TCJ 300 Conversations: Ted Rall & Matt Bors

Posted by on December 23rd, 2009 at 3:55 AM


Syndicated since 1991, Ted Rall has been considered the “bad boy” of American editorial cartooning since at least 2001, when his “war on terror”-related anti-Bush cartoons landed him on right-wing hit lists like Bernard Goldberg’s best-selling book 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America. Rall was #15, just above John Edwards. An “altie” influenced by Jules Feiffer, the 46-year-old Rall enjoys equal access to the alternative-weekly and mainstream-daily press, having appeared in the Village Voice and SF Weekly, as well as the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time and Mad. He has also published several graphic novels, most notably My War With Brian and the upcoming, autobiographical The Year of Loving Dangerously (NBM) with Pablo G. Callejo.

Matt Bors, 25, is the youngest nationally syndicated editorial cartoonist in the country. His cartoons have appeared in the Village Voice, Boston Phoenix, The Oregonian and the Los Angeles Times. Bors has done illustrations for dozens of newspapers and magazines and also labors in the graphic-novel field. He is working on War is Boring (NAL) with David Axe and plans to collaborate with Rall on The Year of Chris, a sequel to The Year of Loving Dangerously.

After Rall met Bors at SPX, he included Bors in the Rall-edited anthology Attitude 3. As editor of acquisitions and development for United Feature Syndicate, Rall signed Bors to national syndication. They are both known for picking fights with the cartooning establishment. When the Journal invitated them to exchange ideas, observations and rants, they did not hesitate to name names.


Jam comic by and ©2009 Mat Bors and Ted Rall.

Ted Rall:
Although I was first published at age 15, I seriously began dedicating myself to a life as a political cartoonist in 1987. That’s when I began a routine that I continue today: three cartoons a week about politics and social trends. My goal was to make a full-time living as a cartoonist, but I didn’t have a clue about how to go about it. I sent submissions to syndicates and newspapers but no one was interested. I collected shoeboxes full of rejection letters. The artist Keith Haring, whom I met on a Manhattan subway platform, advised me to take my work directly to the people. “Fuck the galleries, fuck the gatekeepers,” he told me. After thinking it over, I decided to take his advice.

I had a job as a loan administrator at the New York branch of a Japanese bank. To get my cartoons in front of readers I used to go into work early, sneak into the Xerox room and run off roughly 500 copies of my week’s cartoons, then post them up all over New York that night. My girlfriend and I would walk down Broadway from 116th to 42nd Streets pasting them to lampposts, subway entrances, bus stops, construction sites — and finally the front of the New York Times and Daily News buildings. It took all evening every Monday night. I signed my stuff with my initials and a P.O. box so that people could contact me but I wouldn’t get into trouble with the cops. Sometimes editors who were visiting New York would write to me and want to run my stuff, which is how I picked up my first publishing gigs. By the time I got arrested for violating a new “poster ordinance” in 1990 — the case ultimately got thrown out on First Amendment grounds — I had 12 small clients, including a poetry review in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Self-portrait courtesy of Ted Rall.

The late ’80s and early ’90s corresponded to an explosion of new alternative weekly newspapers. Papers like the Village Voice had been around for a long time, but suddenly there were new ones all over the place. A new paper called NY Perspectives, later renamed NY Weekly, circulated in Manhattan north of 34th Street. I saw their new box while waiting for a crosstown bus, sent my cartoons to the art director, and he called and hired me to draw for him within a day or two. I wouldn’t say it was exactly easy, but it was a lot easier than today.

My break came in 1991, when San Francisco Chronicle Features called to say they wanted to syndicate me. I was very excited, but I couldn’t quit my day job. They only sold me to an additional 12 papers at first. Also, I lost a lot of my small clients because they couldn’t deal with the syndicate’s bureaucracy — forms, bills, deposits. I languished, earning about $320 a month for three cartoons a week until 1995. It was rough going, because my drawing style was hard for a lot of editors to take. Some just didn’t like it on aesthetic grounds — it was harsh, highly stylized, very abstract and crude. Others, probably more, thought editorial cartoons were all supposed to look like knockoffs of Jeff MacNelly’s work. It’s amazing how much you still hear that! Though not as much. That’s what almost every editorial cartoon looked like at the time. It still does.

Anyway, my style was a tough sell for the syndicate, even though I started running almost right away in big papers: the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Examiner, Philadelphia News and Des Moines Register were among my initial clients back in the fall of 1991. It says a lot about the current political climate that those papers have all become far more conservative, both politically and artistically, since then. Then, in 1995, I won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award. Winning a major journalism prize made editors more confident about buying my stuff. Soon I was in a lot more papers. I lost my last day job in 1995 (at age 32) — they fired me for traveling to Washington to pick up my RFK award! — and didn’t have to get another one until 2006.

Matt Bors photo courtesy of Bors.

