TCJ 300 Conversations: Ted Rall & Matt Bors

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


Yeah, talk about being prez. You don’t like most of the work but headed the organization. How long have you been in it by the way? I’m a member and I love meeting up and talking shop, but how relevant is it now? Doesn’t seem like it has too much of an effect on anything.

I joined the AAEC in 1993. I waited to apply because I didn’t think I was professional enough. Now it seems like the quality level has dropped quite a bit for the average member. Of course, on the top end the work has never been better. I don’t know how the AAEC will survive, but I think it’s important for us weirdos who do this extremely strange job to get together and talk shop and commiserate from time to time, even if it’s just a social thing. I’ve also gotten business through other cartoonists, so I find it useful as well.

Anyway, when they approached me about becoming president, I was really surprised. Obviously I am a controversial figure both politically and personally. People love me or hate me. Indeed, when I became president, it was a pretty thankless task. Every week brought another crisis in the form of a layoff or something else, and the conservative cartoonists in particular were appalled. But I think they came around. It means a lot to me to have the respect of these cartoonists. Even the ones who do lousy work are awesome, fun, well-informed people. They just choose to do bad work. And of course 99 percent of everything sucks. Why should political cartoons be any different? So it’s been an honor to do my bit to help out my colleagues at a time of trial and tribulation.

Cartoon ©2009 Matt Bors.

We face two dilemmas: economic and aesthetic. We tend to focus on the financial side: How do we make a living doing this thing we love? But there really is an artistic crisis as well. As an old roommate told me one time about my work: “It’s not that you’re so great, Ted. It’s that your competitors suck so bad.” He had a point: The bar for political cartoons is very, very low. Ninety-nine percent of published editorial cartoons are God-damned embarrassing. But there isn’t much we can do about our colleagues. All we can do is try to improve our own work. And we can call attention to those who are doing good cartoons, while pouring derision and scorn down upon the hacks. Speaking of which, who do you think is doing great work? Who is bringing down the profession and why?

I do think there is a lot of great work. One of the best in my mind is Brian McFadden (Big Fat Whale) who may not even be a strict editorial cartoonist. He is doing a weekly that touches on politics maybe every other week. I’d still put those 25 cartoons from a year of his work against a full year’s work from a lot of pros. Jen Sorensen, Keith Knight — a lot of the alties, of course. But I don’t want to totally trash mainstream work. I’m not biased against the form itself, just a lot of the bad content and ideas that are generated.

I like Mike Lester, Jeff Danziger, Joel Pett, Pat Oliphant sometimes, Tom Toles (his older stuff blows away his current work). I love reading Lester’s work even though I disagree with him. You understand that he has a certain view of the world and he is able to present it incredibly well for how idiotic I usually find that view of the world. At least you get that he has an opinionated view of the world. To me, Lester is a must-read as any worthwhile editorial cartoonist is. I want to see what he’s doing. Same with Peter Bagge’s work in Reason Magazine. Jack Ohman at The Oregonian started a large Sunday strip a year or two ago where he does more narrative-driven work. It’s really great and I think it led to him winning the RFK Award this year. Most work I don’t seek out and only run across it sifting through Cagle or what not.

I like those too. I also like Scott Stantis and Chuck Asay — great conservative cartoonists, and we need them now more than ever in the age of Obama. I’ve always been a fan of Ben Sargent, Signe Wilkinson, Joel Pett and Danziger, as well. I agree that Toles has lost his mojo since moving to the Post. Among the modern cartoonists — I’m trying to retire the “alternative” label — I also admire McFadden and Ruben Bolling (Tom the Dancing Bug). And Ward Sutton’s side project as “Kelly”, the deranged right-wing ersatz editorial cartoonist in The Onion, performs a valuable service as the policeman for a profession that doesn’t even know it’s being policed. I’m sad that Tim Kreider (The Pain — Where Does It End?) and David Rees (Get Your War On) quit, apparently because America’s quest for greatness and progressiveness was achieved with the election of Barack Obama.

