The Problem with Editorial Cartooning Today

From The Comics Journal #119 (January 1988)

This is a 1988 panel about the viability of satire in editorial cartooning, featuring Jules Feiffer, Chuck Freund, Brad Holland, David Levine and Peter Steiner.

One of the biggest topics at last year’s Association of American Editorial Cartoonist’s convention was the perceived decline of hard-hitting, politically committed satire in editorial cartoons in favor of a softer, non-controversial style of humor. This perception was heightened by the Pulitzer Prize awarded to Berke Breathed for Bloom County, a gag strip with topical overtones.

This particular panel was prompted by an article by Charles Freund, author of the “Zeitgeist Checklist” column in The New Republic, lamenting the decline of satire in America. Three influential veterans of the political wars of the ’60s and ’70s were brought together to discuss the subject: David Levine, perhaps the most renowned caricaturist of our time and regular contributor to The New York Review of Books; Jules Feiffer, for over 30 years one of this country’s most original and incisive cartoonists, as well as a novelist and playwright; and Brad Holland, award-winning illustrator for The New York Times and Playboy. The panel was moderated by Peter Steiner, and transcribed and edited by R. Fiore.

Jules Feiffer’s June 4, 1958 Sick, Sick, Sick strip, originally published in The Village Voice.

Jules Feiffer’s June 4, 1958 Sick, Sick, Sick strip, originally published in The Village Voice.

PETER STEINER: Starting on my right is Chuck Freund who is a contributing editor with Spy magazine and a writer at The New Republic, who wrote an article once talking about the dearth of good satire in this country that kind of sparked this panel. Next to him is Jules Feiffer, who’s been publishing cartoons in The Village Voice and elsewhere and who recently won a Pulitzer Prize — we won’t hold that against him. Next to him is David Levine, whose caricatures you’ve known for years from The New York Review of Books and elsewhere. On my left, by himself is Brad Holland, a wonderful illustrator. I thought we might start with my reading a little piece that might focus the discussion a little bit, and then let it rip. In The Washington Diarist column in The New Republic not long ago, Chuck Freund wrote about the paucity of serious satire in our country. He wrote, “The closest thing to satire with teeth that the culture is sustaining is Doonesbury, and Trudeau’s getting away with it because his medium is the comic strip, and ergo not recognizable as a serious form.” There are many here who will want to take issue with Mr. Freund’s dismissal of editorial cartooning, but I’d like to use his thesis as a point of departure for our discussion today. The Random House Dictionary defines satire as “The use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, and the like in exposing, denouncing, or deriding vice, folly, etc.” It goes on to say that satire “often emphasizes the weakness more than the weak person, and usually implies moral judgment and corrective purpose.” I contend that the problem with editorial cartooning today — and that would have been my choice for the title of this discussion, The Problem with Editorial Cartooning Today — is that editorial cartoonists have become partners to and beneficiaries of the very folly we are to satirize. We aspire to jobs in the best newspapers, want wide syndication, dream of prizes, want to make good money. We respect success too much. It seems to me that the result is almost bound to be cartoons that, for the most part, poke gingerly around political issues and regard moral indignation and outrage as quaint and slightly out of date, embarrassing, really. Satire is an outlaw genre. Given the difficult choice between being a success and doing a really lethal piece of art, we are for the most part no different from the rest of society. We’re like court jesters. Now, it seems to me that being a court jester can be an honorable profession. Court jesters can be witty, intelligent, insightful, and funny. But they can’t be satirists if they want to keep their jobs. By the same token, we can’t be the uncompromising champions of virtue from our positions of privilege. We will always be compromised by our ambitions and our fear. Cartooning that sincerely attacks the folly of our age must come from elsewhere. [Applause] Would anyone like to respond?

DAVID LEVINE: When I talk to a group this large, my tendency is to revert to my old flaming liberal form and start out by saying “Comrades!” Something was said yesterday — I didn’t go to it, so I didn’t get the exact quotation, but it was said to you by your leader. Ronnie said, “You keep us here in Washington from taking ourselves seriously.” He thanked you for that. And I think the fact that you were all there, and were talked down to that way is essentially the problem: that you are keeping everybody from getting serious about it rather than fighting for a position on the editorial page, which is equal to the columnists and is not questioned by the editor. Until you reach that status, you’re really just the wagging of the tail by the editor. [Applause]

