What sort of cartoonist?

April 8, 2010 in Comment

Bloghorn_cartoonists ©http://thebloghorn.org for the UK Professional Cartoonists’ Organisation http://www.procartoonists.orgBill Stott writes for Bloghorn about different sorts of cartoonist:

The UK boasts quite a few inventive, informed and highly skilled political cartoonists many of whom don’t fool easily and must be the bane of leader writers’ lives in their ability to prove that the picture is often worth more than words.

However – don’t you love the word  cartoonist? It usually presages a disagreement, and here is a head above the parapet.

Peter Brookes, of the Times, was recently named “Cartoonist of the Year” [read it here – Ed]. I wouldn’t have started digging this hole if the title had been “Political Cartoonist of the Year” because that is essential and its remit is admirably fulfilled, not least by Mr Brookes. But political cartooning is only part of the whole picture of cartooning.

The vast majority of cartoonists in the UK are not political cartoonists. Logic suggests that, because this majority has not just politics to lampoon but the whole of life as we know it, Jim.

So, I think there’s a problem. The usually non-political joke or gag cartoonist is disappearing fast from newspapers. Quite a few publications are buying in cheap syndicated stuff which struggles to be relevant. Recently a long-established Welsh newspaper dropped its regular gag and used a Canadian cartoon poking fun at Obama’s healthcare reforms instead. Cheaper, but hardly relevant and deeply unfunny to boot.

Stalwart magazines like Private Eye, the Oldie, Prospect and the Spectator do what they can, but they can only run so many cartoons. The UK’s never been big on nationally recognised cartoon users and nowadays Punch, and more recently Readers’ Digest, are either memories or at risk.

The cavalier way newspapers and many magazines presently ignore good joke cartoons makes the political cartoonist into a sort of protected species, and suggests that editors only think a cartoon is funny or useful if its got a very direct political subject.

So, long live our superb political cartoonists. Long live awards for our political cartoonists. But call the award “Political Cartoonist of the Year”. Otherwise folk might get the idea that political cartooning is THE only cartooning form.

Bloghorn agrees that variety is key to good cartooning. After all, it’s drawing life, innit? This also applies to where cartoons are seen and it doesn’t just have to be on pieces of dead tree.

27 responses to What sort of cartoonist?

  1. I agree with the thrust of your argument, Bill (there’s more to cartooning than political cartooning), and I have enormous sympathy with the plight of gag cartoonists in the current climate of shrinking markets (though there are new ones emerging within the ‘new media’), but three thoughts spring to mind.

    First, ‘political cartoonist’ is a bit of a misnomer in itself – they address far more than politics (although naturally, at the moment, you wouldn’t think so). ‘Topical’ would be a better description, or the more usual ‘editorial’, but this breed covers far more than politics alone, and indeed anything that affects current issues in life is fair game for their gun sights.

    Second, the editorial cartoonist is a relatively endangered species in itself, with far, far fewer gracing the national dailies than a decade or two ago.

    Third, and it’s a question I have to ask, would you or any other gag cartoonist bat so much as an eyelid had this award, or similarly titled one, been made to a gag cartoonist? Yes indeed, there are many types of cartoonist, and I confess to being a little disappointed that your piece focusses on only two of them. And the unintentional irony of your final sentence brought a huge wry grin to my face, as it paraphrases one of my own regular war-cries, except that my concern has always been directed at gag cartoonists, and not on their behalf.

  2. Final sentence still stands, Steve. The danger of mentioning this at all is that it might imply that I don’t rate political cartooning, which is nonsense, but you never know who’s out there. My point was – still is- that excellent political cartooning will apparently always make it in the present climate over cartooning per se – not the fault of the political cartoonists, but the beancounting tunnel vision of editors who think that the Obama Health Reforms are going to ring bells on the Gower Peninsula. Same goes for the Observer.

  3. I fail to see any real distinction between political and gag cartoonists: almost all gags are based on the current reality, which is shaped by politics, and a political cartoon is useless without a joke at its heart. They’re two ends of the spectrum – most of us are somewhere in between.

  4. Bill, I’m not sure where you’re getting the idea that there is an eager market for political cartooning from – it’s in global decline, every bit as much as gag cartooning is, if not more so. Have a look across The Pond in particular to see where the trend is going. I certainly don’t see any overwhelming evidence that gag cartoons are giving way to political cartoons on some alarming scale.

    The replacement of any kind of UK cartoon with non-UK syndicated content is another matter altogether, and I see that as regretful and possibly short-sighted, but it is certainly not benefiting UK political cartoonists over gag cartoonists in any way either.

