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Lines are drawn on political cartooning

Experts Bob Scheibel and Daryl Cagle differ on the clout and quality of current editorial drawings.

May 30, 2008|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

Draw your own conclusion about political cartoons. Neighbors Bob Scheibel and Daryl Cagle certainly have.

Scheibel contends that editorial cartoonists no longer have the free hand -- or the public clout -- that they enjoyed for more than 200 free-wheeling years.

Cagle counters that today's political cartoonists are doing the most significant work in the history of their barbed pen-and-ink profession.

They are experts in the field of editorial cartooning, and although they've never met, they live within sight of each other in Woodland Hills.

That's where Scheibel, an educator who has studied three centuries of political cartooning, has amassed thousands of cartoon books and original artwork and is preparing to donate his collection to Cal State Northridge.

It's also where Cagle, a widely published editorial cartoonist, operates a syndication service and a website that showcases the work of cartoonists from around the world.

In Scheibel's view, today's political cartoons are too wishy-washy or wordy. He says newspaper staff cutbacks and a lack of editorial backbone are to blame.

"I think the newspapers have taken a conservative swing -- certainly to the middle of the road," said Scheibel, 82. "You get very weak cartoons that tell you what you already know. They don't give you a whack. I think newspapers are playing it cowardly. They don't want the impact that will offend anybody."

Scheibel, a retired Pierce College journalism instructor, honed his interest in editorial cartooning at the former Los Angeles State College in the early 1950s. As he studied English literature, he was surprised at how drawings by satirist William Hogarth often drove home the point better than words could.

"The late 1700s and early 1800s were the first of two golden ages of cartooning. The authorities under King George III were very fierce about libel and treason and pounced on what was written. But for some reason they didn't see drawings as a threat," Scheibel said.

The political cartoon's second great era occurred between 1930 and 1970, he said. That's when American editorial cartoonists took aim at everything from the Great Depression and World War II to the Cold War, rapidly changing social mores and the war in Vietnam.

"All of a sudden it blossomed again. Cartoonists could be nasty," Scheibel said.

These days, he said, many cartoonists settle for panels that joke, not provoke.

But he thinks the time could be right for another resurgence of hard-hitting, politically biting editorial drawing. "As home foreclosures grow and gas prices continue to go up, people will be getting angry," Scheibel said.

At his home down the hill from Scheibel, cartoonist Cagle begs to differ.

"Too conservative? Certainly most cartoonists are politically liberal. That's because only the large papers hire cartoonists anymore, and they tend to be urban, liberal newspapers," said Cagle, 51.

He also disputes the notion that cartoonists are in a slump that can be snapped only by a new golden era.

"As a profession, the work has just gotten better and better as time has gone on. Cartoonists have the widest style and statement of point of view ever. The problem is not the artwork. It's the marketplace. Cartoonists struggle; a lot do it out of love," he said.

Many cartoonists represented in Cagle's 175-artist Professional Cartoonist Index ( www.cagle.com) are unaffiliated with a newspaper. Others sell their work on a freelance basis to print publications. Cagle, who draws a daily cartoon for www.msnbc.com, also syndicates the work of 70 cartoonists.

He said many large newspapers are opting not to replace their staff cartoonists when they die, are laid off or leave voluntarily. Among them is the Los Angeles Times, which did not replace op-ed page cartoonist Michael Ramirez when his contract was not renewed. This year Ramirez won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning for work that appeared in Investors Business Daily.

Nick Goldberg, op-ed page editor for The Times, said the cartoonist position was not filled for budgetary reasons and because the newspaper wanted to use more illustrations with opinion articles.

As for Scheibel, he continues to hope for a cartoon resurgence.

In his home office he pulls up Cagle's cartoonist index on his computer and scrolls through the day's offerings. He is asked to offer a quick critique of them.

"Too much writing. Way too wordy," he says of one. "That's what everybody's saying, but it's well-drawn," he says of another. "That's confusing," he says of a third.

But he had praise for others.

"Oh, my! That guy's terrific. He lets the drawing tell the story without words," he says of a series of intricately drawn cartoons by John Sherffius for the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colo.

Sherffius is a freelancer for the Daily Camera. He was the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's staff editorial cartoonist until he resigned "because the editors had a different vision of the role of an editorial cartoonist than I did," as he put it.

Scheibel and his wife, Barbara, have begun turning over the 200 framed drawings and more than 2,300 books to Cal State Northridge.

Tony Gardner, curator of special collections at the university, said some of the prints have been displayed, and English and art department faculty members have already expressed interest in the books.

And are the economy and the oil shortage about to deliver another golden age to those whose livelihoods revolve around Rapidograph pens and sketch pads?

Consumers might want to draw the line at that.

--

bob.pool@latimes.com

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