JULES FEIFFER: I’d like to second what David said. When cartoonists, editorial and otherwise, are not berating their status as second class citizens of the arts, they go around demonstrating why they continue to be and why they should be. It’s one thing to go as a group of adversarial artists to the White House to scope out the land, but to, as number of you did last time when you went to lunch at the White House, or as even more of you did yesterday when you were a part of the president’s act, and help take the heat off him. [See sidebar.] I think you’re doing yourselves and any seriousness you can be taken with, a grave offense. I see no point to it. The fact that you not only go, but that you’re glad to go, and you’re glad to have the invitation, and you’re thrilled by it, and you chuckle about it, shows to me a real problem with image and real problem with your sense of your own craft, and it embarrasses me, and I think it should embarrass you. [Applause]


The convention festivities had included a visit to the White House to meet President Reagan. The event was described in Target: The Political Cartoon Quarterly #24 in Kendall Mattern’s “American Drawing Board” column:

“The President addressed the group in the Rose Garden. On the outskirts of the gathering was the White House press corps. At the end of Reagan’s prepared remarks Sam Donaldson of ABC News, began to question Reagan about the latest developments in the in the Iran-Contra hearings. At that point Doc Goodwin, of the Columbus Dispatch, shielded the President from questions by making the motion that the meeting be adjourned. Donaldson, among others, was incensed. He told several passing cartoonists, ‘I thought you people considered yourselves journalists.’

“Later, at the AAEC business meeting, the cartoonists narrowly passed a resolution criticizing Goodwin for his actions. The motion was introduced by Steve Benson of the Arizona Republic. Bill Sanders of the Milwaukee Journal described Goodwin’s actions as ‘the most embarrassing moment I’ve ever had in this business.’ Oliphant remarked that such action as Goodwin’s represented an abrogation of ‘our role as journalists.’

“Goodwin apologized but commented that he had no regrets. He believed that the television people were trying to override the AAEC’s meeting with the President.”

CHUCK FREUND: I’m supposed to be the adversary here, but actually I want to come down on their side. Everybody does that here — I mean, the White House press corps does it, the guys who are supposed to be putting the microscope to the White House. Forming that relationship is not necessarily cutting the rug out from under your adversarial relationship with the power structure.

BRAD HOLLAND: It doesn’t bother me that anyone went to the White House; I’d be kind of curious to see what it looked like myself. I caught a little bit on the news last night when Reagan upstaged everybody.

FEIFFER: What a surprise.

HOLLAND: No, it’s not a surprise. He had some of your cartoons — I saw the scene where there’s a big balloon, and Reagan’s filling in the balloon, then pretended not to remember. Reagan’s got the upper hand there, because your picture wasn’t moving, and Reagan was — it’s a perfect TV spectacle. But I’m curious, in a larger sense, what serious satire is in the first place. I mean, if that’s not a contradiction in terms, and I’m also very curious, what was that last phrase, about satire ought to attack the folly of the age, was that the deal?

STEINER: Something like that.

David Levine’s Richard M. Nixons, 1972—75.

David Levine’s Richard M. Nixons, 1972—75.

HOLLAND: This age is attacking itself, it’s eating itself up from the very tail, and it’s getting to its innards already. Satire has moved from what anything an artist can deal with to the front pages. We’ve got a garbage scow sailing the waters of the western hemisphere, trying to find a port. We’ve got a presidential candidate who’s carrying his Kennedy imitation into the bedroom and thinking he’s gonna get away with it the way Kennedy got away with it. Sonny Bono is running for mayor of Palm Springs, I mean, how can you satirize that? It’s gotten completely away from you. We elect presidents by the twin arts of polling and advertising. How can you satirize that? Every day we’re supposed to turn on the TV and see what someone believes in a poll. Fifty percent of the American people believe in flying saucers. That’s some sort of fact. I read last week that Elvis Presley has been sighted in a flying saucer. He’s apparently always expressed an interest in seeing the universe. How can you satirize this kind of stuff? There’s very little left to do. In my life I’ve spent a little bit of time in some police precincts in various cities. I try to tell my mother some story about being picked up for this or that, or being in to bail some friends out, or being in for one reason or another. My mother thinks she knows what I’m talking about because she’s seen Hill Street Blues. She’s seen the inside of a jail. And most people know what they know from television. Almost the only good these days can be done on television and can be satire of television. SCTV was a wonderful show, because it was satirizing television, which is in effect satirizing peoples’ notion of what real life is. I think it’s a hell of a time to be a satirist. You’re dealing with a culture that is already a satire on its own original principles. America is now a satire on individualism, it’s a satire of freedom of the press, it’s a satire of the democratic process. What’s left to satirize?

