Rob Rogers’ Monument to a Quarter Century

Posted by on October 22nd, 2010 at 12:01 AM

 

 

Rob Rogers, Pittsburgh’s star editorial cartoonist, was recently named Cartoonist of the Year in the seventh annual Opinion Award adjudication by The Week Magazine. The accolade, however richly deserved, is just another instance of opinion in a universe of interminable opinion, but it is beyond debate that, for many years, Rogers was the profession’s most eligible bachelor. He finally got married a few years ago to a beautiful and intelligent woman; and now, in the same spirit of consummation prolonged until perfection could be attained, he has produced one of the best editorial cartoon books ever. Entitled No Cartoon Left Behind: The Best of Rob Rogers (390 10×12-inch pages, black-and-white with some color; paperback, Carnegie Mellon, $39.95), the book is a wide-ranging retrospective of the cartoonist’s 25-year stint at the a newspaper that was once the Pittsburgh Press and is now the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Rogers estimates that he’s drawn an average of 240 cartoons a year in each of those 25 years: “That’s 6,000 cartoons!” he realized in alarm. But they’re not all in this book. “Despite the title,” he said, “some of those cartoons had to be left behind.”

Still, this tome may be the largest such collection published. But size is not its only virtue: It is also one of the most thoughtfully assembled compendia of political cartoons.

In addition to a healthy helping of cartoons drawn between 1984 and 2009 (the year the book was published), the volume includes a brief biography, a few samples of Rogers’ childhood portfolio and his pre-professional cartooning on college campuses, and work from his earliest professional years as well as sketches made at the major political party conventions in 2004 and 2008, a pictorial essay disclosing the source of his ideas, and a few pages reprinting letters to the editor that castigate Rogers for his bad manners and worse taste in attacking conservative politicians.

 


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But the cartoonist’s choice among liberal candidates in a presidential race has been rigidly determined by considerations other than policy: “My choice for the Democratic nominee [in 1988 when the field was littered by at least half-a-dozen wannabees] was based on issues I really cared about — big ears, big lips, funny looking glasses, and goofy bow ties [i.e., Illinois Senator Paul Simon].”

With content like this stretching before us as far as the eye can see in this volume, we can discern the authentic life of a working political cartoonist, and we also get a short and jocular account of this country’s history for the last quarter century. Sections of the book delve into the reigns of four presidents and nudge up against the fifth (Reagan to Obama) and also contemplate, giggling barely suppressed, social and cultural issues over the same period — education, the ever-failing economy, reproductive rights, gun control, and on and on.

What’s more — big bonus — Rogers has carefully dated and annotated every cartoon, reminding us of the issue that inspired each of them, thus enabling us to better appreciate the acerbic wit of his pictorial commentary.

The book, which took Rogers five years to assemble and annotate, is also intelligently designed with page layouts that are varied for both emphasis and diversity. Rogers is vociferous in thanking designer Paul Schifino for both his friendship and his infinite patience: Rogers told me that many times during that production period, he would finish selecting cartoons for a section and then, two days after Schifino had laid it out, Rogers would come upon another cartoon — a undeniable work of gargantuan genius and sheerly perceptive political insight — that simply must be included in the completed section. Schifino always complied.

Elegance does not end with layouts. Each of the 25 sections into which the content is sorted begins with a division page that is printed on color stock, heavier than the rest of the pages, an extravagance in book publishing. A short, one-page essay orients us to the issues addressed in that section’s cartoons.

 


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Although chronology is not the chief organizing device (the chapter on the economy, for instance, includes cartoons from 1986 to 2008 in no particular order), the issues — following the succession of presidencies — effectively impose chronology on the inventory. And the chronology enables us to watch Rogers as he matures as an editoonist.

His earliest work was pointed enough, but by the 1990s — and thereafter — Rogers was hitting hard with well-honed cartoon commentary. His forte is not so much the heavily laden visual metaphor (although he is adept enough at this maneuver) as it is in casting his cartoons carefully and then setting his actors loose in situations that reveal the folly of life in America. His specialty may lie in pointing out the hypocrisy that’s inevitably inherent in the behavior of public officials these days, and since American public officials are world champions at hypocrisy, Rogers’ revelations are an accurate reflection of the country, its government and the temper of the times.

In composing the book’s introduction, Rogers tried to concoct a new way of describing what he does for a living, and I think he managed a telling whopper: “Hockey player meets rodeo clown,” he wrote. “Some days I am checking politicians against the boards hard enough to make them organ donors. Other days, it’s my job to step into an otherwise tragic environment wearing baggy pants, a red nose and giant clown shoes.”

He expands on this metaphor as insightfully as the figure of speech is itself inventive, but you’ll need to get the book to see how he does it.

 

 

 

 

 

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