Friday, August 17, 2012

Drawing the line

Vancouver-based writer and cartoonist Geoff Olson examines the present state of editorial cartooning in the August issue of Common Ground.

Dave Rosen knows a thing or two about humour. In 2011, the Montreal-based satirist released The Stephen Harper Colouring & Activity Book. For five years, he wrote and produced a weekly comedy spot for CBC Radio called What Happened? For nine years, he was the regular editorial cartoonist for the English alt-weekly the Montreal Mirror. His last cartoon for the publication was of Quebec premier Jean Charest on the beach, holding a seashell to his ear and hearing the clang of pots and pans.

Dave Rosen, Montreal Mirror

The cartoon appeared on June 21 of this year. The next day, the parent company Quebecor pulled the plug on its publication. Rosen discovered through Facebook he was now without a steady cartooning gig, for the first time in 20 years.

“Seven full-time jobs vanished, dozens of freelancers suddenly no longer had rent money,” he wrote on his blog. The corporate move was a bit of a puzzle to the satirist and his fellow expendables. Just a month earlier, Transcontinental discontinued its struggling Montreal alt-weekly the Hour, which was already down to a single editor and a single freelance columnist. “So for all intents and purposes, the Mirror had the Anglo alt weekly market to itself. And the paper, though it wasn’t pulling in the advertising bucks it once did, looked healthy and viable. But not viable enough for Quebecor.”

Rosen’s parent company cited the growing popularity of digital media for its decision to close shop at the Mirror. “Of course, it that were true, you’d think they’d have developed the paper as an online platform and held onto the sweet demographic that made up its readership (primarily 20 and 30-somethings) for its advertisers.”

These are the kind of stories that unnerve people who make a living poking fun at authority figures. If the axe can fall in such a commercially counterintuitive way on two print publications in Montreal – a city arguably the Canadian epicentre for arts, culture and street-level agitation – what hope is there for other “content creators” across Harperland? Will the bean-counting Dementors descend on them next?

Things look rather grim across the media landscape, but is the light at the end of tunnel a train or a glowing formation of digital tablets? Editorial cartooning may be a disposable art form with a short shelf life, but its continuing existence may be one gauge of a functioning free press.

Last June, over 50 cartoonists from both sides of the border gathered in Montreal for a conference of the ACEC (Association of Canadian Editorial Cartoonists). The four-day event was organized by the grey eminence of Canadian cartooning, Terry Mosher (“Aislin”), his wife Mary Hughson and freelance cartoonist Wes Tyrell. Museum curators, archivists, academics ad publishers gave presentations, as did political figures Gilles Duceppe, Justin Trudeau and Paul Martin. The event was marked by fine words, good food and excellent company.

There was also talk about the changing fortunes in the newspaper industry. Although a number of the gathered ‘content providers’ are clinging by their fingernails to their regular gigs, they consider themselves a bit better off than their colleagues in the US, where there’s been a decade-long war of attrition on newsroom staff.

With some notable exceptions, US editorial cartoonists churn out material with a homogenous, Pulitzer-seeking style. In contrast, Canadian editorial cartoonists, like our homegrown stand-up comics, are outsiders on the periphery of Empire, which may account for our idiosyncratic styles of drawing. The Francophone element also contributes to this distinction. Quebecers recognize that beaux-arts and belly laughs are not mutually exclusive. Hence the honours and awards heaped upon Quebec-based cartoonists like Aislin and Serge Chapleau, who are regarded by fans as living institutions.

A summery of testimonies at the Gomery Commission (Serge Chapleau in La Presse)

I drew my first political cartoon in primary school in 1972, as part of an assignment in current events class. My subject was the Nixon administration’s carpet-bombing of Cambodia and I portrayed Tricky Dick as a scowling bird of prey with a laurel of peace in his beak, sitting on a large, black egg with the tailfins of a bomb. I like to think my published work over the years has made a small difference, if only to give readers a break from the media’s daily disaster-feed. Most cartoonists share this sentiment, yet we worry that graphic novelists and CGI animators are the tree shrews and that we’re the dinosaurs, waiting for the fatal meteor strike from the accounting department.

Aislin, whose white hair and penetrating gaze gives him the demeanour of a large barn owl, dismisses the idea of an approaching Permian extinction event for scribblers. A staffer with Montreal’s Gazette since the early seventies, he predicts that online publications will replace newsprint entirely in another three to five years. Yet he also believes that political cartooning will continue to survive online. He likens the transition to “moving from a rickety old house to a brand new condo – with a spectacular river view! The only problem (as with all new media) is this: How do we pay the mortgage?”