FEIFFER: We can satirize, if not a Teflon president, a Teflon electorate that doesn’t seem to care any more who’s homeless, who’s got money and who doesn’t, who’s in office and who isn’t, where values become indiscriminate. What’s interested me the last couple of days is that we’re finally taking sex away from the evangelicals and bringing it back to the people who know how to do it. [Laughter] From the time I started out in the ’50s, I’ve been hearing comments like Brad’s. There was nothing to satirize in the days of Eisenhower and there was nothing to satirize in the days of Kennedy, and real life has become to satirical to make any point about. Well, that may have less to do with what’s really happening than our attitudes about what’s really happening. There’s an awful lot out there other than the cosmetics that the press throws us and the media throw us about basic attitudes that are changing among us as a people in regard to social conditions, in regard to foreign policy. Now we’re suddenly terrified that we might have a limited arms treaty. How scary. It seems to me that for satirists who are serious commentators on what’s going on there’s as much to do as there ever has been. It may be difficult to find, but that’s what the business is all about. The easier stuff anybody can do.

LEVINE: I want to bring it back to us, because I think whereas the news media caters to an audience of a hundred million at any given minute and the subjects that are dealt with are contemporary, nevertheless, they are still doing it through a banking process, through a commercializing process. Nothing is being said that really insults, informs, or really digs at that public. If we gain our freedom, if we gain that strength and freedom to appear on an editorial page without somebody saying what we should say, we have the means of doing this in our own hands in a way that those television programs do not have. There’s too many people, in too many committees and so on. We could be doing and saying something very directly, and I think everybody here starts into this field because that’s an urge. You may start off doing funny pictures, but when you get to the point where you want to be an editorial cartoonist. you’ve already thought out a lot of feelings that you want to project to a public. I think it’s a question of how we go about gaining that freedom and not whether there is material out there; there will always be material out there.

HOLLAND: Well, how do we gain that freedom?

LEVINE: I’m not sure, I’m not sure at all, because I’m in one of those fortunate situations where I don’t have that struggle, I don’t have an editor who I have to sit and approve anything with. How about a strike? I know it comes off as a joke, and it isn’t a question of super-organization or a union, or any question like that, but nobody knows what we feel as a group about the question of being censored by editors. We don’t have any PR talking about the problems with editors. I never hear any griping from the columnists I run into about whether they get a chance to say what they want to say. This is a group that has that as a problem, and I’m just wondering if a strike wouldn’t make everybody aware. It’s like a little of Lysystrata.

STEINER: Shall we take a vote?

FREUND: I don’t draw. I’ve been on strike a long time in terms of cartooning. [Laughter] The question I addressed in the column that brought me here to begin with, which is that I appeared to have dismissed editorial cartooning in general as a vital form of satire, because, in a sense, of what David just said, the question of equality in terms of editorial freedom and so forth. When you’re on the editorial page, how big an audience in the end are you addressing? You’re addressing a group that is obviously an informed group interested in issues, which is not necessarily the same thing as vital satire. Which is why I picked out Doonesbury. Doonesbury addresses a very wide audience, the people who are addressing the readers of the editorial page are addressing a considerably narrower audience. This is not to say that this is a field that I’m dismissing, because I didn’t dismiss editorial cartoonists. In fact I think that editorial cartooning is much more interesting than it was years ago. It’s getting more exposure than it had years ago. You no longer have to live in a newspaper’s region to see the cartoons. You have many more places that are running editorial cartoonists from various papers and presenting them to a national audience. The Washington Post does a page on Saturday and The New York Times does a page on Sunday, Newsweek does a page. Frequently people refer to editorial cartoons, it seems to me, in your standard saloon conversations, “Did you see the one about so-and-so?” This is different, it’s grown, it seems to me, in terms of the audience it has, and in many ways it’s a form which has its own kind of position in the U.S. But that’s different from the kind of satire I addressed in the thing that you read an excerpt from. In other words, I’m suggesting a development in the way in which editorial cartoonists are reaching an ever-widening audience and affecting the political debate with their humor and with their commentary. In fact, that is potentially a direction for further development in the future, that would be of interest to pursue by people inside the field. I don’t have a plan that will help editorial cartoonists get to the next stage in terms of their field. There have been developments that have taken editorial cartooning from one stage to another, and there may very well be some more, which actually flips out going on strike, trying to reach an ever-widening audience in different forms. So I throw that on the table for what it’s worth.

