Who killed the editorial cartoon?

Kirk Anderson self-portrait
Kirk Anderson was the Pioneer Press editorial cartoonist for eight years, before drawing the weekly "Banana Republic" for the Star Tribune.

The profession of editorial cartooning isn't so much dying as it is simply entering a new phase in the the circle of life -- the phase where the corpse is eaten by maggots and turned into dirt.

This nutrient-rich soil will help future generations of satire to grow and prosper, and the cycle continues. Pessimists are fond of looking at maggot-infested corpses and seeing only the negative; I see helpful maggots hell-bent on progress.

Motivational speakers remind us that the Sanskrit word for "opportunity" is the same as the one for "loss of job, profession, life savings and health care." We editorial cartoonists know that when one window closes, another one opens, even if it leads onto the ledge of the 41st floor.

True, cartoonists are just above mimes and poets in social significance; is the nation really losing anything?

Editorial cartoons used to have power and influence. This was back in the days of Thomas Nast, when the corrupt politician Boss Tweed famously said of Nast's blasts, "Stop them damn pictures! I don't care what the papers write about me. My constituents can't read. But, damn it, they can see the pictures!" (True quote.) Editorial cartoons might still carry such power today, were it not for the destructive rise in literacy.

But now there is enormous competition for the public's attention. Back in the late 1800s, if you weren't looking at an editorial cartoon, you were checking out hog scrapers in the Sears-Roebuck catalog. This was back when people went to church just for something to do, as preachers were about the only available form of entertainment next to bear-baiting.

Editorial cartoons must have spoken to people like a burning bush. Today we find a burning bush in every commercial, a burning train wreck on every news broadcast and an inferno on every AM radio show. An editorial cartoon must blow up bridges, flash breasts and teach your child Spanish, just to be noticed.

Editorial cartooning history
The first editorial cartoon was Benjamin Franklin's famous "Join or Die" image, which used a snake to represent the 13 colonies. Less well-known is his original version, which was killed by his editor. "Why not try something less cute?" his editor suggested. Satire must have been hallowed by the American Revolutionaries, since they made sure at least one of the Founding Fathers was an editorial cartoonist. (By Kirk Anderson)
Public domain/Kirk Anderson

Or maybe not. People still read books. Books! Some books are still in black and white, and some don't even have pictures.

Similarly, people still enjoy live stand-up comedy. In a world where we demand the latest and the fastest, people still pay to see a mortal simply stand on stage and talk to them. Just a guy.

No different from Caveman Dave telling stories around the campfire. We've had satire ever since Cavewoman Bernice drew a buffalo stampede on a cave wall, trampling Caveman Dave. We will always have and will always need satire, whether it comes in a 2D drawing or a Zenga Bot X9000.

One of my favorite editorial cartoons is George Orwell's "Animal Farm," which is not an editorial cartoon at all in the traditional sense, but an editorial cartoon in the form of a novel, with its brilliant use of metaphor, humor, insight and outrage.

Satire may come in the form of Mark Twain, Jonathan Swift, Shakespeare or Stephen Colbert's scorching and divine presentation at the White House correspondents' dinner.

We satirists in the editorial cartoonist cult have long referred to ourselves as "buggy-whip makers," with newspapers playing the role of buggies. That would be a problem, if the death of the horse and buggy had rendered the nation devoid of transportation.

But the horse and buggy were just one form of travel, and editorial cartoons are just one form of satire, to be replaced by something better when it comes along. Unless there's a government bailout.

I can hear you say, "Isn't the future of editorial cartoons online? And in animation? My neighbor's daughter has an online cartoon, and people in Belize and Lithuania are reading it."

The pessimists reply, "But how do you make money?" The optimists say, "Volume! Sure, people don't pay for content, but if enough people don't pay for content, surely you reach a critical mass of nonpaying customers!" The pessimists say, "People don't pay for content."

Editorial cartoons are dying because newspapers are dying, or perhaps "adapting." Or "entering a new phase in the circle of life." Some of the damage is self-inflicted. Some newspapers want safe cartoons that won't bring phone calls from advertisers, and safe cartoons are as fascinating as safe NASCAR.

To the extent we cartoonists oblige, self-censor and draw nonthreatening gag cartoons about swilling beers at the White House, we're part of the problem and deserve our enforced dirt nap.

Life will go on without editorial cartoons, just as it will without bank regulation. The death of newspapers is not so different from the death of any other commodity: eight-track tapes, perhaps.

That is, if eight-track tapes were fundamental to a functioning democracy.


Kirk Anderson was the Pioneer Press editorial cartoonist for eight years, before drawing the weekly "Banana Republic" for the Star Tribune. You can find samples of his work, and a book of "Banana Republic," at www.MolotovComix.com and www.kirktoons.com.

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