I like both their work as well and don’t get it. Rees had a huge audience with Rolling Stone and, no surprise, they haven’t replaced him. I think a lot of people turned to editorial cartooning during the dark Bush years that wouldn’t normally consider it. Kreider, from what I understand, wasn’t doing too many political things in comics before 9/11. We saw Carol Lay and others suss on politics for a few years, as well. 9/11 helped gel my political awareness, but I was 17 at the time. I’d like to think I would have ended up an editorial cartoonist either way.

Yeah, there were a lot of “political slummers” — as I called them in one cartoon — during the Bush years. In most cases, they didn’t know enough about politics to compete even against the mainstream hacks. You know who never gets name-checked but deserves to? Tim Eagan. He does Deep Cover. He’s great, but no one notices.

Cartoon ©2007 Matt Bors.

True. I sought him out for an original. He does great work. I hate living in world where he languishes as an unknown while some abhorrent bastard phones in five a week.

It’s funny: When the last batch of Pulitzers were announced, you could hear a pin drop on the listserv frequented by AAEC members. No one thought those guys deserved to win. I don’t even think they thought they did. It’s like living in Bizarro World. For the last maybe 10 years, the vast majority of Pulitzer finalists wouldn’t rate in the top 25 of most cartoonists’ or knowledgeable readers’ assessments of who is doing the best work of the year. It’s like there’s an inverse relationship between quality and success.

It’s not like that in other fields. The Oscars don’t always go to the best films or whatever, but they don’t usually go to the absolutely worst ones. It drives me crazy.

Really I think a lot of the big names are creating some of the worst work.

Come on — name names!

When you look at recent Pulitzer winners: Luckovich, Ramirez, Breen — they are all two-time winners now. I’m not sure how the judges came to that conclusion. I don’t see them standing out from the pack at all.

You have Ramirez essentially doing cartoons Jeff MacNelly did years ago and not being called on it. The year he won the Pulitzer he had three or four cartoons with a gun barrel turned on the person (or elephant) holding it with some sort of label on it. These weren’t in his portfolio, mind you, so I doubt the judges were aware of the hackery he pulled. His Pulitzer portfolio, in a year where torture was a huge issue and Iraq was finally admitted to be a hopeless quagmire by the mainstream media, was filled with shit slamming Sheryl Crow and corny cartoons celebrating the heroism of California’s firefighters. In his post-win interview with Dave Astor, he talked about the need for drawing serious cartoons and something about being a journalist. If he were a journalist, he’d be fired. He’s a hack.

It doesn’t seem like editors and judges follow the field closely enough to know who is phoning it in and who is doing worse: plagiarizing. Jim Borgman repeatedly swiped from Jeff MacNelly without consequence. A few years ago he traced a motorcycle from a MacNelly cartoon. It was clear to anyone who looked at both cartoons side by side and I heard he copped to it. But none of that played out in public and I doubt his editors even knew. You hear stories like this all the time.

What’s more shameful is that many pros don’t see a problem with it. There’s this sort of inbred culture in our field where ethical standards have evaporated. They bend over backwards to make excuses for it. I imagine it is because half of them do it themselves while others don’t want to rock the boat or insult one of their heroes. You would think the Internet would help put a stop to rampant copying but in a way it may have exacerbated the situation. Now someone running low on ideas pops online and steals someone else’s. Multiple cartoons come out all the time with a similar premise and it’s often because of an overlap in predictable ideas. That kind of lack of originality makes it easy for someone to coast through life copying cartoons and ideas all day without anyone knowing what they are doing. I bet you could do it five days a week for a year and keep your staff job. I doubt anyone would even notice.

Certainly the standards of our profession would never stand for columnists. And what is it with the worshipping of MacNelly to the point where cartoonists who know how to draw swipe from him? He was important but he’s like the Virgin of Guadalupe to these guys.

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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.