Off With Their Heads!

There's trouble in the land of 'toon. What's happening to editorial cartoonists is no laughing matter

Alex Mlynek
June , 1999 | Comments (0) - Report an Error

 

 

Alan King had been the staff editorial cartoonist at the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years when Neil Reynolds came in as editor in 1996. He fought with Reynolds frequently about the content of his work, and about the changes that Reynolds was making to the newspaper-particularly the changes to the editorial board. Unlike editorial cartoonists at most Canadian dailies, King, whose work has been self-described as low taste, had to get approval from both Reynolds and the paper?s publisher, Russell Mills, before his cartoons were allowed to run. After King depicted Don Cherry in a way that Reynolds referred to as nasty, Reynolds killed the cartoon late in the day, and King did not provide the paper with a cartoon for the first time since he?d worked there. The next morning he was demoted to staff illustrator at the Citizen, a paper which rarely used illustrations. He quit the paper three days later and is now working freelance as a digital artist. (When Reynolds was asked about this, he said that he would not discuss internal matters.)

King sent a letter privately to three or four cartoonists, warning other would-be Citizen cartoonists about working under Reynolds, a heads-up somebody posted on a webpage of the Association of Canadian Editorial Cartoonists."Reynolds has given the cartoonists reporting to him a very difficult time," King wrote."Attempts at rational debate are regarded as mutinous insolence and deviations from the ideological line of the editorial board as evidence of mental deficiency."

Reynolds started wooing Charles Jaff? before King left the Citizen. Jaff?, who was working primarily as an illustrator and whose only experience with editorial cartooning was at The Varsity, a University of Toronto student newspaper, accepted the job gradually, expressing doubts about the viability of editorial cartoons. Nevertheless, he decided to take the job and was hired on contract. During his first few months, only about half of the cartoons he drew were about political topics, since he had heard that they could get him into trouble. Instead, he created work that he referred to as "loopy." This tactic proved to be at odds with Reynolds's vision of editorial cartooning. Having received letters from puzzled readers regarding Jaff?'s work, Reynolds said that Jaff?'s cartoons were too obscure, explaining that"readers have to get the cartoons on at least one level." After about a year on the job, and soon after Jaff? had drawn a cartoon depicting Santa Claus interrogating children on his lap as a comment on Christmas consumerism, Jaff? was politely asked to leave. Just recently, Cameron Cardow, who signs his work "Cam" and lives in Calgary, was hired as the Citizen's newest editorial cartoonist, the paper's third in two years.

The Citizen is an extreme example of the editorial cartoonist's precarious position at Canadian newspapers. Cartoonists are the jesters who provide the humour that breaks up the dense text on the editorial and op-ed pages. But beneath the humour there often lies sharp, satirical commentary. The tradition of graphic arts as a form of social protest in Canada has been strong-consider politicians such as Sir Wilfrid Laurier, R.B. Bennett, Joe Clark, John Diefenbaker, Brian Mulroney or Jean Chr?tien, all of whom have been targets of cartoonists' wrath.

The first wave of political cartooning began 150 years ago when cartoonists such as J.W. Bengough, creator of Grip, found his muse drawing the follies of former Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, among others. Over the past half century, artists such as Andy Donato, Duncan Macpherson, Robert Lapalme, Terry Mosher (best known as Aislin, his daughter's name) and Len Norris have contributed to the legacy. Cartoonists like these and others continually provoke reactions from the politicians whom they disparage, as well as the public on whose behalf they comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

So what happens if the jester falls out of favour with the king? The role of the king is played by the publishers and editors at Canada's daily papers, who have the power to hire and fire cartoonists and demand changes to their work. Neil Reynolds believes there is a lack of innovation in Canadian editorial cartooning, that the range of visual metaphors has been restricted to single gags-for example, to variations on strange bedfellows or someone slipping on a banana peel. But it seems as though Reynolds's biggest problem with cartoonists is that they do not hold a position on issues. The fourth wave of cartoonists claim that their job is not to pick one group and target them, but to point out the stupidity and malfeasance everywhere, regardless of their personal views or those of the paper for which they work. Reynolds has identified this as the problem with Canadian political cartoonists: they lack a philosophy. The late Duncan Macpherson, one of Canada's premier editorial cartoonists, who was credited with establishing the separation of the cartoonist's position from that of a paper's editorial board, would be livid.