Monetization problems aside, the full-colour, political cartoon’s immediate hit of infotainment seems like a perfect fit for smart phones and tablets. Last year, a small collection of BC activists threw together the massively popular website, a pre-election compilation of Tory offences accompanied by a simple drawing of Harper fondling a kitten like a James Bond villain (based on an actual Tory promo photo).

Like Aislin, Vancouver’s Province cartoonist Dan Murphy is a “long run optimist” on the future of political cartoons. He points to the case of Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist David Horsey, who was staff cartoonist at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer when its print version collapsed. Horsey then got a call from the L.A. Times, asking him to become their exclusive web cartoonist.

L.A. Times had a hunch,” Murphy observes. “Cartoons are pop in papers so they’re likely to be pop on papers’ websites. The Horsey web-only cartoon gets the most web hits on the site now. Ditto Aislin’s at the Gazette’s site. And, with the last couple of Photoshop versions, you can cobble together an animation – soundtrack, imported vid and movie steals, cartoons/text that moves – easily enough and convert that into a website bit.”

Software tools like Flash can extend and amplify the artist’s vision for a wider audience. Murphy’s most well known creation appeared online rather than offline: a mashup of a current Enbridge television advertisement, with animated oil spills interrupting scenes of a petroleum-based paradise in British Columbia. After Murphy’s parody was pulled off the Province website, it took off on YouTube. As of late July, it had been viewed 54,089 times. In contrast, the original commercial posted to YouTube by the pipeline company had a mere 2,630 hits.

Malcolm Mayes, Edmonton Journal

According to the Edmonton Journal, “editorial cartoons by the Journal’s Malcolm Mayes attract more page views than any other piece of content on the website.” So why don’t publishers put their cartoonists’ work front and centre online? Although editors vary in temperament, editorial cartooning seems to be endured rather than encouraged by management. Perhaps one problem is that the political sentiments of the average Canadian caricaturist lie somewhere between Stéphane Dion and Jane Fonda, while the editorial position of many Canadian newspapers ranges somewhere between Barbara Amiel and Genghis Khan.

Given today’s political and economic climate, what should be the purpose of the contemporary editorial cartoon? “Foremost – a means of dissent,” Dan Murphy replied by email. “States, corporations, institutional political parties have big budgets for promotions, can erect big PR statues to try to legitimize their vision. A political cartoon is graffiti around the base of those statues. The wittier, the funnier – the more memorable, the more powerful.”

Rosen, the former cartoonist for the Montreal Mirror, is more skeptical of the editorial cartoon’s prospects. “Dan Murphy’s [Enbridge] experience, while it shows how a good satirist can draw attention to hypocrisy by speaking truth to power, also demonstrates how fragile is our right to speak out, dependent as it is on media outlets that focus on the bottom line above all else.”

Dave Rosen, Montreal Mirror

Rosen independently came up with the same tagging metaphor as Murphy, but with a different angle. “As newspapers disappear, so too does that little soapbox on the editorial page reserved for cartoonists. That independent voice, which so dangerously uses wit and ridicule to make its points, is in danger of extinction. I think some form of visual satire will always exist in human society, as it always has. But in the future it may be relegated to partisan websites and the undersides of highway overpasses, like so much impotent graffiti.”

Professional scribblers have long had the most leeway in the newsroom. If the editorial writers and columnists are the courtiers, then cartoonists are the court fools. (For that reason, the annual compilation of the best Canadian political cartoons is called Portfoolio.) Editors and cartoonists collude in the notion that they are just trafficking in harmless humour and for the most part they are. Occasionally, a sharp, well-constructed cartoon can act as a graphic lightning rod for public opinion, but if there’s a golden age for the art form, it’s either long gone or yet to come.

By the late seventies, the baton of public satire had been handed to the edgy minds behind Saturday Night Live, SCTV and National Lampoon. Today’s culture of snark is dominated by late-night TV and its current masters Stewart and Colbert, whose fast-paced, joke-stuffed programs outshine old-school newsprint through sheer, McLuhanesque megawattage. Even the editorial cartoon itself has become a target of parody: the satirical online newspaper The Onion regularly features an op-ed travesty by a mock Tea Party reactionary, who spoon-feeds the reader with clumsy, clichéd drawings.

