dealing with online fallout and integrating it into one’s platform), the craft of caricature (especially in an election year), and the issues surrounding satirizing two huge targets in that race. The “Bathroom Banter” panel included cartoonists and a reporter discussing the issue, and the fact that this was a local matter made the interaction with the audience particularly lively. The panel went into specific detail about why HB2 is a poor piece of legislation qua legislation, and how it’s simply a thinly-disguised way of garnering socially conservative voters in an election year.
The panel titled “Black and Blue: Cartooning #BlackLivesMatter and Policing” seethed with rage and tension, coming as it did just a few days after the slaying of Keith Scott by the police in Charlotte. On the panel were Darrin Bell (cartoonist for The Washington Post and the creator of the strip Candorville), Keith Knight (the artist behind long-running features (th)ink, K Chronicles, and The Knight Life), North Carolina senator Mike Woodard, and moderator Jim Coleman of Duke’s law school. Bell had actually stopped doing political cartoons quite some time ago, until the murder of Mike Brown spurred him to get back on the scene. Knight’s chronicles of police brutality have been voluminous enough to merit an entire collection, titled They Shoot Black People, Don’t They? He did a short version of the slideshow that he’s lately been performing live, one that is regrettably already out of date, thanks to recent events in places like Charlotte and Tulsa.
The most poignant segments of the panel were the stories that Knight and Bell told of the first time they understood they were being targeted by police because of their skin color. Knight was a young man with dreadlocks putting up flyers for a rap gig, and was detained by a police officer who was looking for a robber with the description “black male, no other identifier.” Bell was a child when he had a toy water gun taken out of his hands by a white police officer and never returned to him. Up to that time, he had wanted to be a cop himself. Knight didn’t mince words, and said that even if black people did everything right, they were still getting shot. It was noted that change would take more than simply altering methods at police academies (though that might help); it would take a federally-funded initiative to teach classes about race in public schools. Senator Woodard was very much on their side, bitterly noting that the sort of legislature he’d like to introduce in the state congress would be laughed out of the session by the Tea Party-dominated group. Overall, Knight and Bell were resigned to keep calling out the same problems over and over again, while trying to be as funny as possible while doing it. During the Q&A, Trostle said to Bell that “a year ago, when we first planned this panel, I didn’t think it would be so timely.” Bell replied, “I did.”
If Knight and Bell showed how speaking truth to power can be a dicey proposition, the “International Ink” panel made that even clearer. Rayma Suprani of Venezuela, GADO of Kenya, and Rod Emmerson of New Zealand each spoke extensively about the unique challenges facing their nations and the blowback and threats they’ve received while addressing them. Suprani was fired in 2014, after nineteen years from her paper El Universal, for publishing a clever cartoon critical of deceased former president Hugo Chavez. She eventually left the country after fielding some not-so-veiled threats. Her work is colorful, clever, and uses a thick line weight to bring home her points. GADO, originally from Tanzania and one of the most important and popular cartoonists in east and central Africa, was also fired by his paper after criticizing the government. GADO’s skill with pen and ink is staggering, and his work is very much in the tradition of US cartoonists like Tom Toles and Pat Oliphant. The main difference is that he’s even blunter and meaner than those two legends, and that attitude extends to his use of puppets and animation to reach a larger audience. Rod Emmerson of New Zealand by way of Australia spoke of the way that some of his cartoons offended foreign nations but that he felt lucky that his paper always had his back. There’s no question that all three cartoonists would be major heavyweights in the US, and listening to each of them discuss the state of freedom of the press in their countries was sobering.
The student-oriented programming included two lunchtime cartooning sessions on a heavily-trafficked student plaza, a cookout with students from Duke’s public policy school, and a two-hour student workshop on visual storytelling. The most amusing interaction between students and cartoonists came during a Thursday night show that featured Duke’s sketch and improv groups. Kevin “Kal” Kallaugher, one of the organizers, warmed up the crowd with a political caricature chalk talk that was piled high with one-liners. Later on, the cartoonists drew things for the improv team to react to, and then competed against students in a drawing contest. The shtick of that bit was the cartoonists handicapping themselves by various methods: drawing with their non-dominant hands, drawing with an lobster oven mitt on, drawing blind, and drawing with both hands behind their backs. The facility of artists like Rob Rogers, Pulitzer-winning David Horsey, and local cartoonist V. Cullum Rogers despite these impositions was remarkable. While this show held in a large auditorium was far from full, most of the audience was comprised of students, which was certainly a major goal.
The big ticket events, as it were, came from Duke’s end of the Satire Festival. “Night Of The Simpsons” was the big draw on the second night of the festival, featuring Simpsons writers Caroline Omine, Jeff Westbrook, and Stewart Burns, and moderated by Duke professor Bill Adair. This was very much a craft- and process-related affair that nonetheless drew a large crowd, many of them undergrads who were undoubtedly interested in just how a writer’s room works. Writers on the show have a near-total lock on what actually is said and appears on the screen, with the artists given a little wiggle room to add background details. I asked a question regarding the legacy of the show and what kind of pressure the writers might feel, since people have been saying that The Simpsons stopped being good since the beginning of season two, and that everyone had a different cut-off point. Omine replied that her nephews were old enough to watch the show now, and they loved the speed and pace of the most recent seasons. When she showed them early-season episodes, they thought it looked and sounded weird, and there were fewer jokes landed per minutes. She acknowledged that The Simpsons changed the entire game with regard to American comedy, and what was subversive twenty-five years ago is simply default comedy today. Their duty now is simply to write the best gags possible.
