Exploiting the fervid political turbulence of the election season, this year’s convention was deliberately scheduled to take place September 13-15, after the nominating conventions of the two political parties, when the antics of editoonists at their drawing boards could become a public spectacle in the form of “A Festival Celebrating the Political Cartoon.” Staged in Washington, D.C. at the roiling center of the nation’s political perturbations, the convention by design invited the general public to attend certain events intended to showcase political cartooning, while providing amusement as well as insight into the subversive machinations of pandering politicians.
Punctuating the event with a suitably festive finale, the presidential suite was raided by the police on a noise abatement errand just after Bruce MacKinnon and the Toon Tones completed an exuberant performance of “Cartoon Blues.” Thus were the unruly ruled: thereafter, into the wee hours, knots and clusters of cartoonists resorted to whispering instead of shouting.
The timing and design of the convention were the concoction of AAEC President-Elect Matt Wuerker of Politico, and they were notably successful. Over 100 editorial cartoonists attended (107, to be exact), including 17 international visitors (from Qatar, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Palestinian territories, Egypt, Uzbekistan, Lebanon, and Morocco), plus spouses for a total of 125 registrants. Sale of tickets to public events attracted another 300 persons, tallying a record-setting 425 attendees (not all of whom were present all the time: the 300 ticket-holders came to only those events for which they held tickets).
Almost all of the public events took place at George Washington University on Friday and Saturday, but Thursday’s opening event, a panel discussion from the Left to the Right and back again, was held in the Madison Building of the Library of Congress at noon. Panelists were Lalo Alcaraz (Pocho.com and “La Cucaracha” comic strip), Ted Rall (Los Angeles Times), Steve Kelley (New Orleans Times-Picayune), and Scott Stantis (Chicago Tribune). The public audience included a dozen or so eighth graders from the nearby Capital Hill School, who witnessed illustrated talks from Alcaraz and Rall ridiculing the Right, plus more of the same, this time, championing the Right, from Kelley and Stantis.
Questions from the audience (among which were several canny adults as well as the attentive eighth graders) provoked admirably defensive responses from Kelley and Stantis. Following a spasm about requiring photo ID of voters and checking suspicious persons’ citizenship papers, Alcaraz quipped: “When they start checking the papers of Irish immigrants, call me.”
After a box lunch (sounds cheap, but the boxes offered a variety of sandwiches, and mine was purely delicious), the convention moved to the House of Representatives’ Longworth Building and the concentrically arrayed U of desks of the Agriculture Committee Hearing Room, where Mike Peters, eager to avoid disturbing a whole row of wedged-in cartoonists in order to get to an empty chair in the middle of the row, climbed over the intervening desk in order to gain the vacant chair.
Almost no one (apart from your intrepid photographer) noticed Peters’ gymnastic, however, because many of the attending cartoonists had unfurled sketchpads and spent an hour sketching each other while awaiting the disdainfully late arrival of two members of the House of Representatives: Jim McGovern, a polite and respectful Democrat from Massachusetts, and California’s Kevin McCarthy, House Majority Whip, a Republican whose glib misrepresentations predictably sidestepped the questions he was asked, erecting smoke-screens and impenetrable untruths with every syllable.
According to reporter Warren Rojas at Roll Call, the reception “turned from cheery to combative faster than it takes to sketch a Pinocchio nose on an unsuspecting politician.” The congressmen intended to keep it light. McGovern joked about being mistaken as the son of George McGovern, 1972 Democrat candidate for President, and added that what bothered him most about David Hitch, the editoonist at the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, is that Hitch is “really talented.”
In the same vein, McCarthy said: “I’ve always enjoyed [political cartoons] because they put a little humor at the same time they state a little policy,” billing the late Rex Babin, the Sacramento Bee’s award-winning cartoonist, as must-read.
But the happy talk evaporated once the politicians started fielding questions—all of which were directed at McCarthy. Several cartoonists berated McCarthy for pandering to the Tea Party and for endorsing voter suppression.
McCarthy of the silver tonsils deftly avoided answering, shifting the ground of the argument from the issue highlighted by the questions to other, barely tangential, matters and going on about them at great length. But his interrogators were not fooled: they kept repeating the same question.
