Editorial Cartoons' Golden Age
The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

By Dave Astor (*)
Editorial cartoons are looking better than ever because of color, animation, and other enhancements. But this "golden age" is tarnished by the loss of staff jobs and all the unpaid extra work required of tired cartoonists.

Ann Telnaes drew an anti-"surge" cartoon last week showing George W. Bush at a podium attached to a treadmill. As the fitness-obsessed President ran in place, one could clearly see that the treadmill's treads were flag-draped coffins of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq.

This color drawing was so compelling in concept and design that it got chosen as "Editorial Cartoon of the Month" in E&P's upcoming February print issue. And Telnaes' creation reminded me that the editorial-cartooning profession is simultaneously experiencing a golden age and a sad era.

The golden-age part of that equation has a lot to do with the way editorial cartoons look these days.

There have always been exceptionally well-drawn cartoons (by the late Jeff MacNelly, for example) along with hard-hitting cartoons (by the late Herblock, among others). Today, a good percentage of cartoons are also artistically adept and/or hard-hitting (Bush's disastrous presidency certainly makes a good target).

The difference in the current decade is all the color and other computer-aided enhancements readers are seeing. Indeed, some editorial cartoons now look so good it's hard to believe they're created in less than a day.

A by-no-means-comprehensive list of the best artists includes Telnaes (Cartoonists & Writers Syndicate/New York Times Syndicate), Nick Anderson (Houston Chronicle/Washington Post Writers Group), Mike Thompson (Detroit Free Press/Copley News Service), Clay Bennett (Christian Science Monitor/Christian Science Monitor News Service), and Paul Combs (Tribune Media Services).

On top of that, a small but growing group of cartoonists are doing great-looking political animations for their newspapers' Web sites. They include Nick Anderson, Mike Thompson, Walt Handelsman (Newsday/TMS), Matt Davies (The Journal News, White Plains, N.Y./TMS), and The Orange County Register team of Mike Shelton and Jocelyne Leger (Shelton is syndicated by King Features). Also, former newspaper cartoonist Mark Fiore self-syndicates political animations.

In short, visual commentary in print newspapers, online newspapers, and in syndication may have never been more pleasing to the eyes.

But then there's that aforementioned sad era. The number of staff editorial cartoonist positions at U.S. dailies has plummeted from about 200 several decades ago to perhaps 80 today, as newspapers cut costs and/or shy away from possibly offending their more sensitive readers, advertisers, and local politicians.

Most of the remaining cartoonists are working very long hours. Many color their cartoons, some animate their cartoons, some create graphics, and a number have launched blogs. They're doing all this partly for the creative satisfaction and partly in the hopes that multitasking will make them more layoff-proof.

Meanwhile, newspapers are profiting from the labor of these exhausted cartoonists, which is hardly fair.

Of course, there's the fantasy that newspapers will one day pay their cartoonists extra for the extra work. There's also the fantasy that newspapers not employing cartoonists will notice the impressive output of other papers' cartoonists and hire cartoonists of their own.

Don't bet the house on those two things happening. But, in the meantime, enjoy some of the best art you'll see outside of a museum.

(*)Dave Astor (dastor@editorandpublisher.com)
is a senior editor at E&P.

--> This article originally appeared on Editor & Publisher

--> Below are links to the work of cartoonists mentioned in this column:

Ann Telnaes

-- Nick Anderson
-- Mike Thompson
-- Clay Bennett
-- Paul Combs
-- Walt Handelsman
-- Matt Davies
-- Mike Shelton/Jocelyne Leger
-- Mark Fiore