According to a recent report in the Columbia Journalism Review, “six companies dominate TV news, radio, online, movies and publishing. Another eight or nine control most of the nation’s newspapers.” The media consolidation is even more advanced in Canada, with a handful of megacorporations doling out the bulk of the nation’s infotainment. Needless to say, this pattern of vertical integration doesn’t help advance independent thinking in journalism. You’d have to look very hard to find a cartoon critical of the media monopoly it appears in, or any of its subsidiaries.

Not surprisingly, for organizations that depend on ad revenue, there are institutional pressures to keep the laughs within mutually understood boundaries. Every cartoonist develops a second sense about which ideas his or her editor will accept or reject. The restrictions on free speech begin within the precincts of the cartoonist’s own skull. (The best satirists, like Aislin, skate the fine line between the sayable and unsayable.)

That unruly graphic beast that once helped bring down New York’s Boss Tweed during the first Gilded Age has been defanged and declawed in many North American publications. In other parts of the world, The Line King still has the power to disturb tyrants and their lackeys.

At a luncheon in Montreal, Richard Russell told ACEC members how he was working in community development projects in Sri Lanka when he heard the story of a cartoonist working for the nation’s last communist paper. He had “been beaten and stabbed and his house ransacked… all in front of his family,” Russell recalls. He reached the artist by phone in the hospital and asked what he could do. The man simply asked that if they killed him, to please take care of his children. At that point, Russell launched the Cartoonist Rights Network. The 20-year old organization, based in Washington, D.C. is still active.

From Syria to China and beyond, artists who make a sharp point about power sometimes invite the blunt force of the state. Russell was surprised to learn the story of ACEC member Shahid Mahmood, whose name was reportedly on a US no-fly list. The soft-spoken Muslim architect, who grew up in Pakistan and was cartoonist for Pakistan’s national newspaper Dawn, now lives in Toronto. He has received death-threats from Islamic fundamentalists for his depiction of the Taliban as Koran-reading apes, but it’s his savage cartoons denouncing US foreign policy that haven’t likely won him fans at the other end of the ideological spectrum. Mahmood says he was barred from a domestic Air Canada flight in 2004 and was interrogated by Interpol at an airport in Chile in 2011.

Official secrecy keeps him from learning the full details of his case, but he believes his ongoing surveillance began after his communications with the family of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter kidnapped and beheaded in Pakistan in 2002. “I’m shocked to learn this and we are dumbfounded that the American no-fly protocol can stumble its way into Canadian sovereignty quite so easily,” Russell said of Mahmood’s experience with Air Canada.

Canada has many fine cartoonists working at the top of their game and it would be as wrong to diminish their importance as to exaggerate their influence. The media landscape has never been more seismic, and long-standing traditions in journalism are crumbling on both sides of the border as the ground heaves. National Public Radio recently revealed that the Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Houston Chronicle and the Chicago Sun-Times had outsourced some of their local reporting to US content provider Journatic. The company employs 140 Filipino workers to retype police blotters, comb public records and reformat press releases, to be forwarded to a team of 200 US freelancers and 60 full-time staffers for assembling into stories. (Many reports from Journatic have appeared in print with fake bylines.) It’s not inconceivable that someday computer algorithms will replace outsourced workers in assembling simple news reports. Yet it seems doubtful there will ever be a “bot” capable of executing a worthwhile political cartoon, other than in the sense of killing it. It is simply too human a habit.

Mou, The Toronto Star

At an ACEC luncheon in Montreal, former Prime Minister Paul Martin spoke about the importance of political cartoonists and their work. “You people have the ability to reach Canadians in a way no one else does…. with your talent to draw and to make a point,” he told the audience. It was a gracious sentiment from a man who had been hammered like a loose plank by the nation’s scribblers. His remark offers a clue to the right place of this graphic art form in a healthy democracy: never at rest. It should always be suspended in a field of contending forces, between the creator’s imagination, the editor’s judgement and the target’s legal defences. When a political cartoonist’s name ends up on a no-fly list, it’s a sign this delicate democratic balance is under threat.

As of late July, Dave Rosen has spent almost a month looking for work in his field, while maintaining his blog ( “In that time, I have confirmed for myself the sad truth that no one wants to pay for editorial cartoons anymore,” he tells CG. “The websites I’ve approached simply won’t pay. They want free content, unfortunately because of precedents set by freelance writers who use the sites primarily for self-promotion.

“Thus it’s likely, at least for a while, I too will have to go the free route, if only to keep my work in front of the public. For how long and whether it will lead to paying work, that I can’t say. But I still have things to say, regardless.”

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