TCJ 300 Conversations: Ted Rall & Matt Bors

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


Cartoon courtesy of and ©2009 Matt Bors.

Yes, editors have definitely changed. They’ve become more conservative. Not so much more politically to the right (although that seems to be true too), but small-c conservative: unwilling to risk offending anyone. If you’re unwilling to risk causing offense, that doesn’t leave much room for political cartooning as it used to exist until the 1980s in the United States — brash, opinionated and hard-hitting. In the 1970s, cartoonists like Mike Peters and Doug Marlette started having success with cartoons that worked hard to be funny as well as opinionated. A lot of other cartoonists emulated that approach — artists like Mike Luckovich and Walt Handelsman come to mind — and noticed that the more they tilted the balance away from taking a stand and toward cracking jokes about the news, the more success they had in getting their work bought by newspapers via syndication and in getting hired for staff positions doing local and state cartoons — and receiving real salaries with benefits. It didn’t take long before most mainstream editorial cartoonists became indistinguishable from one another stylistically — they all used the same crosshatching Jeff MacNelly-inspired approach you referenced — and tonally. How many editorial cartoons that run in Newsweek, the New York Times or USA Today express an actual opinion? Most are illustrations. They show what’s happening, not what’s wrong or what the cartoonist thinks should be done. Unless you follow the form, it’s hard to know whether most so-called editorial cartoonists are Democrats or Republicans or whatever.

I attribute my ability to get fairly out-there work in mainstream daily newspapers to a combination of timing and marketing. On the marketing side, having a syndicate behind me made a difference. Editors at daily papers just won’t reply if an individual cartoonist, especially one with a “non-mainstream” — I have to put that term in quotes now, since there are so many more “alternative” cartoonists in print now than “mainstream” ones — sensibility. If Tom Tomorrow or Jen Sorensen calls the editor of the Miami Herald, the odds of getting a call back, much less published, are slim to none. Syndicates have sales people who can force an editor to give serious consideration to work they wouldn’t otherwise think twice about.

Certainly, having a syndicate behind you does give you legitimacy. If you’re just some guy drawing political comics, you don’t rate as highly as one with a job at a paper and/or a syndication contract. It’s still a very old-fashioned business. It relies on personal contacts between a syndicate sales rep and an editor, and it needs to be done in person. Phone calls don’t work. You can put your work up on the Web as much as you want, but only print really pays. So we’re stuck with this paradigm. I think it’s a pretty stupid one, but it’s still the way things work.

Chronicle Features had a reputation for edgy comics. They signed The Far Side and then, when Gary Larsen went to Universal Press Syndicate, picked up Bizarro. That helped them when they came out with someone weird and edgy, as I was viewed at the time. They could have marketed me as a comic strip but instead chose to present me as a new kind of editorial cartoonist. Yes, I worked in multiple panels more often than not, but that wasn’t unprecedented at the time. Now mainstream cartoonists work in single panels a large percent of the time.

Sequence from a March 24, 2008 cartoon, courtesy of and ©2008 Ted Rall.

Looking back at the 1990s, it was a good time to be an editorial cartoonist with a different approach. Daily newspapers were still trying to lure younger readers. Remember the faux altweeklies they launched in various cities? They’ve given up entirely on readers under 40 now — they think they’ve all gone to the Web and are never coming back. So a lot of editors who didn’t get me personally published my stuff in order to attract Generation Xers.

Perhaps my biggest competitor was Tom Tomorrow. People often confused This Modern World with my stuff. Fortunately for me, he went the non-syndication route, which allowed him to keep 100 percent of his income. That left the alt editorial-cartooning market in dailies to me, even though it did keep me out of a lot of altweeklies that thought we were redundant. (That has since changed — we do different work.)

Because I was marketed as an editorial cartoonist by Chronicle and then by Universal Press — I’ve been with them since 1996 — I always drew my stuff with the idea of running on the op-ed page in mind. I don’t know if that helped at all. Of course, I’d like to think it was just because I do such great work but I know from experience that quality and success are usually unrelated. You have only to look at the crap that wins Pulitzers every year to see that.

Speaking of Pulitzers, there was definitely resistance to my work in certain circles. In April 1997, I got a call from a friend who always knows the inner workings of the cartoon committee that picks that category of the Pulitzer Prizes at Columbia University. “Congratulations!” he said. “You won!” He explained that the other two finalists, Tom Toles and Jim Borgman, were previous winners. During the 1990s there was a bias against giving it to former winners. Since I was a first-time finalist, I was a shoo-in — so he said — to win. When the award was announced, however, it went to Jim Morin of the Miami Herald, even though he wasn’t one of the three finalists! It turns out there’s an obscure rule that allows the big über-committee to overrule the cartoon committee and pick someone out of thin air — or award no prize at all — if they don’t like any of the three finalists. Seymour Topping, the head of the Pulitzer committee at the time, told my source that he couldn’t stand the way I drew because it didn’t look like an editorial cartoon. (Familiar, huh?) What the hell does that even mean? But us “altie”/non-crosshatching/wordy types hear that all the time.

I have to think that it would have made a difference in the evolution of U.S. editorial cartooning had I won that prize in 1997. Tom Tomorrow, Ruben Bolling, Ward Sutton and several others would probably have won in subsequent years, thus stamping the official imprimatur that the kind of work we do was valid in the eyes of the establishment. As it stands, however, that marked the high-water mark of modern editorial cartooning styles in terms of mainstream acceptance. Along with Jules Feiffer (who won in 1986), I am the only artist who came out of the alternative press to become a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Among the more mainstream cartoonists, prizes and accolades and reprints have gone to cartoonists who are less daring, less opinionated and — in my opinion — less interesting ever since.

It’s like Bizarro World. As TV and movies and music evolve toward greater innovation and more daring commentary, editorial cartooning — which used to be the wildest and craziest form of social commentary around — retreats into a conservatism it never knew before. Meanwhile, the prizes and big paychecks go to the absolute worst of the worst of the worst cartoonists, while the best of the best make next to nothing. The trend has been toward blander and worse — and it’s gotten especially bad since Bush and 9/11. We live in an age where Jon Stewart and Bill Maher are considered radical! It’s hilarious, and not in a good way.

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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.