“Is this a top issue with all cartoonists? Because I feel like I’m at a town hall,” an exasperated McCarthy said after 10 minutes of rhetorically jousting with peevish cartoonists. What did he expect anyway? Well-behaved small talk? From those who make a living hurling visual brickbats at public figures?
On Friday, the convention moved to GWU’s Jack Morton Auditorium, where cartoonists took to a stage that had been thematically and technologically equipped for their presentations. Gigantic cardboard cut-outs of caricatures of political figures (Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Joe Biden, Paul Ryan, Rush Limbaugh, and the justices of the Supreme Court) ringed the stage; at the rear and other both sides, projection screens displayed the visuals of each presentation while the presenters watched it all in a monitor positioned just in front of them. Genuinely high tech. Many of the presentations were conducted in part for the benefit of non-cartooning attendees unfamiliar with the profession.
At the first session, for example, Sandy Northrop and Stephen Hess, authors of American Political Cartoons, 1754-2010, quickly reviewed the history of American political cartooning, and they were followed by freelancer Steve Brodner and Nick Anderson (Houston Chronicle) who demonstrated, respectively, editooning by hand and by Cintiq. After their presentations, they were joined by Mark Fiore (Daily Kos) and Ann Telnaes (Washington Post), and they all exemplified with animated editoons how “the political cartoon evolves outside the box.”
Comics journalism was the topic addressed next by Matt Bors (Universal Press Syndicate) and freelancer Susie Cagle, who had been arrested twice last year during Occupy events which local police sought to disperse. She was properly credentialed as a journalist on both occasions, and on the second, was one of several journalists arrested; all but one were soon released, but the charges against her from her first “offense” have not yet been officially dropped (although no one is apparently pursuing any legal action either way).
In an interview last summer, Cagle talked about journalism and comics: “I’ve been surprised by how so many people still subscribe to the view that a ‘journalist’ comes from a place without an opinion, and, of course, that a journalist cannot be a cartoonist, or vice versa. I think that’s changing and that we’re growing more savvy in our consumption of media, recognizing all the frames and sources of our stories. But until then, a lot of people are uncomfortable with the fact that I have opinions and those opinions are sometimes in the story. For me, it’s a more honest way of reporting. I like to let my readers know where I’m coming from, and I work to not let it affect my gathering of facts.”
She said she has always loved what cartoons bring to the journalistic media and regrets seeing cartoons die as newspapers contract. “Those jobs aren’t being replicated on the Web,” she continued, but she also sees opportunities for cartooning on the Internet, especially for reporting breaking news.
After lunch, Mike Thompson (Detroit Free Press) and Nate Beeler (Columbus Dispatch) continued the “man vs. machine” motif of two of the morning presentations, offering cartoons both animated and static. Thompson began by reminding us that “the days of holding one job at a newspaper for an entire working lifetime—gone!” Cartoonists should therefore be prepared to move into other modes of cartooning throughout their careers.
Next, panelists Clay Bennett (Chattanooga Times Free Press), Jen Sorensen (Daily Kos), and Dan Perkins (aka, Tom Tomorrow of “This Modern World”), displayed their cartoons viewing campaign 2012 “from the Left.” Later, the view from the other extreme was presented by Nate Beeler, Scott Stantis, and Chip Bok (bokbluster.com). Because the audience was, as usual, predominantly of a flamingly irritable liberal persuasion, the conservative cartooners were forced to defend their views as often as they presented them, which they did with passion, erudition and the usual ideological rigidity.
Between these two antagonistic panels, Francoise Mouly, art director for The New Yorker, showed pictures of the magazine’s more provocative covers, described the circumstances that prompted them and the ensuing controversies, and discussed the professional relationship of the artists and the art director (echoing the substance of a recent book of hers, Blown Covers). Asked if she was herself an artist, Mouly said she was but not nearly in the same class as those she nurtures as art director. She also confessed that she was married to an artist—Art Spiegelman, who has produced a notable number of the magazine’s most incendiary covers.
