I would say that the most cheerful people in America right now are the political cartoonists, who met last week at Hofstra University for the annual gathering of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC), except that these are people who as a matter of personal inclination and professional pride are not cheerful. They spend much of their time on that very fine line between skepticism and cynicism as they perform artistic alchemy, turning the baser materials of the news into insightful and often comic gold, and working in four professions at once: journalist, columnist, satirist, and artist.
The cartoonists do have a lot to be almost-cheerful about these days, with a political landscape overflowing with made-for-caricature issues, personalities, and scandals and an expanding audience via social media. But many of them face their own precarious situations, with, in one’s words, “newspapers being shot out from under us.” Politico’s Matt Wuerker said, “It's the best of times…. and the worst of times for political cartoonists. Never before has the audience for cartoons been so big, so instantaneous and so international. The barriers to publishing and spreading good cartoons have never been so low. At the same time the traditional host for political cartoons, the daily newspaper, is withering away beneath many cartoonists who had stable platforms and steady income in that older model for the profession. The AAEC meetings are a great opportunity for the cartoon tribe to get together and discuss the challenges of the new media landscape, compare notes of successful new models and embrace the future of cartooning.”
The sessions began with discussions of the Supreme Court decisions that give cartoonists the right to engage fearlessly with the people they cover. Roslyn Mazer, the lawyer who represented the AAEC as "a friend of the Court” (amicus) in the defamation suit over an unabashedly offensive satirical piece about Jerry Falwell in Hustler magazine. Mazer told the group that many of the more established media companies did not want the suit to go to the Supreme Court, urging that they “fight another day with a more attractive litigant.”
For her brief, she asked the then-members of the AAEC to send her “cartoons that would make their subjects cry” to prove to the court that allowing robust debate was exactly what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they put freedom of speech and freedom of the press at the top of the Bill of Rights. She decided to omit one about then-Chief Justice Rehnquist himself, though years later when she told him, he laughed and said she should have included it.
To make the point that no public figure is off limits, even the man on whose behalf the brief had been filed, Mazer concluded her remarks with a cartoon published after the Supreme Court issued its 9-0 decision in favor of satire as an indispensable element of political discourse: Pat Oliphant’s caricature of Flynt as a “strictly satirical” pig. “We’re there to give them the great gift of offense,” said British cartoonist Martin Rowson.
That gift is not always welcome. A sobering presentation by international cartoonists bore a warning: no disclosure of the participants’ names, images, or comments. They risk prison or worse by criticizing those in power. I can report that they received a rousing standing ovation.
On other panels, discussions included editors who provide strong support (Matt Davies told us that Newsday has a “designated flack-taker” to answer the phone) and those who don’t (”that’s not our fight,” an editor said about putting the prophet Mohammed in a cartoon). Digital media has provided “new ways in which we can talk about things very fast” without any editorial interference, and it has provided a place to reach niche audiences. Sites like Patreon allow a cartoonist to make a living even with as few as a thousand fans willing to pay $100 a year. But cartoonists without institutional support are vulnerable to trolls, bullies, and lawsuits.
As they seek other outlets and support systems, cartoonists are expanding into graphic novels, children’s books, and journalism via panel drawings and text. The need for more diversity in cartoonists and their subjects came up more than once, including comments about making the “universal person” in a cartoon something other than a white male, with women or people of color appearing even when their gender or ethnicity was not the point of the cartoon. But they acknowledged that “it is a challenge not to let it become the subject matter.”
Students from Hofstra University and a local high school joined the cartoonists for some sessions, including one where The Economist’s KAL taught everyone how to draw Donald Trump in five steps. He also explained the vocabulary of a political cartoon, from traditional symbols like the Democratic donkey and Republican elephant or Uncle Sam to brand-new technology like gifs and video sent out by tweet.
The most enthusiastic response and the loudest laughter came at the final panel, featuring four of MAD Magazine’s Usual Gang of Idiots, including the legendary Al Jaffee, still creating his famous “fold-ins” for the back cover after six decades. Art Director Sam Viviano showed slides of MAD political satire going back to the McCarthy hearings and cover icon Alfred E. Neuman’s first mock Presidential run in 1956, Spy vs. Spy’s “surreal elegance” in parodying the Cold War, and “East Side Story,” with Mort Drucker’s drawings of Nikita Khrushchev and Adlai Stevenson. Their first depiction of Donald Trump (as “Forrest Trump”) was in 1995, and every President since Kennedy except for Ford has been on the cover. MAD’s pomposity-deflating take on politics and culture has inspired “Saturday Night Live,” “The Daily Show,” and dozens of other snarky takes on the news. Plus everyone in the room.
The MAD panel was bittersweet. After 65 years in New York City, the magazine is moving to LA with a new editor and staff. The only one staying on is 96-year-old Jaffee.