Garry Trudeau’s December 13, 1973 Doonesbury strip.

Garry Trudeau’s December 13, 1973 Doonesbury strip.

HOLLAND: I’ve never been convinced that a drawing of a politician is by definition a political drawing. Jules said a few minutes ago that people said back in the ’50s there was nothing to satirize. I don’t know, I wasn’t paying attention to anything back in the ’50s. I remember something that Bill Mauldin said back in the early ’60s, that the job of the editorial cartoonist was to throw a snowball at the guy who was wearing a top hat. Well, no one wears top hats any longer. We’ve got presidential candidates being asked whether they’ve committed adultery. I continue to think that something has really changed profoundly about the culture. I know a woman who had a bathroom installed the other day, and the carpenters did this incredibly lousy job, and she complained about the thing afterwards, and the guy said, “Well, lady, if you wanted the kind of job you’d have got 25 years ago you’d have to pay extra for that.” Back in the ’50s we had this post-war economy that allowed us to think we ruled the world. It allowed everybody that I was going to grade school with to want to grow up and wear suits and get jobs with good companies and work for those companies until they died. Now we’ve got people moving from place to place to place within months. I don’t know that the job of an editorial cartoonist — I’m not even comfortable with the term — I’m not sure what you guys do is editorial cartooning, and I think what you guys are doing is brilliant stuff. [To Feiffer:] I don’t know why they gave you Pulitzer Prize [only recently]. It was an absolute mistake. They have been giving Pulitzer Prizes year after year after year to people who weren’t doing stuff anywhere near as good as you were doing back in the ’60s, and finally just before they start giving a Pulitzer to Berke Breathed, they give one to you. It’s stupid. You were doing brilliant work whether you drew Reagan, Ford, whether you did Jimmy Carter. The “Dance to Spring,” to me, goes deeper into the psyche of American life than drawings of Reagan and Carter and Nixon, not that that stuff is beside the point. Levine’s watercolors I think are his most brilliant contribution. There’s no way in the world I could do caricatures the way you do.

LEVINE: I give a course.

HOLLAND: You’ve got an absolute genius for that, and I love the work. I remember the crocodile tears, Lyndon Johnson’s scar, I saw those things out in the Midwest and thought they were brilliant. What I’m trying to say without being able to make the point sensibly is that we’ve become a culture that no longer knows how to produce anything except cheeseburgers and second-rate movies. We have to put a tariff on Japanese products because Americans want to buy decent products, and they don’t want to buy anything that’s made here any longer. Just doing anything good, whether you’re a good carpenter, whether you’re a craftsman, whether you just do the kind of drawings these guys have been doing for years, is to me a more profound contribution than doing a drawing of Reagan or Carter. I know this is essentially outside the context of what you guys are talking about, but I remember when I was a kid there were “John Q. Public” editorial cartoons all the time, those Ding Darling cartoons. And then there were the Herblock cartoons, and then there were the Pat Oliphant cartoons. And we go from generation to generation to generation, and all this stuff looks alike, and they’re all concerned about the headlines, and to me there’s more subliminal stuff going on that … I’m sorry, I’m really not that familiar with your work so there’s nothing I can say about your stuff …

FREUND: You can throw a compliment. [Laughter]

HOLLAND: … but these two guys I’ve seen for years, and I’ve loved their stuff even when they’re not being political. To me it’s a more profound contribution than simply doing a drawing a cartoon about whether Gary Hart slept with somebody last weekend. You can see why I’m sitting here by myself. [Laughter] I’m carrying on my own little dialogue with the world. The panel is over there.

FREUND: Now wait a minute, is Holland suggesting that they shouldn’t be taking headlines as subject matter?

HOLLAND: No, I’m just saying that if we’re talking about what satire is …

FREUND: Nobody’s done that yet. [Laughter]

HOLLAND: I mean, there’s satire in Picasso, but did Picasso sit down, his only attempt at a political cartoon was The Lion Dream of Franco, and what was that?

FEIFFER: Just another cartoonist to me. I accept with gratitude your comments on me, I even accept with gratitude your comments on Dave [Laughter] but I think one of the points you’re talking to is one that’s always interested me, and that is how all of us, very much including me, find it convenient, easy, and docilely comforting to be governed by the headlines. Why are the headlines the story of the day? Because The New York Times tells us, because CBS and the other networks tell us, but there are other stories I go on. One of the things that has bothered me during the Reagan Years as much as the politics of this administration was the comment it seemed to make on the American people and how willingly most of us, even those of us with different politics, went along. Take a look at the Democratic Party this morning. With Gary Hart, hardly a force for strong political content, suddenly we have Jesse Jackson as a frontrunner and most serious candidate in the Democratic Party. That means we haven’t had any serious politics of opposition since the Reagan years began, or possibly before. If we had, Jimmy Carter wouldn’t have been elected.