Friday evening featured “Cartoon Death Match: A Field of Memes ... a wild must-see cartoon smackdown” in which Mike Peters, Jen Sorensen, Mark Fiore and Keith Knight (of K Chronicles and The Knight Life) competed. Emceed by the voluble Todd Zuniga of Literary Death Match fame, the contest concluded with a second round of competition between Knight and Sorensen, during which each of the competitors was given 30 seconds to produce while blindfolded a caricature of one of the “celebrity judges” who were refereeing the event (Gene Weingarten, humor columnist at the Washington Post; and, sitting in for Michelle Obama, Heidi MacDonald, reporter on comics news for PublishersWeekly.com; and the creator of comic book hero Billy Dogma, Dean Haspiel, whose proudest possessions are, judging from his frequent flaunting of them, his torso and biceps).
Knight, showing an eerie ability to draw Haspiel without seeing, won; and his earlier caricature of Weingarten produced under a 20-second time allowance, revealed a stunning command of this aspect of the cartooning arts. (Haspiel was easy, Knight told me later: all he had to draw was a huge bicep with a small beard.)
On Saturday, the programming unraveled in two strands, both directed at members of a non-cartooning (but interested) public. In the lobby of the auditorium, an exhibit showed how editorial cartoons are created, and an unruly impromptu assembly of cartoonists demonstrated their skills at easels, sketchpads, and Wacom tablet. While that was going on outside the auditorium, inside, a somewhat more staid series of individual presentations took place at the steady gait of one every 15 minutes.
Matt Wuerker started the latter series with a presentation entitled “Cartoonists: The Original Meme Machines,” during which he explained that the name of the festival, “#!&% Cartoons!” originated with New York’s Boss Tweed in the 1870s. Tweed was being regularly skewered by the cartoons of Thomas Nast, and he complained that he didn’t mind what the newspaper editorials said about him because his constituents couldn’t read, but they could see and comprehend “those damned cartoons.”
The deployment here, and elsewhere in the weekend’s program, of the term meme is a satirical slap in the face of a Slate.com writer, Farhad Manjoo, a particularly ignorant would-be critic of editorial cartoons who, in the wake of last spring’s Pulitzer Prize awards, announced, on the basis of his seldom looking at political cartoons, that they could be improved if they borrowed some of the graphic devices seen on the Web, mentioning, among others, memes (such as the iconic image of “The Casually Pepper Spray Everything Cop”), not realizing, apparently, that editorial cartoons are, essentially, memes—except that editoons are often funny as well as provocative.
Second at the podium as Rob Rogers (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) who explored possible alternatives to Uncle Sam as candidates for a new national avatar. After running through a likely list of national quirks and preoccupations, he offered the image of a gorilla.
Jack Ohman (Portland Oregonian) discussed the evolution of style—not drawing style but manner of visual presentation—concluding with a sampling of his weekend cartoon that explores a topic in “graphic novel”style.
In his fifteen minutes, Lalo Alcaraz, under the heading “Show Me Your Cartoon Papers,” continued his life-long advocacy for immigrant rights. His parents were immigrants from Mexico, and he grew up on the border, where he saw how badly immigrants were treated. At pocho.com, Alcaraz satirizes Latino issues and pokes fun at biculturalism; a recent issue of the Columbia Journalism Review hailed his efforts as being one of the first models for Latino news websites in English.
In a voxxi.com interview conducted over the AAEC weekend, Alcaraz talked about which of the presidential candidates is the most fun to draw: “Mitt Romney is easier for me to spoof because obviously I’m opposed to everything he says, and he’s a robot. He’s a human simulation. He’s not real. Obama is tough. Although he’s kind of a wonk and a nerd and that’s kind of funny, but it’s not that funny. Mitt Romney is from another dimension.”
Clay Bennett (Chattanooga Times-Free Press) launched into his presentation “Some Offense Intended,” by apologizing if any of his cartoons offended anyone but added that if nobody was offended, “I must be doing something wrong.”
Joel Pett (Lexington Herald Leader) came on stage next, asking if he was the only presenter who had been cautioned not to use profanity—specifically, the F-word and the C-word. He then recited a host of F-words and C-words, beginning with Fundamentalist Christian and continuing through a list of likewise usually innocuous F- and C-words.