Speaking of “inside baseball” craft discussions, the big event on Saturday, “Facts And Comedy”, featured fascinating details surrounding fact-checking and late-night comedy shows Full Frontal With Samantha Bee and The Daily Show. Once again moderated by Adair and featuring a trio of Duke graduates (Ishan Thakore, Naureen Kahn, and Adam Chodikoff) who are researchers and fact-checkers for those shows, the presentation was chock full of details about how a feature story gets made for the show. They screened a scene where Thakore was on-site with Bee during a non-ironic welcoming of Trump voters, trying to fact-check so many absurd things from those voters that he wound up hyperventilating into a paper bag. Thakore said that he had Kahn with him and would yell to get on the computer and check a fact for him as quickly as possible. Thakore and Kahn also talked about the research done for a hilarious, biting piece on how the Religious Right in America sprang up in the early 1970s. It wasn’t about abortion–it was about segregation at Bob Jones University. All three fact-checkers noted that they’ve had to pour cold water on many a story from an excited writer and even the host, because they didn’t want to use the same tactics as explicitly partisan shows in using half-truths or distortions. Chodikoff even had practical advice for the undergraduates hungry for jobs like his: read Variety and The Hollywood Reporter‘s want ads, and then be in the right place at the right time. Virtually all of the programming is available to watch online at the Duke POLIS YouTube channel.
In addition to the festival’s events, there were various exhibits in conjunction with the festival that highlighted local artists and solicited a wide range of opinions regarding key topics. They made a powerful argument for editorial cartooning as an art and not just a political tool. I’m not only speaking of craft, though one look at the exhibits made it clear that a number of the cartoonists whose work was on display were every bit as good as any other cartoonists in the world. Even working within certain restraints and expectations, I found it remarkable just how much self-expression still went into these drawings, and how the different strategies employed revealed different things about each artist. Regardless of whether or not the cartoonist was creating explicitly autobiographical work, their drawings revealed a great deal about themselves as well as the times they live in.
V. Cullum Rogers had a career retrospective with a focus on his developing skill as an artist over the years. Longtime Raleigh News & Observer editorial cartoonist Dwane Powell also had a career retrospective covering the last forty years, a time when the state of North Carolina made tremendous, progressive strides while also dealing with reactionary forces in the form of Senator Jesse Helms, current Governor Pat McCrory, and the sitting legislature. The state’s underlying racial tension and history of activism, the stark differences between its urban and rural areas, and shifting sets of priorities have made it a microcosm of larger issues affecting the entire country.
That was made clear by the “Bathroom Humor” exhibit, which was a selection of editorial cartoons regarding HB2. It’s always exciting to see a wide variety of drawing styles, techniques, and philosophies. There were old-school editorial “labelers,” pen-and-ink stalwarts, artists who did it all digitally, artists who relied on color, etc. This is a uniquely meaty editorial topic because on the one hand, the rationale given by the governor is indefensible by any legal standard and incredibly poorly-thought out. It’s also embarrassing to the state at large, not only in terms of reputation but also in terms of economics, thanks to lost revenue due to business pulling out. At the same time, it’s incredibly timely and emotionally powerful issue to consider as LGBT rights are still in their relative infancy in this country, and this is a direct attack. The fact that the legislature sneaked in anti-employee rights laws on a rider makes the bill all the more cynical, as one gets that sense that they don’t even really have the courage of their convictions. The cartoons in the exhibit called McCrory and the legislature out on just that fact, with some truly biting imagery. V.C Rogers curated this exhibit, while Trostle co-curated the Powell exhibit, among the many things they did behind the scenes for the show.
Even without all the local intrigue, this was an AAEC convention held during a presidential election year, which meant there were some fireworks. The fact that it was held during possibly the weirdest election of all time in the US only gave the cartoonists more material to work with on both sides of the aisle, and that could be seen in the exhibit “This Campaign Is Yuuuge!: Cartoonists Tackle The 2016 Presidential Race”, curated by Rob Rogers. The irony of the exhibit, and perhaps the entire event as a whole, is that no matter how absurd the cartoonists got in their satire, the actual reality of the campaign has managed to consistently top that level of absurdity. While satire is needed more than ever in a time when Hillary Clinton’s hand in making the primaries go her way, and when Donald Trump abandoned the slightest pretense of tact, dignity, or being grounded in reality, it’s getting more and more difficult for the satirists to keep up. Still, the mere fact that Trump has chillingly hinted at shutting down his many editorial critics if he’s elected president is a stark reminder of what’s at stake, especially as so many cartoonists are putting their lives on the line in places like Africa, the Middle East, and Malaysia. The art of editorial cartooning is very much still alive, even if the business of editorial cartooning continues to look for solid ground on shifting sands.
The author would like to thank J.P. Trostle for providing access to the show, logistical support, advice, photos, editing suggestions and all-around helpfulness.