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Biting the bullet

Editorial cartoonists, a newspaper tradition, fight off tough times and easy laughs.

August 24, 2004|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer

When words alone weren't enough to drive home his point, Ben Franklin grabbed for the inkpot and sketch pad. He drew a snake severed into eight pieces. "Join or die," said the caption, a play on the superstition that a snake would survive if its pieces were put together before sundown. Franklin labeled the sections of the creature as states; -- the drawing was an argument for a union of states.

Published on May 9, 1754, in the Philadelphia Gazette, this is believed to be the first political cartoon in an American newspaper.

In the 250 years since, of course, Franklin's united states prospered. So did the single-panel editorial cartoon as a fixture of American newspapers, but no longer. The new millennium has brought a decline in grand tradition of punctuating our civic debates with a splash of ink in the face.

The number of cartoonists employed full time at newspapers is shrinking. Simultaneously, what some see as the inconsequential "joke" cartoon threatens to supplant the bared fangs of the Franklin-style "argument" cartoon.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 25, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Political cartoons -- A story in about editorial cartoonists in Tuesday's Calendar said the newspaper in which Ben Franklin's original American political cartoon was published was the Philadelphia Gazette. It was the Pennsylvania Gazette.

Although casual newspaper readers may hardly notice the trend amid the larger whirlwinds of the media revolution, those who study and practice the art of editorial cartooning ask themselves whether this is one of those emerging signposts of the times worthy of pause and reflection. Just what might we be losing, anyway?

"When I go to a gathering of editorial cartoonists, I feel like I'm at a convention of buggy-whip makers in the 1920s," said Stephen Hess, senior fellow emeritus of the Brookings Institution and coauthor of "Drawn & Quartered: The History of American Political Cartoons," a 1996 book from which the Franklin anecdote was taken.

Like others who relish the political sass of editorial cartoons, Hess described himself as "damned mad" at the turn of events in contemporary newspapers. At the same time, though, he remained vaguely hopeful that the Internet will manage, somehow, someday, some way, to salvage the art.

After all, he noted, those who are really hungry for cartoons can feast on them for hours a day, thanks to the Web. For instance, a tour through Daryl Cagle's website at Slate magazine, http://cagle.slate.msn.com, brings the world's cartoonists online, by topic or by artist -- collections that are variously moving, zany, incendiary, celebratory and hilarious. Assembled like this, cartoons have a punchy, cartoon-like way of making the argument for their own value in America's civic conversation.

Online compendiums have brought to light something else about the craft. When cartoonists aim their sketch pens toward New York and the Republican National Convention starting Monday, they will be mindful that for all their imagination, they sometimes have a way of thinking alike. When five or more similar cartoons on the same subject appear simultaneously in print, Cagle labels it a "Yahtzee" after the board game of the same name. The "greatest" Yahtzee occurred in the aftermath of Sept. 11 when at least 38 cartoonists drew versions of a weeping Statue of Liberty. Among them was Cagle.

Fun on the Web does not feed the family, however. And Cagle, who also is Slate's cartoonist, is hardly sanguine about the foreseeable future for cartoonists online. Apart from his job, there aren't many proven ways for serious cartoonists -- and no, from the journalists' point of view that's not an oxymoron -- to earn a living from the Internet. Meanwhile, he said, the decline in paying newspaper jobs and the spread of gag cartoons "is leading to the slow death of a great American art form.... What we are seeing is a general decline in the profession."

Taking measure of contemporary cartooning is an imprecise matter. Fewer cartoonists are employed by newspapers now than a decade ago, virtually everyone familiar with the craft agrees. But how many fewer is not so easily determined. In conversations with cartoonists and sundry experts, one hears estimates that about 80 to 90 men and women are employed full time as editorial cartoonists today, down from maybe 150 to 200 in the 1980s and '90s. But these are not figures from a survey or census, and they generally exclude freelancers and sometimes don't account for part-timers, such as newspaper graphic artists who also contribute to the cartoon supply.

Whatever the precise numbers, editorial cartoonists constitute one of the tiniest occupational categories in the country. The American Farriers Assn., for instance, has a membership list of professional blacksmiths that is 30 times as big as the roster of the Assn. of American Editorial Cartoonists. And, it can be noted, the demand for blacksmiths has been increasing.

A chill in the air

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