HOLLAND: We haven’t had serious politics since the Kennedy years.

FEIFFER: I think that’s true also. And why there is no politics of opposition, why there is no left or even pseudo-left any more is a question that has to be looked at. Why there is increasing fragmentation on all levels of the society so that groups have retreated basically into their own constituencies, and the result is that no one is really seriously interested other than in conversational terms in any other constituency, so that TV is the only thing that draws us together, the only thing we share in common. I think that has to be looked at. As someone who also writes for the theater, I also discovered in the last 20 years how there is no such thing as a theater audience any more. You can’t find enough people who will share the same experience under one tent and know what you’re talking about if you’re writing anything but sitcom or musical junk. That there is not a constituency to engage anymore except on the smallest of levels. So when you say “trying to reach a broader audience,” I wonder where that audience is on a profounder level, if that audience exists at all and why it doesn’t exist and how we get it to begin existing again if there is any way.

FREUND: Yeah, but they have something that almost everybody involved in political satire doesn’t have, and that’s a base audience.

FEIFFER: And one thing that must be said about how you double the base audience is the thing that must be said about at least a group of editorial cartoonists in the Reagan years is, where op-ed pages and everything else has shifted to the right, often it’s the cartoonist alone who will say anything true or nasty about what’s going on in these years, and you had to look to these people. Not many of you, but enough of you to find strong comment. And what a relief that was.

STEINER: Couldn’t it be that the audience hasn’t disappeared so much as the theater and the newspapers have become another branch of government? That is, they no longer operate as opposition.

FEIFFER: Vietnam and Watergate were the first breaks from … On foreign policy the press used to publish handouts from the State Department or the Pentagon and treat them as real. That is still sometimes the case, but no longer the entire case. In many ways it used to be worse, and you never knew about it unless you read Izzy Stone or somebody.

David Levine’s Benito Mussolini.

David Levine’s Benito Mussolini.

STEINER: Well, do you have any idea of what has caused that change, why that opportunity for you in theater to find an audience, or the opportunity of editorial cartoonists to be strong voices of opposition has disappeared?

FEIFFER: I think that it’s the opposite. I think there are more strong voices of opposition in editorial cartoons today than there were when I was coming along in the ’50s. There was virtually nobody. There was Herblock, there was Conrad, there was Haynie, but hardly a quorum. There are many more today, many more, and really good ones. And as I say, sometimes these are very lonely voices. For that matter, where are the columnists today? Murray Kempton is still the only Murray Kempton around, and he has no rivals. There aren’t many. And not many places to be published. There are a host of George Wills and very few Mary McGrorys.

LEVINE: It brings me back to that question again. It’s in our hands, how do we get that breakaway protection to be free to say it, that is, freer to say it. We do say it. What Jules is complimenting everybody about is that there is a strength, there is an oppositional sense, there is digging where there is no digging elsewhere. But, still, to be with the latest event and really digging, to question anything that’s going on, is still being held back by the editors.

I have an anecdote to tell. Long time ago it was my very good fortune to share a studio space with the top Russian spy, Rudolf Abel. And he gave me a book while we were — of course I didn’t know he was what he was at the time, or I would have joined him [Laughter] — but he gave me a book by Arnold Hauser on art history, and it was a Marxist history of art and so on. And somewhere in one section it dealt with the Inquisition of Veronese in which he had people dressed in Swiss Guards uniforms and he had dwarves in a painting in which Christ appeared. And they hauled him in front of the Inquisition, and they said, what are you putting these guys in for, and isn’t it an insult to have a dwarf in the presence of our Lord. He said, “Look, I’m just an artist, what do you expect from me?” And what he did was he conned them into believing that what he was doing was right for the day; after all, a rich man’s house would have guards and that’s the kind of clothing they wore, and typical entertainment, that’s what anybody who had any money did, and Levi, the House of Levi, where all this takes place, that’s the way it would have been. And Abel wrote in the margin, “every group of artists in every generation will always have censorship, and they just have to be smarter.” He was talking about your editors. You’re just going to have to be smarter in getting around it. But I think you need something else. I think this organization can do something to inform everybody when somebody is in trouble, when somebody’s being put down, when somebody’s being fired for one reason or another when it’s a political difference. I think something more has to be made available to you.