The heyday of political cartooning may be over. From the 1950s to the '70s, cartoonists held much more influence over public opinion than they do today. Former Prime Minister Joe Clark was once quoted as saying that Canada's political cartoonists cost him votes in the 1980 election. It was a boom time, when every respectable paper had a staff cartoonist. But these days many of the dailies are still recovering from the recession of the early 1990s, when circulation fell. Today, many newspapers still fight for readers, cautious of controversy and fiscally conservative. Cartoonists, by their very nature, are seen as dangerous by many editors and publishers, and when there is cost-saving to be done, staff cartoonists, whose salaries can range as high as $100,000, are among the first casualties. Furthermore, there would seem to be cheap alternatives: local freelancers or syndicated cartoonists. As a result, the staff cartoonist is becoming increasingly rare. Adrienne Lamb, while a graduate student in journalism at the University of Western Ontario, wrote her master's thesis on Canadian editorial cartooning. She found that only 30 percent of newspapers across the country have full-time cartoonists. The largest, such as the The Gazette in Montreal and The Globe and Mail, employ staff cartoonists, but many mid-sized dailies, including The Kingston Whig-Standard, the Regina Leader Post and The London Free Press, now rely on freelancers or syndicated cartoonists, as do the majority of smaller papers.

At as little as $10 to $25 per cartoon, syndicated cartoons are a cost-efficient alternative to having a full-time artist on staff. The pay rates are set by the newspapers based on their circulation levels and by the cartoonists themselves. However, the economics of syndication are behind one of the most frequently cited criticisms of this practice. At such low fees, cartoonists can only make money by having their work appear in as many newspapers as possible.

Conscious of trying to please many different editors in different regions of the country, critics say, syndicated cartoonists seek a common denominator?usually a national issue?that most readers will relate to. And some, in their approach, are inclined to be careful rather than bold. As a result, a growing proportion of cartoons has become less biting and diverse in subject matter and rarely address important local issues. Even newspapers that employ freelance or staff cartoonists?for example, The London Free Press and the Ottawa Citizen?keep a slush pile of syndicated cartoons on hand to choose from in case of emergencies. The editors who go through this pile remark that they can predict what the prevailing subject matter will be.

The top cartoonists are worried about the state of their art and see the trend toward syndication as the biggest threat. Brian Gable is one of two staff cartoonists for The Globe and Mail and a past president of the Association of Canadian Editorial Cartoonists. He is among a growing number of cartoonists who fear that cartoons are in danger of becoming"McToons"-flat, generic, easily runnable anywhere with no regional reference. The Globe's other cartoonist, Tony Jenkins, uses phrases such as "satire lite" or "off-the-rack" to describe this type of work."As newspapers become more corporate rather than family-owned voices," says Gable,"there's a blanding out in all journalism, not just cartoons. As long as people keep buying the newspaper, why run a cartoon that's going to cause a demonstration in front of your building? That's affecting not just the satire, but the look of the cartoons. They're all looking the same. They lack that individual voice." This sameness is reflected in many ways, including the style. Charles Jaff? refers to this style as "bendy ink drawings." The cartoonists who copy the look of American editorial cartoonist Jeff McNelly, the creator of the comic Shoe and a several-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his work, are said to draw this way. Finding a distinctive style sets the artist's work apart. Aislin draws physically accurate caricatures of his subjects-eyes are often drawn so as to appear almost liquid-and he uses cross-hatching to create texture. He tackles many subjects by creating comical scenes, such as Jean Chr?tien in a bodysuit and ballet slippers; other times he'll draw symbols with labels as political statements. For example, a recent cartoon that he drew when the euro was introduced featured world currency symbols labelled with the name of the currency and the area of origin. The last one he called OD, for overdraft, and the country of origin he identified as"most folks."

Duncan Macpherson was well known for his ruthless style. Terry Mosher refers to him as the"king of the third wave." One of Macpherson's most celebrated cartoons featured Diefenbaker as Marie Antoinette saying"Let them eat cake," after Diefenbaker cancelled the Avro Arrow project and its 14,000 jobs. Pierre Berton has said this cartoon was"the beginning, I think, of the country's disillusionment with the Diefenbaker government...scarcely anybody had taken a crack at Diefenbaker until then." The next generation of cartoonists need to be encouraged to develop distinctive voices and feel free to experiment in order to reach the maturity and depth of Canada's greatest cartoonists. Terry Mosher is one of four editorial cartoonists recognized in the Canadian News Hall of Fame. His work is savage and biting; he has no sacred cows. In fact, he's often getting into trouble for his opinions, and a few times for his portrayal of ethnic and religious groups. He has worked at The Gazette for all of his 27-year career, although he had a brief concurrent stint at The Toronto Star.

Like a number of well-known staff cartoonists, Mosher is nationally syndicated. When newspaper editors are using syndicated cartoonists, they can choose which cartoons they run. Although publishers have the final say, staff cartoonists have the opportunity to vigorously defend the integrity of their work. While Mosher believes that cartoonists have more freedom than anyone on a newspaper, he adds that there is room for concern, because of the conservative trend among editors."Some editors prefer to have a cartoonist who illustrates the editorial policy of their newspaper," says Mosher. He believes that this is more prevalent in the U.S., but cartoonists are eager to please. An article in the January/February '99 edition of American Journalism Review noted how homogenized cartoons were getting in the U.S.; Mosher believes this is a threat in Canada as well. Joel Pett, president of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists, was quoted in that article as saying,"It's not unusual for people to have similar ideas." The author continues,"The problem is that everybody heads in the same direction on the same days." Pett is also quoted as saying that it isn't only the cartoonist's fault:"Editors tend to like stuff that doesn't take much thinking or analysis." The article goes on to note that"cartoons mirror the mainstream headlines." As Pett points out,"Before Princess Diana's death...you couldn't print a cartoon about land mines to save your life."