The stand-up part of his presentation concluded, Pett also demonstrated how current events can be used in political cartooning, displaying a cartoon in which Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney is shown competing in an Olympic event, a race he wins because of the prosthetic legs he runs on—bioengineered “blades,” each in the shape of a dollar sign.
Pett observed that various groups of Olympian fans and/or officials objected to South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius’s running his race on carbon-fiber legs, saying they gave him an advantage. In the enduring spirit of the Olympics, Pett finished, Chinese athletes, in preparation for the next games, will be cutting off their legs just above the knee.
The morning series concluded with Tom Toles (Washington Post), who, conscious of an audience among whom were numbered non-cartooning members of the reading (and newspaper buying) public, began with a satirical allusion to the financial plight of print journalism and how it could be solved: “I didn’t bring any cartoons,” he said, “—if you want to see my cartoons, buy the fucking newspaper.”
Toles then illuminated “The Five Secrets of Cartooning.” Beginning with the first, “Learn to Draw,” Toles, widely appreciated for the evident lack of drawing ability on display in his cartoons, explained that he can, actually, draw better, but he purposely chose the manner of his rendering, adopting a lumpish style rather than, say, a thoroughly cross-hatched illustrative one.
The remaining “Five Secrets” (Be Funny—defining “witty” as “humor without the laughing part”—Be Fair, Don’t Be Stupid, and Don’t Be A Whore) were each introduced with a non-lumpish but barely stick-figurish title slide, which seemed to emphasize Toles’ contention that he could draw in more than one clumsy, amateurish style.
Under the whoring heading, Toles referred to a cartoon he’d seen just a day or so before in his paper—a half-page, color cartoon, produced by a political cartoonist Toles’ declined to name, who had clearly offered his talent in the service of the oil industry, thereby creating what Toles called an excellent example of the worst kind of editorial cartoon—a surrender of integrity to a whoredom that the craft should not tolerate.
David Horsey (Los Angeles Times) kicked off the afternoon session with “How Cartoons Counter Delusions, Misperceptions and Big, Fat Fibs,” concluding the visual portion of his presentation with a cartoon depicting Rush Limbaugh dressed like a floozie and saying, “I’ll do anything for money.”
“Perceptions are often wrong,” Horsey said, “—but I hope for a better world” (a better informed one).
Nate Beeler (Columbus Dispatch) spoke about the power of art: “The visual dynamic of a political cartoon draws the reader in” to the argument.
Gustavo Rodriguez (El Nuevo Herald) illustrated his talk about “cartooning para todos” with his customary array of delicate linework against brilliant swatches of flat color (like those that defined his caricature of Rush Limbaugh on stage). Brian McFadden, whose altie cartoons have lately invaded the sacred precincts of The New York Times, spoke of “The Future of Freelance: Brought to You by RomneyCare.” Ben Sargent (Austin Statesman) tackled the absurd with a picture of a pipe that is demonstrably “not a pipe.” Jen Sorensen captioned photos from the Democrat National Convention. Patrick Chappatte (International Herald Tribune) advocated animation in cartoon journalism. And John Cole (Scranton Times-Tribune) talked about “the magic of ridicule,” of which he is a master.
Pat Bagley (33 years at the Salt Lake Tribune), who describes himself as “Mormon Emeritus,” traced the history of Mormonism as reflected in cartoons, beginning with the particularly nasty efforts in the 19th century to demonize the religion, and including a couple of his own more gentle jibes.
And Kevin “KAL” Kallaugher, who surpasses Bagley with his 34 years at the Economist (albeit a weekly magazine, not a daily newspaper), talked about the mystery and mastery of caricature with his usual flair. KAL, who was laid off in 2005 from the Baltimore Sun where he’d cartooned for 17 years, rejoined the paper in February to do a Sunday cartoon.
Recently he helped the paper celebrate its first 175 years of publication, and, subsequently, produced his first Sunday cartoon in color—both in evidence near the convention. I asked him if he would like to return to the Sun on a full-time basis; surprisingly, he said “no”—he was too busy to take on the work.
ANNUAL AWARDS NIGHT
On Saturday evening, following a cocktail hour liberally laced with finger food, the Association conferred awards, beginning with John Locher Memorial Award, presented yearly to an outstanding student editorial cartoonist. This year, it went to Ben Wade, Indiana University at Bloomington.