What else would you like to talk about?

FROM AUDIENCE: I’ve heard sweeping generalizations about lack of freedom. I’ve never had that much problem with censorship.

HOLLAND: Part of the problem, I think, is that in most of what I see as political cartoons these days they’re essentially gag cartoons with pictures as set-ups. [Applause] It’s essentially Bob Hope material. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s less trenchant than some of what Johnny Carson does. I don’t mean to single out any particular person or anything. A lot of the cartoons are funny; Bob Hope has made some funny jokes from time to time. Over and over and over. That’s in a sense a form of self-censorship, is it not?

FREUND: What, being funny?

HOLLAND: No. If what you’re doing is in a sense stripping, if there’s something that really troubles you — oh, screw it, I don’t know.

FREUND: Being funny is a good thing. You get a bigger audience. People start to turn to the editorial page perhaps when they might not have earlier, because they might get a good guffaw out of it.

HOLLAND: Oh, I have nothing against humor. [Laughter] I’ve heard of it before.

FREUND: It’s good that a lot of them are gags. I don’t see any problem with that at all. What we don’t have in the U.S. is a political culture of humor. It seems to me that the political cartoonists who do gags add to the number of people who might be interested in participating in that kind of a culture should it ever actually form.

HOLLAND: It also turns it into a kind of business, does it not? If what you do happens not to be funny, if it happens not to be a gag, then it’s somehow —

FREUND: It’s outside the field of satire.

HOLLAND: Not necessarily.

FREUND: Not everything has to be a banana peel.

HOLLAND: What’s satire in the first place?

FREUND: Let’s everyone define satire for ourselves for a moment — [Laughter]

HOLLAND: The New York Times attempted, when Harrison Salisbury was editor back in the early ’70s, to try to find different ways of presenting political art. And they began going around the world collecting work that, some of it was hit-and-miss, some of it was pretentious, some of it was absurd, as long as the editors of The New York Times didn’t know what was going on it kept going through. The minute they found out what was going on, they got a handle on it. The first thing they did was they got rid of everybody original, and began to hire people who were essentially quite willing to illustrate whatever the editors wanted them to do. What was being done originally was at least experimental. What’s turned out is the insipid op-ed style that just befouls every newspaper in the country these days with this kind of meaningless symbolic stuff. But in its early days it was an attempt by a lot of people to experiment that was choked off by the editors the minute they found out is was appearing on their pages.

David, I went on strike against The New York Times back in 1974. It made absolutely no difference because I couldn’t find anyone else to walk out with me. They were all quite happy to take the work that I was turning down. And not only that, they were happy to use my idea.

BILL SAUNDERS (from audience): If a political cartoonist or a satirist looks at an issue in terms of “what can I say that’s funny about that?” and draws that gag, it may get a lot of applause, and it may get a great deal of readership, but it also trivializes the subject, it trivializes the profession. That’s not to say that you don’t look at a subject and say, “How do I feel about that, how do I comment on it, maybe with humor.” That’s a different thing. If you’re suggesting that pure gags are doing something that’s valid, I think you’re really wrong.

FREUND: As a group, rather than as individuals facing their drawing boards, as a group, is it a good idea to try to build the audience for this kind of a culture, the culture that’s implied by what everybody here does on a daily or regular basis? Is it in fact a negative to have funny gags as part of the thing? I don’t know. I don’t think it’s a problem. I don’t think that gags are overwhelming the field, I don’t think that gags define out the other kind of stuff, but I think overall it gets more attention for the material and it tends to build the readership, build the number of people who might be interested. Because, in fact, the first reaction is an easy one. I don’t have any difficulty with the fact that the gag tends to get an easy reaction and may not lead to a more thoughtful thing in and of itself. There’s just a problem of trying to build the kind of political culture from which satire flourishes. I try to work from Washington with Spy magazine in New York, there’s a built-in problem about what people in New York think is funny about politics and what people in Washington think is funny about politics. There isn’t that focus, and we’re just talking about two ends of this megalopolis. There’s a built-in problem about what people share in terms of political events. We don’t have at all anything like Private Eye, the British publication. There’s a publication that’s full of gags, but it’s also the center of … one of the centers of political culture that defines itself around those kind of gags. And they don’t only deal in banana peel humor at all, they in fact do something that is never done here, or is hardly ever done here, which is to go after people who are fashionable. That’s relatively rare. More of that would be fine, and gags at the expense of people who are fashionable would be completely welcome, it seems to me …

SAUNDERS: That’s like the Playboy magazine syndrome, where you run pictures of naked girls and a Jules Feiffer cartoon.