    Yes, of course your final sentence stands, and I’m all for clearer definitions of these things, but I’ve heard so many suggestions from gag cartoonists that theirs is THE legitimate form of cartooning to which all others look up to, that to have the tables turned in any way made me smile a little.

    I feel for ALL cartoonists. I used to be a comic cartoonist when there were dozens of quality publications out there, providing plentiful work for some very talented people. Now there are two, and they use more and more reprints. My erstwhile colleagues have had to adapt or die over the past 20 years. A few have managed that, many have not. Their misfortune is now being mirrored by the plight of not only gag cartoonists, but by us all.

    There is still work out there, but the requirements are changing, and we need to be able to adapt to meet them. I keep thinking of the farmers who are now (some of them) making small fortunes out of their creative use of land that once harvested crops, but now is lucratively littered with golf balls, or quad bike treks, fun mazes, adventure playparks, etc. Changing the name of an award or two may clarify things and eradicate a little frustration and annoyance, but it doesn’t begin to address the real problem.

    I agree with Andrew on this. We’re all in this together and drawing any kinds of distinction isn’t helpful. I’m no longer a comic cartoonist, nor a politcal/editorial cartoonist. I have been a gag cartoonist (although not a spec gag cartoonist), caricature cartoonist, commercial business cartoonist, book illustrating cartoonist, and a few others I could make names up for. But these days I will turn my drawing hand to anything that is asked of me, and I’m enjoying the job and its variety more than ever. I’m a cartoonist, I am!

  5. I think Bill has touched on something when he says people think cartooning IS political cartooning.

    I do, primarily, gag cartoons. But when I tell people I’m a cartoonist they think it’s all about politics and say things like, “Oh, there’s lots of material around for you right now” or “I bet you have to keep up on current events”. I do, of course, but it is not as though that is all I draw cartoons about.

    Some of my gags are about the minutiae of life, often unrelated to politics, or are simply off-the-wall, sometimes surreal. I disagree, Andrew, that “all gags are based on the current reality, which is shaped by politics”. Does this cartoon fit that descripton?: http://is.gd/blKaL It is these kind of gag cartoons that are becoming lesser-seen these days.

    I don’t think anyone is saying that political/editorial cartoons are thriving, Steve, simply that they are increasingly being seen as the be all and end all of cartoons by many editors, and often by the public.

  6. Its all to do with relative exposure.

  7. I’d suggest that political cartooning gets more exposure because, in editors’ minds, it performs a journalistic function. It’s an easily-digested form of political reporting to an audience that tends towards political apathy.

  8. Yes Bill, it is – and one of the keys for cartoonists is to learn how to sell their work in the digital world – direct and probably without a third-party publisher.

  9. Point taken, Royston. I still hold that most gags have a topical reference, though. Nice joke, by the way!

  10. Royston, you missed out the crucial word “almost” in your quote from Andrew.

    David hits the nail on the head I think, though I’m sure that will be no comfort to gag cartoonists. There ought to be a healthy market for both, but if the choice comes down to conveying comment or giving the readers a laugh, most editors will probably feel duty bound in going for the former. Sadly, more and more are going for neither, in terms of cartooning.

  11. Thanks Andrew, that was a gag where I was more than a little surprised that it did sell because it is so non-political, and Prospect is largely a political magazine. Good on them for thinking outside the usual parameters with their cartoons.

    Steve, that edit wasn’t deliberate – more a result of over over-enthusiasm to respond! The point remains that it isn’t all or *almost* all cartoons that are political/topical, though it might appear so looking at the output of UK magazines and newspapers.

    And yes David has hit the nail on the head. It’s down to the usual British mistrust of humour i.e. it’s OK to have a laugh if there’s some “deeper”, more serious meaning but not just to joke for joking’s sake.

  12. Er, I just meant over-enthusiasm, rather than “over over-enthusiasm” !

  13. Nowt wrong with being over over-enthusiastic, Royston. I have to say that to actually suggest that there is a “mistrust” of humour is a rather bizarre thought, and one I have seen no evidence of on a general scale. With cartooning, I see no distrust, merely un underestimation of how effective and valuable cartooning can be to any publication that uses it. I think humour is widely recognised as a great way to sell things – most of the best advertising campaigns employ it with relish. It’s getting editors to realise that cartoons are great providers of humour, and not some expendable resource to ditch before anything else when the purse strings are tightened – that is the trick. I don’t think for a second that editors feel that the presence of cartoons might lose them readers. The trouble is that unless those readers go after the cartoons are droppped, there is nothing to tell them they were wrong to drop them.