Fifteen years ago, when The London Free Press's long-time staff cartoonist, Merle Tingley, retired, the paper decided to use syndicated work. Today, the Free Press strikes a compromise: although still running syndicated cartoons, the paper also uses a local freelance cartoonist, Paul Lachine. Some weeks, like many staff cartoonists, Lachine is featured three times and sometimes more if there is a big local event going on, or as Helen Connell, who is in charge of the paper's editorial pages, says,"If his work is the best of the pile that day." Lachine is not paid as well as a staff cartoonist would be, and he does not receive benefits. Connell says that she pays top dollar for cartoons that are made for the Free Press, but adds that the paper's budget does not allow her to hire a full-time staff cartoonist.

The expense seems to be a discretionary one, though. The London Free Press has a circulation of just over 100,000 readers, according to the January 1999 Canadian Advertising Rates and Data. Yet The Daily News in Halifax, which has a circulation of just over 28,000 readers, has a full-time cartoonist on staff. There are no French-language newspapers that use syndicated work. The specific regional issues and the language barrier mean that French dailies are more inclined to hire a staff or a contract cartoonist. Terry Mosher's work reflects Montreal as surely as some of Alan King's cartoons reflected Ottawa.

Steve Nease is a winner of the 1998 Canadian Community Newspapers Association's award for editorial cartoonists. Like about half of the syndicated cartoonists, he acts as both the distributor and the creator of his work. Nease, who is concerned that papers are moving away from local issues in general, thinks that if a newspaper is relying on syndicated cartoonists, its readers are learning even less about local affairs.

This shift from local journalism is evident at the Ottawa Citizen. Cameron Cardow, its current cartoonist, lives in Calgary, so his cartoons rarely stray from international or national topics. Many cartoonists like to work at home, but when home is far away from the paper's audience, the ability to gauge local issues is lost. For instance, one of Charles Jaff?'s cartoons made fun of Ottawa's ice storm victims. He thought that he was helping readers lighten up about the experience, but the cartoon was not well received, especially by Neil Reynolds. On the other hand, many of Alan King's cartoons were local. In fact, two of his cartoons hang on the walls of the mayor's office in Ottawa. The importance of resident cartoonists is particularly evident in highly competitive local markets. In Halifax, the two dailies are serious rivals. Fighting for similar audiences, The Daily News and The Chronicle-Herald employ staff cartoonists who go for the jugular and cover the local angle. The situation is one that makes cartoonists across the country envious. Bill Turpin, the editor of The Daily News, says,"I consider it a real luxury for a paper our size to have a staff cartoonist." He believes that editorial cartoonists should be the loose cannons rolling around the deck of a newspaper. As an editor, he adds,"What you really want is a cartoonist who makes you nervous."

And nervous is what many editors are. Their concern is that cartoonists sometimes go too far and offend readers. And sometimes they do. There have been cases of libel suits being brought against Canadian editorial cartoonists, the most notorious occurring in British Columbia in 1978. Future provincial premier William Vander Zalm, then minister of human resources, sued the publisher, the editor and the cartoonist of the Victoria Times after the paper's cartoonist, Robert Bierman, depicted Vander Zalm gleefully pulling the wings off of a fly after a major shakeup took place at the ministry. The original court decision found that the cartoon went beyond fair comment because it implied that Vander Zalm enjoyed hurting people, instead of just showing that he had indirectly hurt people as a result of layoffs caused by his ministry. But the paper was acquitted on appeal.

A year ago, in Saint John, N.B., Josh Beutel, a local newspaper cartoonist, was sued for libel by Malcolm Ross after Beutel produced a cartoon suggesting that Ross was a Nazi. Ross, a former New Brunswick schoolteacher, had published controversial material considered by many to be both anti-Semitic and racist. He had been removed from teaching in the classroom by the school board after an inquiry into his views. Beutel lost the case and the New Brunswick Teachers' Association was forced to pay $7,500 in damages to Ross.

But given the freedom to take risks, cartoonists can produce true works of originality (despite their differences, Neil Reynolds refers to Charles Jaff? as a comic genius in his own way). If it is inevitable that papers are going to tighten budgets, perhaps the best choice is to use a local freelancer, as The London Free Press does, to address community issues.

At work here is a clash of philosophies between editors like Neil Reynolds, who think that cartoonists should be partisan and attack along those lines, and editorial cartoonists, who value the freedom to satirize every deserving target?what Serge Chapleau, editorial cartoonist with La Presse in Montreal, calls la b?te d'humanit?. And as he says,"that is not owned by one political party."

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