FROM AUDIENCE: Another trouble is that a lot of us have internalized our editors, and actually we’re tougher editors on ourselves than our editors are on us.

FEIFFER: I think that’s a good statement. I think that on hot issues that really tends to be a problem, and I find on hot issues to be a real problem. And I’ve found over the years when I do a cartoon that really scares me, and I wonder if I should do it, that is a signal to me that I’ve got to put it through whether I like it or not. Fear can be a very useful thing. It’s a good governor. It’s a kind of applause meter. If you’re really scared by something you do you know you’ve done some good work, and it’s time to push it forward rather than to retreat from it. But the other thing is that there are gags and gags. There are gags that are benign comments, not even a plague on both your houses but a joke on both your houses. But there are very strong commentaries done in the form of gags, whether it’s Mike Peters or Tom Toles or Tony Auth, Doug Marlette, these are very funny cartoonists, and they are also cartoonists with extremely strong points of view, and you know what their points of view are when you see their work. And there are others, I’ve left out a lot of names, but one can be funny and at the same time reveal a strong political posture. And one can also be whitebread, and there is too much whitebread around, there’s no question of that.

Jules Feiffer’s December 4, 1957 Sick, Sick, Sick strip, originally published in The Village Voice.

Jules Feiffer’s December 4, 1957 Sick, Sick, Sick strip, originally published in The Village Voice.

HOLLAND: I grew up in the 1950s, and I was really influenced by movies. I was drawing comic strips of movie characters when I was four or five years old. When I was a kid I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to grow up to write for the old Garry Moore Show or to be an artist. If I wanted a large audience I’d write for the movies. The one thing about being an artist is I don’t need a million-dollar budget, I don’t need to please a lot of producers, I don’t need to please financiers, I can do a drawing with a piece of paper, I could do drawings back when I was broke, I could do drawings when I was living in the slums in New York. I didn’t have to worry about pleasing a lot of people. When I began working I was working for the underground press back in the late ’60s, where you could do a drawing in a couple of minutes, run it down to the printers, have it printed two or three hours later, and there was no editor scratching his head and stroking his beard and wondering if everyone was going to get it. That’s almost the only virtue I can think of in being an artist in a society that’s so dominated by motion pictures and television. If you want a large audience, I’d say write for television. If you want to do something individual, that’s about the only rationale left for being an artist. [Applause]

FROM AUDIENCE: Seems like every one of these conventions I come to it winds up with this one segment of the audience telling the rest of us we’re all doing our jobs wrong. I don’t feel I ought to be ashamed of my work.

HOLLAND: I think what I was saying a second ago was precisely this: That there was that kind of Ding Darling style of cartooning with John Q. Public back in the ’40s, there was Herblock, we go through these cycles. Is everybody who’s drawing like Pat Oliphant these days [doing] what they wanted to do? Are all the Levine imitators doing what they want to do? I don’t know what you draw like so I’m not addressing anyone in particular. What I’m saying is precisely that I think everybody ought to be allowed to develop a personal style, and it’s an extremely difficult thing. It’s difficult to develop it in the first place, it’s much more difficult to sell it, it’s difficult to maintain it, and it’s especially difficult to maintain it when you’re swamped by imitators.

LEVINE: I don’t think what we were saying was that what everybody here does wasn’t adequate. On the contrary, I think there’s much applause to be made over the very significant role in stopping a war that was a very unjust war. I think we contributed. I don’t think the dog is wagged by his tail, but I think we played a significant role. What I find every time I come to the conventions is, when we’re not at home thinking we seem to come like puppies to anybody, and give drawings to those in power, and let ourselves be talked down to, and so on. I just think it can be stronger. I think the whole question of confronting power, which means right, left, or anybody who’s got power, is the question for us.

DRAPER HILL: Does the panel feel that there’s anything self-contradictory about a political satirist working on the editorial page? And some of us also produce comic strips that go in the other direction. Both products can be superb, sometimes they aren’t. Here we are, complaining about the Breathed award, but aren’t we sending out a different signal there?

