TCJ 300 Conversations: Ted Rall & Matt Bors

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


Phones are the next step, I suppose. People are paying a dollar for the iFart app so maybe they’ll cough up money for something a bit more substantive. Or maybe society values farts over comics.

I feel that editorial cartoons in particular are facing a crunch that other genres are not. All sorts of cool dailies are exploding online. Graphic novels are still in their relative infancy while taking off and gaining recognition. Editorial cartoons seem to be less relevant than they were. Not to me, but in a lot of people’s minds. We’re having such a hard time finding a stable model.

I agree, editorial cartoons are getting their asses kicked. Staff jobs are disappearing. Syndication lists are shrinking. And the lowest-quality stuff is collecting the plaudits and awards. It’s really discouraging, especially since I think readers like them.

Do you think the staff model is relevant any more?

I do think there will be staff jobs in the future. In the immediate short term, probably 30 of the existing 45 or so remaining staffers should feel like they can sleep safely. Their papers will survive and they’ll keep their jobs because they’re rock stars — local celebrities who are important to their newspaper’s brand in their community.

In the future, I think we’ll see more online staff cartoonists like Matt Wuerker at, chain cartoonists like David Horsey, who lost his paper when it closed but was retained by the Hearst Corp. as a staffer for the entire chain, altweeklies who want staff cartoonists to focus on local issues and, when new papers emerge from the wreckage, Gen-X editors who hire cartoonists simply because it’s so obvious to them that graphic satire is very popular with readers.

You mentioned papers going after the 40-and-under market with their faux-weeklies. Why not go after them with their actual paper? Seems like great business sense, as opposed to glomming on to the near-dead. The fact that this demographic is considered “young” gives you some insight into how they think. A young reader is a 6-year-old. Forty-year-olds are simply readers. This helps explain the huge demand for alternative papers in metro areas. If newspapers don’t start catering to adults who can handle “mature” content such as an opionated cartoon, then they won’t get far.

Newspapers used to be proudly partisan in the heyday of Newsies and Model Ts. Why not go back to that if it helps? I’ll take an exciting partisan newspaper over bland corporate dreck any day.

A sample of Tim Eagan’s work collected in Attitude, ©2002 Tim Eagan.

I have no idea why dailies always want to ghettoize hip content into special sections and spin-off publications. No one likes feeling talked down to. That’s what that approach feels like to readers. Indeed, 40 is not young. It’s middle-aged. Trust me, I know. I’m 46 and I feel weird wearing a T-shirt with stuff written on it.

The opinionated daily is something that used to be wildly popular. I would love to bring that format back. I was reading about how Italian dailies use “lurid” and “purple” and “florid” language to describe the CIA agents who abducted a radical Muslim cleric and renditioned him to Egypt. Stuff like “she was the tigress of the CIA.” It made me laugh out loud. What a concept — news that entertains! It used to be the norm. Pick up any paper from World War II and read the descriptions of battles. You felt like you were right there. You could hear the bombs falling. Those papers were fucking exciting!

Matt, what do you think about the argument that editorial cartoonists are to blame for their own problems because so many of them produce such shitty work? Donkeys and elephants are metaphors few readers understand. When people find out I’m an editorial cartoonist, they ask me: “What do the donkeys and elephants mean?” They honestly don’t know. Those images and symbols are meaningless to them, yet our peers persist in using them. The jokes about the news aren’t funny. If people don’t care about editorial cartooning, can it be that it’s because so many of the editorial cartoons they see are so fucking bad?

It is their fault. And a lot of the print industry’s problems are their fault as well. You don’t know who to blame at this point for editorial cartoons. On one hand, editors should be challenging their artists not to phone it in or fire them. However, I get the feeling many of them like this type of work. Ultimately, it falls on the cartoonist. I think there has been a culture of lazy work that has created a vicious cycle. My own pet theory is that the bland house-style cartoon started attracting artists who were better suited to be a caricaturist in the mall — they like drawing funny pictures but don’t have anything to say. As soon as you figured out how to label visual metaphors, well, you’d figured it out and could land a well-paying job. Their success attracted imitators and that fed on itself and now they dominate the industry.

I’ve been known to call out some of these guys publicly on my blog, and they probably are annoyed that a little piss-ant like me is throwing stones at them. I’ve shown how some that work in Photoshop go and grab the first result in Google Images and run it through a simple filter. Others come out with cartoons five other people did three days earlier. It’s hard to tell if they are swiping ideas or simply all operating on the same frequency of banality.

Some have written me in anger but a lot have cheered me on privately. Even they know that a lot of the work being printed is sub-par at best and yet don’t say so publicly. It’s a small club, so you could offend someone that judges a contest or something. So a lot of people get worked up over what I’ve said and I’ve got to say that I’ve never seen a group so insular and averse to criticism as a profession that requires lobbing bombs at the president of the United States. One staffer whom I’m friendly with told me he tries to stay away from obit cartoons now because he knows I’ll shame him for it so I suppose I’m having some effect!

A Michael Ramirez steroids-in-baseball cartoon ©2007 Copley News Service.

I think the fact that many of them are so incredibly well paid serves as validation to them of people liking those types of cartoons. The whole thing is falling apart, though. I don’t take pleasure in these guys losing their jobs, but they are not equipped to make it online or even in print any more. Donkey/elephant cartoons can’t compete with hilarious segments of Onion video news.

I hear stories about how out-of-it some of these guys are. Staffers losing their jobs and having to figure out how to scan their own cartoons for the first time in their life because they always handed it off to production people. That’s not a generational divide — it’s being lazy and out-of-it. What cartoonist can’t scan their work? Little old grannies can scan in pictures these days. Photoshop’s been around for over a decade. It just adds to the belief that we are out of touch.

Any time I mention to a stranger in conversation what I do, I always explain the kind of editorial cartoons I don’t do and they usually say something like “Oh good, those kinds of cartoons suck.” Someday I’d really like to see people as enthused about this genre as they are about graphic novels right now.

We have that in common. As you may have heard, I used to take quite a bit of pleasure in criticizing older established cartoonists who had gotten tired and lazy when I was starting out. I had to stop doing that since I became president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. I suddenly became president of the whole profession, including artists who drew Saddam with a skull-and-crossbones on his beret and still picture Iran blowing us up with nuclear weapons (even though their missiles can’t travel nearly far enough). It was hard to bite my lip. I couldn’t always do it. I mean, a lot of the staff cartoonists who lost their jobs never deserved to have been hired in the first place. It’s damned hard to feign shock and amazement that a paper would fire them.

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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.