Editorial Cartoonists Meet In Portland

Posted by on June 25th, 2010 at 7:20 AM

The 54th annual meeting of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC) convened June 16-19 in Oregon’s Portland, a municipal mash-up of diverse neighborhoods, assorted forests, thickly sprouting flora and steep hills separated by gullies—a locale originally known as “The Clearing” but eventually named at the conclusion of an argument settled by the toss of a coin. Two early residents, Francis Pettygrove from Portland, Maine, and Asa Lovejoy from Boston, vied with each other to impart to the vicinity the name of their erstwhile hometowns; Pettygrove won the toss, and the Oregon Historical Society purports to have the now famed “Portland Penny” on display in its headquarters.

AAEC’s attendance at 87 this year was somewhat less than last year’s 109 at nearby Seattle (107 the year before in San Antonio); of the 87, 43 were actual cartoonists, the rest being spouses, syndicate representatives and guest panelists (including 5 cartoonists from Iraq, Palestine, and Egypt). Among the inky-fingered fraternity, only 23 of the 43 work full-time as editorial cartoonists, and only 15 of those on the staffs of newspapers. The remaining part-time editooners are staff artists who occasionally produce editorial cartoons or freelancers who have other kinds of day jobs.

The non-staff full-timers include (by way of example) Daryl Cagle (who runs an online syndicate while also cartooning), Jeff Danziger (syndicated without a home newspaper), Matt Wuerker (whose cartoons appears in the online newspaper Politico), and this year’s Pulitzer winner, Mark Fiore (who self-syndicates his animated editoons).

AAEC membership has declined somewhat in the last year—from 350 to 320—due to an administrative purging of some so-called members who were several years behind in paying dues. The number of full-time staff editoonists nationally remains at about 80, which is where it stood a year ago, down 20% from the May 2008 total of 101. In other words, the newspaper industry is apparently finished divesting itself of what it regards as superfluous staff. Some enthusiastic doom-sayers peg the number of full-time staff editorial cartoonists as low as 58, but they are wrong. Or they are counting in idiosyncratic ways.

Sessions on the three-day program wove through a tapestry of topics, some related to the dire straits of the profession. Mike Keefe talked about an online cartoon country he and Tim Menees have devised at sardonika.com; patterned after the Iota comic strip the two did years ago, the site attempts to “make sense of nonsense and vice versa” with faux newsstories and satirical cartoon characters in positions of political power (the imaginary country’s president is named Ruttles). Here’s a look at vintage Iota, that displays Menees’ quirky drawing style and Keefe’s antic wit (if you click to enlarge and then print out the so-called “enlargement,” you can probably read it):

Ted Rall talked about his successful fund-raising endeavor in support of his forthcoming return trip to Afghanistan; one wag on the panel joked that people donated money in the hopes that Rall wouldn’t make it back. Matt Bors moderated a panel of local Portland cartooners who are forging careers in various ways, some alternative press, others in four-color comics—Shannon Wheeler, Meredith Gran, and Jeff Parker.

Mark Fiore explained the brouhaha with Steve Jobs over the cartoonist’s submission of an app for iPhone that was first rejected because it “defamed public personages” and was then accepted once Jobs and his crew realized, as Jobs put it, that political cartoonists got caught by a too glibly devised rule that produced unintended consequences. It made sense at some initial stage in the Apple store’s development that apps not “defame” anyone; apparently no one thought about editoonists, and once they did, the rule no longer made quite as much sense.

Fiore pointed out that “ridiculing” a public figure is not the same as “defaming” that individual, and apparently Jobs agrees. Fiore pronounced himself satisfied that the incident had “opened the door” at Apple—that the publicity surrounding the rejection of a Pulitzer-winning cartoonist had resulted in Jobs’ dropping the ban on ridiculing public figures, which is, after all, what editooners routinely do as a profession.

Over the previous couple of weeks, there transpired a brief period during the hullabaloo when it appeared that Jobs had called Fiore a liar. But that turned out to be entirely untrue. After several days of hot transmissions of varying degrees of “evidence,” it finally emerged that, no, Jobs had not called Fiore a liar after all. Jobs was talking about numerous “other people” when he said they were liars. But not Fiore.  Fiore, Jobs said, was “a nice enough fellow.”

Cartoonists from the Middle East talked, through interpreters, about the hazards of political cartooning in Egypt, Iraq, and the West Bank, where a high level of illiteracy makes pictorial commentary more potent than in literate environs.

Frank Swoboda, who heads the Herb Block Foundation, delivered himself of aggressive, almost belligerent, remarks that he hoped would prod editoonists into doing something about their rapidly evaporating profession. Like many big city newspapermen (which is what he was before his Foundation appointment), Swoboda thinks that newspapers are within a few minutes of expiring altogether.

I chimed in, indulging my penchant for perversity by saying that while I agreed that the industry isn’t as robust as it was 20 years ago, it’s pretty far from being endangered: small town newspapers (serving populations of 100,000 or less) are still healthy financially—and that’s most of the newspapers in the country.

Swoboda pounced in response, saying, not quite on point, that many of those papers typically don’t carry comics. That’s true, but that only identifies an undeveloped market for syndication, and my point was that by moaning about the terrible fix of big city newspapers, we misdirect our attention—focusing on eschatology rather than opportunities, which, because we are so exercised over the fate of 100 big city papers, we fail to see.

Perhaps the most intriguing of the sessions was a presentation by Tjeerd Royaards and Caroline Dijckmeester, who introduced the assembled multitudes to an innovative online presence, vjmovement.com, which promises to be a source of income for otherwise penniless out-of-work editoonists. Based in their native Netherlands, the “visual journalism movement” is an international operation involving over 150 video-journalists and political cartoonists that is growing day-by-day.

Believing, as they put it, “that there is more than one truth,” the vjmovement wants to support “the diversity of perspectives,” creating a truly global news and commentary network of editorial cartoonists. “Editorial cartoons can poke, harass, jab, outrage, infuriate, tickle and enlighten,” the presenters noted, adding that cartoons “attack arrogance and ignorance, corruption and abuse, expose those who need exposing, defend freedom and can even bring about change.”

Cartoonists who want to participate submit cartoons, and the vjmovement “newsroom” selects which ones to publish, after which, the cartoonists are paid (as much as $75 per cartoon, as I understand it). Published cartoons are offered for sale to interested journalistic enterprises, which is how vjmovement generates the income out of which contributing cartoonists are paid.

At a recognition dinner during the AAEC festivities, the Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI) conferred upon Iranian cartoonist Mana Neyestani the 2010 Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award. Neyestani was jailed in 2006 for drawing an illustration on the children’s page of a government newspaper showing a cockroach responding to a question with the word, “Namana,”Turkish Azeri slang meaning, “I don’t get it.”

Although the intention was wholly innocuous, Iranian Azeris thought the government was continuing the centuries-long hostility toward them by classing them with cockroaches, and riots ensued, resulting in five deaths. Neyestani was jailed for two months. Subsequently, he fled the country, and with the help of CRNI, he got as far as Malaysia with his wife. He is currently working on a graphic depiction of those two months in an Iranian jail.

This was the first year that AAEC met at a venue other than a hotel—namely, at facilities of Portland State University. Next year, the practice will continue by meeting at the Poynter Institute, a school and resource for journalism located in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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