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When Cartoonists Were at Their Wits' End

November 25, 2001|JAMES RICCI

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 sorely tested one category of American commentators whose stock in trade is the ready gibe, the pitiless lampoon, the summary smirk. Faced with the reality of collapsing skyscrapers and thousands of murdered innocents, the country's editorial cartoonists faced a dilemma: How to express an overwhelming sickness of soul before which their usual cutlery seemed without point.

Think back to that day and your own loss for words; to that speechlessness that suddenly was a national language. Now imagine having to sit down and draw a simple, understandable picture that might have relevance to thousands of other dumbstruck and grief-ridden people.

Much of what the best cartoonists managed to produce in the days and weeks after the attacks is on display this month at the Santa Monica gallery Impolitic, in an exhibit titled "Political Cartoons of the Attack and the Aftermath." More than 50 original drawings by 15 artists, including seven Pulitzer Prize winners, are featured. Ten percent of the proceeds from sales will go to the New York Police and Fire Widows' and Children's Benefit Fund.

The first challenge some of the cartoonists had to overcome was their own disinclination to even function. "My mood on the 11th was one of shock and sadness and fright and grief," says Steve Breen of the San Diego Union-Tribune. "I didn't feel like working. All I wanted to do was talk to family and friends and watch CNN."

Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 27, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Cartoon exhibit dates--In "When Cartoonists Were at Their Wits' End" by James Ricci in the Nov. 25 Magazine, it was incorrectly stated when the exhibit "Political Cartoons of the Attack and the Aftermath" will be on display. The exhibit will be at the Santa Monica gallery Impolitic through December.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 16, 2001 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 4 Times Magazine Desk 2 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
In "When Cartoonists Were at Their Wits' End" (by James Ricci, Metropolis, Nov. 25), it was incorrectly stated when the exhibit "Political Cartoons of the Attack and the Aftermath" will be on display. The exhibit will be at the Santa Monica gallery Impolitic through December.

In the end, Breen depicted a weeping Statue of Liberty--shades of the famous Bill Mauldin cartoon (the statue of Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial with his face buried in his hands) after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Many other cartoonists also drew tearful Lady Liberties that first day and shortly afterward. The version that probably will prove most memorable was turned out by Pulitzer laureate Mike Luckovich of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In his rendering, a tear drops from the statue's eyes, in which are reflected the stricken World Trade Center towers.

Luckovich hated the cartoon. "I really felt like I had screwed up," he says. "I was so emotional that day--sadness, anger and so many different things. I guess because I had this swirl of emotion I felt [the cartoon] didn't capture every emotion I was feeling. But I realized later I couldn't put into one cartoon everything I was feeling."

In the minds of some of the cartoonists, the figure of 77-year-old Paul Conrad, who has three originals in the Impolitic exhibit, loomed large. Since the death last month of Herbert "Herblock" Block of the Washington Post, Conrad is the only living three-time Pulitzer winner. He drew for the L.A. Times for years, and now works for a syndicate. He serves as a kind of standard for some younger cartoonists as they assay the terrorist attacks and all that flows from them. Perhaps his strongest work in the show is a cartoon of George Washington wearing a gas mask.

"Cartoonists of my generation have always envied guys like Conrad, who were around during Vietnam and Watergate, because they were doing cartoons on really important issues," Luckovich says. "Now we realize we need to rise to the occasion. We're not just commenting on Gary Condit or the semen-stained Lewinsky dress anymore. This is something that is really life and death and has fundamentally changed our country."

The Impolitic exhibit demonstrates clearly that cartoonists, like everyone else, had the wind knocked out of them by the attacks. Gasping to comprehend, trying to digest an indigestible immensity, they instinctively "reverted to familiar iconic imagery," says Impolitic owner Josh Needle. Then the work tended to take on an affirmative, cheerleading tone (Breen's drawing of a bald eagle sharpening its talons, syndicated cartoonist Bob Gorrell's depiction of a muscular Uncle Sam holding a small U.S. flag and wearing an "I NY" T-shirt). Even Luckovich found himself "trying to use patriotism, and to comfort, and those are two things I've never done in my editorial cartooning."

You can't blame the cartoonists. Their art form was inevitably overmatched by the awful reality of Sept. 11. Then again, it's hard to imagine what art, except for Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings or Verdi's requiem, could speak truth to the sickened soul just then. As the days and weeks passed, cartoonists recovered their wind. They began drawing more pointed fare aimed at specific aspects of the burgeoning crisis that followed the attacks. They started ridiculing lax airport security, satirizing the CIA and FBI for being caught unawares, highlighting the complexity of bringing to justice those responsible for the destruction.

Not all of them waited long to do so, either. In only his second drawing after the attacks, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Pulitzer finalist Rob Rogers ridiculed anti-Arab bigots, eschewing "blind, jingoistic patriotism because it can become too easily hatred for a whole people." Gallery owner Needle contends "cartoonists were in the forefront of expressing all points of view."

The truth about editorial cartooning is that it is and always will be at its most delicious a negative art. It is weak and predictable and veers too easily toward the maudlin when it tries to reassure or uplift. It is powerful and original when it ridicules and provokes. Its soul is delinquent wit, not emotion, no matter how much the latter seems in order.

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