Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Gorging at the Trump Trough: Editorial Cartooning Goes Belly-Up

It is a paradox that Donald Trump, the worst president in U.S. history, has been a boon to the Left in general and to late-night comedians in particular, but absolutely anathema to the dwindling number of local newspaper editorial cartoonists. Rather than a comic feast, cartoonists are gorging on Trump and going belly-up, like goldfish that have no better sense than to eat themselves to death.

The reasons for this phenomenon are no doubt complex and varied, but there are a few basic tendencies. For starters, the profession – and art form – has been in decline for a generation (it peaked some time around 1978; some might even say it peaked with Thomas Nast around 1878), even as the print newspaper industry itself has radically contracted. Most major cities that had two daily newspapers now only have one, and even one-newspaper markets have begun going less-than-daily or even completely paperless.

The remaining herd of staff editorial cartoonists (numbering in the hundreds a generation ago but now down to less than two dozen, with an average age inching up to around sixty) has thinned to the point that perhaps the gene pool is simply no longer robust or diverse enough to remain viable.

At the same time, less and less has been demanded of the profession. Mid-century newspaper editorial cartoonists once drew political cartoons on a daily basis, and even contributed spot illustrations and special features regularly (witness the herculean efforts of Billy Ireland, whose output for small-market Columbus, Ohio would match any five cartoonists practicing today). Since the 1980s, however, few editorial cartoonists have offered more than three daily cartoons plus Sunday, such have been the arduous demands of the political muse; the craft, for some inexplicable reason, became a part-time job.

It also became a phone-it-in line of work, literally. With the scanner and the modem, more and more cartoonists worked from suburban homes or gentrified urban neighborhoods, venturing into the downtown office only rarely. (The romantic picture of a cartoonist at a drawing board wielding a bottle of India ink and crowquill in the middle of a bustling newsroom probably wasn’t even true in 1910, let alone by end of the twentieth century.)

Megaton Man almost meets The Donald in Megaton Man #10 (Kitchen Sink Press, July 1986). ™ and © Don Simpson 2018, all rights reserved.
By the same token, more and more cartoonists won the right to start their own websites, widening their audiences by increasing easy access, but at the same time no longer motivating readers to pick up a printed newspaper. This perk no doubt kept cartoonists happy while compensating for fewer raises and even cuts to their newspaper paychecks, but it also exacerbated the erosion of loyalty between home newspapers and their respective cartoonists.

Syndicates provided newspapers with easy and cheap (and often a better selection of) cartoons on national issues; at the same time, local cartoonists, eyeing potential syndication revenue, sought to maximize their income by devoting more and more of their energy to national issues, and less and less to local themes. A cartoon devoted to city politics or regional issues came to be viewed as anathema to the current generation – a wasted drawing.
One recently-discharged editorial cartoonist characterized his fellow practitioners of this dying art form as "canaries in the coal mines," apparently oblivious to the fact that graphic art staff jobs have been disappearing by the hundreds of thousands for several decades. In fact, editorial cartoonists have been the last of a dying breed of analog artists to make steady paychecks while sitting at drawing boards. Most illustrators, designers, and cartoonists have been part-time freelancers - at best - for years, while other skilled jobs - from layout to type spec'ing to plate burning - have been wiped out by a toxic combination of digital technology and brute economics. Even in a journalistic sense, editorial cartoonists have hardly been "canaries"; rounds of buyouts and early retirements, not to mention shutdowns, have been a regular newsroom occurrence for years.
Thus local practitioners of editorial cartooning became at the same time cut off from the city newsrooms yet even more remote from nation’s capital and other power centers, the ostensible source of their inspiration. Editorial cartooning was reduced to an almost inaudible vibration in the media echo chamber, part of a nationalized feedback loop whose contributors were paradoxically marooned in irrelevant localities outside the beltway. Anyone with access to a few magazine subscriptions and NPR had the same sources of information (and inspiration) as the most clever editorial cartoonist working from the suburb across town, and had they sufficient drawing skills to produce the fashionable off-handed scrawl most contemporary cartoonists favor, could probably have come up with just as good or better observations.

Into this perfect storm strode Donald J. Trump, perhaps the most perfect foil for a political cartoonist since Richard M. Nixon. Cartoonists already instinctively driven to low-hanging fruit and the easy pot-shot have found such a trove of material in Trump and his cronies they couldn’t resist. But at the same time, they were dealing with a political phenomenon that made editorial cartooning irrelevant. Trump has been so polarizing, no thinking person has needed a cartoon to help them make up their mind.

Yet cartoonists have effectively gorged themselves to death at the Trump trough. Staff positions that haven’t dematerialized for purely economic reasons have succumbed to the “broken record” syndrome: drawings that are ugly, depressing, and utterly monotonous in their dead-horse-beating humorlessness. What rationale does a local newspaper have to keep a one-note, one-issue “voice” that only wants to speak about one thing to a national audience outside the reach of its local or regional distribution, especially when that voice is only screeching at one unmodulated pitch all the time?

While Stephen Colbert can summarize the latest Trump atrocities in a daily five-minute monologue before moving onto other entertainments, the poor editorial cartoonist could fill an entire newspaper page every day and still not scratch the surface of the trove of Trump material – and could cover reams of Bristol board before finding anything funny - let alone uplifting - about any of it. On top of which, carefully hand-crafting three or four anti-Trump cartoons per week has come to seem an almost absurdly painstaking and paltry response to a buffoon who generates three or four national emergencies per hour.

The paradox of 2019 may well be that we will witness the final demise of a once-proud art form, one that hasn’t probably hasn’t been vital or viable in more than a generation, in what - on paper - should have been a Renaissance or Golden Age. Future historians will ponder the precise reasons while those of us alive today will hardly have noticed.

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