HOLLAND: I was simply saying that, think of the artists that haven’t had Pulitzers. Where is the Pulitzer Prize for Saul Steinberg? Where was the Pulitzer Prize for James Thurber when he was drawing? Where was the Pulitzer Prize for Robert Crumb back in the ’60s?

HILL: My point is not the wisdom or the lack thereof on the Pulitzer committee.

HOLLAND: No, I understand what you’re saying, but I was trying to make a comment on them finally giving one to Jules after Lord knows how many years of brilliant work. It was ridiculous to keep ignoring him for so long. They, in a sense, distinguish themselves by giving one to him, but Jules didn’t need it to feel distinguished as far as I’m concerned.

HILL: Does the drawing of a comic strip energize a cartoonist’s editorial work? Is it not possible that it stretches him in contradictory directions that are bad for him?

HOLLAND: I’ve always confused Jeff MacNelly with David Hockney to begin with. I don’t know. I like those cartoons, I don’t see anything wrong with it.

FEIFFER: One would have to then say that [Mike] Peters’s work has suffered since Mother Goose and Grimm and MacNelly’s work has suffered since he’s done Shoe. I don’t think there are many people who would make that argument. So I guess the answer is no. I’m talking as somebody who strongly advised Mike Peters against doing his comic strip. Shows you how smart I am.

FROM AUDIENCE: I want to take up a point Jules made about chasing the headlines. In order to get behind the headline, get the underlying thread, it takes wisdom and insight, which usually come from experience in many different ways. I was wondering if part of the problem now was that you have a lot of young guys coming in without that experience?

FEIFFER: I am now old enough to know that experience is often meaningless. All it teaches you is what you were determined to know when you were 25 anyhow. You just re-focus it in different ways over the years. I think when you are young the advantage is that you should come in with a passion that may dissipate over the years, and if you don’t have that passion when you’re in your 20s or early 30s, it seems to me you have no business in the business, because it’s not going to get stronger, and if you don’t start out having it strong virtually to the point of obsession in the first place, then you’re not well prepared for the long run. That passion makes up for a lot of what you call a lack of background. One of the things that has always bothered me about this society is the credence we give “experts” and “qualified sources.” If Henry Kissinger is an example of such, I think we don’t know the kind of trouble we’re in. Or for that matter, Charles Krauthammer.

LEVINE: I just don’t think the state of the art should become the art of the state.

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2 Responses to The Problem with Editorial Cartooning Today

  1. Pingback: Comics A.M. | Tanzania closes newspaper over cartoon - Robot 6 @ Comic Book ResourcesRobot 6 @ Comic Book Resources

  2. “THE FIRST DUTY OF A POLITICAL CARTOONIST IS TO BE WILLING TO BE FIRED.” I wrote that in 2013 in a blog I started to do about political cartooning. But nobody is interested in political cartoons anymore, precisely because of what is being talked about in the article above. The cartoonists that were hired in the 1980s to replace those few of us who actually had anything to say and the balls to say it with innocuous illustrators who sucked up to their corporate bosses bored the readers to death and drove down readership to the point where the number of staff editorial cartoonists at newspapers nosedived from 300+ to about THIRTY. I offered a few other key reasons for the death of political cartooning at the blog, which of course I abandoned after a few entries.
    Anyone interested in this topic might find my first book, BUY THIS BOOK, to be worth finding a copy of. There are still some floating around and appearing on amazon pretty regularly. I wrote it in 1980, recounting my experiences as a subversive cartoonist for various college and alternative newspapers and analyzing why it was virtually impossible to function even at the supposedly progressive papers like CITY PAGES in Minneapolis, where I was the cartoonist for ten years (1982-92) and the Madison Press Connection. I also was the staff political cartoonist for HUSTLER, hired by Larry Flynt himself, but I bailed after less than a year when he suffered that bout of temporary insanity where he became a born-again Christian. I make no money off of BUY THIS BOOK, but since it is hard to find when searching on amazon because of all the books by some right wing nut preacher who has the same name as me and because a number of people stole the title and used it on subsequent books, here it is:
    (I got the title from my friend Abbie Hoffman, who wrote Steal This Book. Mine was 10 years later so it was appreciated as satirical at the time.)
    The dearth of genuine satire (even The Daily Show was mostly just sarcasm, not satire) and total devastation of political cartooning is something more than a sore spot for me. One other suggestion: look up the work of my friend and mentor Bill Sanders to see some REAL political cartoons. He is 86 and still doing them on Twitter and Facebook. He is a pure sledgehammer cartoonist but well worth knowing about and looking up.

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