Jack Ohman delivered remarks remembering his friend and past-president of AAEC, Rex Babin, who died last year.
And then the Ink Bottle Award for exceptional service was presented to Robert “Bro” Russell, Executive Director (and co-founder) of the Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI), a non-profit organization based in the U. S. that protects the human rights and creative freedom of editorial cartoonists by monitoring the fates of those in countries whose government authorities threaten them to prevent them from criticizing government actions. Giving international publicity to such official harassments often saves livelihoods and lives. CRNI, acting directly through affiliates, has frequently helped cartoonists find asylum from their persecuting governments.
From WittyWorld: Born in New York City in 1942, Russell graduated in 1966 from Syracuse University’s School of Fine Arts, a sculpture and painting major. After a tour in the U.S. Peace Corps in India, “Bro” (as his friends know him) went into international development work and has been a career specialist in developing new and innovative organizations that serve critical human needs. He has lived and worked in Asia and Africa for more than 25 years. With a Sri Lankan cartoonist, he started Cartoonists Rights Network in 1992. CRNI has evolved and grown, now with more than 15 affiliate organizations around the world, including a regional office in Ploiesti, Romania. Bro runs workshops on free speech issues for editorial and social cartoonists, and writes extensively about human rights and editorial cartoonists. He keeps relationships with more than 50 free speech victim clients who have been assisted by Cartoonists Rights Network over the last 11 years.
Every year at the AAEC convention, CRNI presents its Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award to a cartoonist who persists in defying the censorship that his/her government imposes. This year, two cartoonists were recognized: Ali Ferzat of Syria and Aseem Trivedi of India. [Ed. note: R.C. Harvey’s article about the award appears on page 7.]
Taking to the podium briefly under the punning heading “the cartoonists walked up to the bar” was Roslyn A. Mazer, Counsel of Record for AAEC in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, the 1988 Supreme Court case that ruled in favor of Larry Flynt’s magazine, which the evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell had sued over a 1983 parody advertisement featuring a fake interview in which Falwell admits that his “first time” was incest with his mother in an outhouse while drunk. The ruling held that public figures cannot circumvent First Amendment protections by attempting to recover damages based upon emotional distress suffered from parodies. The decision in favor of Flynt strengthened free speech rights in the U.S.; AAEC had joined the action in support of Flynt’s rights, and Mazer spoke in recognition of “the remarkable role of the Association in protecting satire.”
This year’s keynoter was ABC News’ award-winning Jacob Paul “Jake” Tapper, the network’s senior White House correspondent. Among his other accomplishments is the dubious distinction of having produced a political comic strip, “Capitol Hell,” for Roll Call from 1994 until 2003, when he joined ABC News. Declining to predict the outcome of the current presidential race, Tapper talked about the chances of the two candidates and finished by drawing his caricature of President Obama.
AAEC President John Cole closed the evening with an invitation to repair to the host hotel’s otherwise deserted rooftop restaurant for a nightcap. When thrown out of the restaurant due to the lateness of the hour (or, rather, the wee-ness of the hour), the carousing multitude found its way to the president’s suite, where it continued, resorting, eventually, to whispered conversation and smothered gawffaws after the police brought a complaint about the noise.
The next day (or maybe earlier on Saturday evening), I ran into Pulitzer Prize and Herblock Award winner Matt Davies, loitering in the hotel elevator lobby. He said he’d found the convention invigorating. “This is what it’s all about,” he said excitedly, “—talking among ourselves and seeing what everyone’s been doing. Saturday’s program exactly. Simple. Nothing complicated.”
Dispirited after being laid off at the White Plains Journal News two years ago, he said he’s been trying to construct a new career and didn’t know for sure whether editorial cartooning would be a part of it. At present, his cartoons are syndicated by Tribune Media Services and the Hearst Newspaper Group in Connecticut. After Saturday’s cascade of presentations, he felt renewed and rededicated himself to continuing in the profession.
As for next year’s as-yet unknown convention site—just pick a bar in a central location, he said, and we’ll show up, talking and drawing.