Matt, your career trajectory has been both faster and more difficult than mine, which is a strange combination. You and I met at Small Press Expo a few years ago. I got really familiar with your work from your minis, then put you into Attitude 3: The New Subversive Online Cartoonists because, at the time, you didn’t have any print clients. When I got my job as editor of acquisitions and development at United Feature Syndicate in ’06, one of the first things I wanted to do was to sign you for syndication. Your stuff didn’t look like anything anyone else was doing, and you were clearly committed to the same idea I had about editorial cartooning: that the idea comes first, that the opinions should be front and center, that gags about the news — which are prevalent in the big weekly cartoon round-ups in venues like Newsweek, USA Today, the New York Times, etc. — are not the best cartoons. They’re the worst ones. I liked that you took no prisoners and focused on the issues, like torture, that other cartoonists moved past as soon as they faded from the headlines.

I convinced you to take a contract from United, which made you the youngest syndicated editorial cartoonist in the United States (at age 23). But the great newspaper meltdown was already under way and about to turn even worse. You’re in some great newspapers, including The Oregonian in Portland, but it’s hard to imagine how you’ll ever get over 100 clients, as I have, in the current economic climate for the country and for newspapers.

As I described above, it wasn’t easy for me. I always think of cartoonists like Jim Borgman, who landed high-paying staff cartoonist jobs at major papers without any real experience, by comparison. Even after I won awards and became syndicated to a lot of major papers I’ve been interviewed several times for jobs at papers but never offered one. But as hard as it was, it seems even harder for you. What do you think has changed between the early ’90s, when I was starting out, and now? What keeps you from getting discouraged? Or are you discouraged?

From Revenge of the Latchkey Kids, ©1998 Ted Rall.

Matt Bors:
Depends on the day of the week. The state of the industry is rather dismal, so it’s hard to feel positive about the future. Ultimately, I view editorial cartoons as something I have to draw, and I will keep doing it even if I only have one client left and simply subsidize my income with freelance work (which is what most cartoonists do anyway). That may sound corny, but drawing these things is addictive. I submitted an editorial cartoon to the student college newspaper on a whim in the run up to the Iraq War and haven’t missed a week since.

However, I want to draw as many as possible so actually getting paid for them is part of the plan. Something like a staff job was never a consideration. I knew papers weren’t hiring them much these days, and, if they were, someone with my sensibilities wouldn’t be considered. I’d like to at least make enough to justify three cartoons a week, but even that seems far off in the current economic environment.

After college, I briefly had a crappy job and was drawing comics whenever I wasn’t there and writing them when I was. Editors were working the same hours as I was so I spent my lunch breaks calling them from a payphone to pitch my strip. The day I got laid off I resolved to never hold a job again and used my first unemployment check to print and mail 1,000 promotional postcards for my illustration work. Probably the best move I ever made.

In 2004, I started picking up clients when they were still adding comics from time to time. I called my strip Idiot Box. (My syndicate markets me by my name but altweeklies still use the title.) The idea was to keep the momentum going and maybe end up as one of the few who have been able to make a decent living from altweeklies. I realized up front that kind of success was a long shot, but having a few clients to pay for the strip and filling the rest of my week with freelance illustration was close enough to fulfilling my dream job. By 2006, I was making all my money from altweekly papers. I must have drawn 80 goddamn covers that year.

Panel from a January 17, 2008 cartoon, ©2008 Ted Rall.

If I had come up a few years later I don’t think I would be in the position I am now. Papers are slashing content and freelance rates. There would be no way to build up the client list I had, which, like everyone else I talk to these days, has been dwindling as papers fold or drop comics along with their page counts.

In the early ’90s, editors at dailies were saying your work didn’t look like an editorial cartoon. Now that I’m with a syndicate, the sales people tell me reactions of editors who are getting pitches for my work. One editorial page editor at a major daily said my stuff “didn’t look like” an editorial cartoon, which is literally impossible by definition. If he had said it was too edgy for a family newspaper, I’d be more understanding. He obviously meant I didn’t crosshatch enough or use Uncle Sam sticking his fingers in a dike labeled “economy.”

You mentioned the weekend round-ups being bland. The New York Times used to run you and Ruben Bolling all the time. Now they have reverted to running the cheap gag comics that even a lot of staff editorial cartoonists decry. Even the physical space allotted to comics is more conducive to a one-panel gag since they are shrinking. Next to the comics in the Sunday Times is a space allotted to lame one-liners from Jay Leno and other late-night hosts. Are we moving backwards?

One thing I’ve always wanted to know about was your success in mainstream papers. It seems like a lot of them were running your stuff, especially at the peak of your client list. Most daily newspapers can’t — or won’t — run what we call “alternative” cartoons. And yet, they were running yours, which can be controversial at times. Was it a matter of having a syndicate behind you that gave you legitimacy in their eyes? You mentioned the RFK award playing into it, but a couple other alties have won that and haven’t had mainstream success. Do you feel like the attitude toward work like ours has changed over the years?

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3 Responses to “TCJ 300 Conversations: Ted Rall & Matt Bors”

  1. scott says:

    I am struggling to see why this had to take up 8 pages? There is a lot of un-required waffling in this, which should have been edited out before posting.

  2. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by pvponline: Anyway, here’s a link to an article where Ted Rall and Matt Bors boo-hoo about editorial cartooning and me apparently.