    Whatever the truth of the matter, I’m not sure highlighting one branch of cartooning against another does us any favours.

  14. That should have been “an underestimation”, although there’s nowt wrong with un underestimation either.

  15. > Whatever the truth of the matter, I’m not sure highlighting one branch of cartooning against another does us any favours.

    It has created this useful and informative comment thread.

  16. I guess that depends on your view of it, Matt. Mine would be more introspective than informative, and possibly more potentially divisive than useful, my own part in it included.

  17. Steve, what I mean about mistrust of humour is that it is often seen as having no worth. So film comedies never win the big awards, bands that incorporate humour in their music are looked down upon by critics etc.

    The humour that *is* seen as OK is that which has some darker undertone or some “serious” point behind it. Hence political cartoons are seen as having more worth than gag cartoons.

    It’s not about highlighting one branch of cartooning against another, as much as highlighting the fact that non-political joke cartoons, a very distinct branch of cartoons, are being marginalised.

  18. Royston’s put it better than I did. Pure gag cartooning IS being marginalised. Its not recognized as an art form by art ctritics. Political cartooning is. My original comments were not intended to be in any way divisive. I had hoped for more comment from non-cartoonists, which may have , amongst other things, told us to shut up and go get a proper job.

  19. Shut up and get a proper job, Bill. They need a sweeper-up and blood-swiller at the slaughterhouse, 5 a.m. shift.

  20. Putting this in context, this was the UK Press Awards and whilst there were numerous journalist category awards and winners (business, sport, columnist, young, travel etc) I suspect that there was only the one ‘cartoonist’ category award up for grabs. This probably says more about how the cartoonist is regarded within the press industry so we should be grateful that there was a category for ‘Cartoonist of the Year’ at all.

  21. Or sad and concerned that its remit was so narrow and specific.

  22. I still strongly agree with Bill that the category should be more clearly defined, with either “political” or “editorial” preceding the word “cartoonist”, but I don’t agree that this is about political cartoons being regarded as “art”, whilst others are not. It is far more about political cartoons being regarded as journalistic (topical and informative) rather than just pure entertainment, which most other forms of cartooning are. This means that gag cartoons and strip cartoons are basically lumped in with recipes and horoscopes, and neither of those will ever have an awards category either. Yes, that’s hugely frustrating, and I don’t like that any more than any other cartoonist, but there is a certain logic to it being that way, in that newspapers like to think of themselves as doing far more than just entertaining their customers. As Pete says, we can perhaps feel glad that they at least recognise editorial cartooning as having that extra function.

    I think there may even be an argument for caricaturists (those that produce them to accompany newspaper articles) may feel more aggrieved than other cartoonists over being omitted from this category, since they too are usually involved in journalistic reporting and topicality, but then often they are the same bod that does the editorial cartoons anyway.

  23. A visit to this year’s Shrewsbury International Cartoon Festival (http://www.shrewsburycartoonfestival.com) will enable the public to see gag, political and editorial cartoons, caricatures and some comic book cartooning with exhibitions, talks, workshops, clinics and live drawing by the exponents of the art form in its various guises.

    The public will see the diversity and breadth of cartooning talent that exists in this country.

  24. The term ‘comment cartoonist’ seems to be more in vogue than ‘political cartoonist’ these days. And it’s probably a more accurate description of the job in hand,ie, commenting on the news stories of the day (and not exclusively from the world of politics).

  25. It’s accurate, but it’s not very exciting, Pete. I think those who ca demonstrate a particular proficiency in at least three of the main disciplines of cartooning ought to be able to call themselves a super-cartoonist. As Roger points out in such an eloquent and timely fashion, Shrewsbury will shortly be awash with super-cartoonists!

  26. But rather fewer editors.

  27. The distinction drawn above by David S – that editorial/political/comment cartoons can be classed as “journalistic” – is important in the way these cartoons are seen. The fact that this sector has traditionally included serious, non-funny drawing has led, over the decades, to a different view of editorial work, allowing for much beard-scraping, nodding approval and furrowing of high brows. I personally agree with Steve B (and probably most cartoonists) on this; I don’t think this kind of comment is a higher art than humour.

    However, other factors are at play; some of the gag cartoon work published by newspapers – I exclude periodical magazines from this – over the decades has allowed the form to become degraded, partially because of the erosion of fees paid for speculative gag work leading to the best gag cartoonists exiting the arena. Tabloid readers might be forgiven for thinking that all gag cartoons were of the “fierce wife with rolling pin” or “desert island” variety. Great gag cartoonists do still exist (and some even thrive), but it is far more difficult for them to do so.

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