Friday, February 22, 2013

Sucking on a toothache

Most editorial cartoonists in the United States forget how good they've got it.

As cartoonists elsewhere face firing, beating and even death for their vivid opinions, cartoonists here, in full-throated freedom, too often cough up hairballs.

Yet each day I follow their phlegmy siren song, made easier by Internet aggregation, hoping this day — maybe this day! — I'll find something worthwhile. Usually, though: Crash …

I know the current excuse; I just don't accept it: Editorial cartoonists are the newspaper environment's indicator species, signaling by their attrition the continuing demise of print. Keeping a job is hard enough, let alone profferring a controversial opinion in the process.

All the more reason, I say, for them to go down swinging. But just like always, too many cartoonists fancy themselves the Jay Lenos or Jimmy Fallons of family newspapers, Johnny-Carson-on-the-spot with a current-events joke.

Syndication enables this milquetoast behavior, allowing editors to treat cartoons as a visual break. They're just little candy kisses for your supposedly having read all the heavy gray erudite stolid —serious! — opinion surrounding the 'toons. Good reader! Here's a joke.

At best, newspapers use syndicated cartoons as window dressing for syndicated opinion columns. Fit tab A liberal cartoon into slot B liberal column on the same topic, and so on.

At worst, many cartoonists become the poster painters for their political affiliation, simply illustrating party talking points, without an opinion of their own.

Cartoonists should work without fear or favor, without deference to any political flag. Their credo should be "When our leaders do us wrong, waste our money, act out of hypocrisy, no matter who they are, I will shame them and bring them down."

Cartoonists should do all in their power to effect change — to correct the shamed, or compel readers to vote or criticize their leaders. With their immense power of visual immediacy, they should do this, every time.

They should also educate us, bringing to light issues we may not be aware of, and daring us to form opinions.

Their work should stand alone on the opinion pages, without tether to the newspapers. Editors should leave them alone, let them be accountable for their own opinions.

Some cartoonists do this. Most don't. Here's a sampling: 

• The Good

I've waxed enough about Pat Oliphant, my favorite, so I'll move on.

Matt Bors

Like Ted Rall, Bors comes out of the independent weekly newspaper ranks, with the look and ethos of independent comics, and has garnered wider recognition through syndication. Like Rall, Bors trends liberal but doesn't hesitate to attack people and issues from what might be considered his own camp.

He's tenacious, for example, about the U.S. use of remotely operated aircraft, or drones, and particularly President Obama's predilection for them, and what they mean for our right to privacy and protection from our government.

Sometimes The Sacramento Bee, my hometown newspaper with a liberal muckraker leaning, will run Bors' 'toons. But not often.

Jeff Danziger

He's old school, a Vietnam veteran who has never lost his anger or power to offend with a jab and a smile.

Here he exposes the hypocrisy of Senators attempting to block the confirmation of Sen. Chuck Hagel as Defense Secretary.

Sens. Graham and McCain dismissed pointed investigation into the fabricated causes of the Iraq War, but have held up Hagel's hearing until they get answers about the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Danziger wanted to point that out, just in case you're voting next election.

• The Bad 

Steve Breen

Breen is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, and I don't know why.

His work the first time 'round, 1998, was sharper than the work he did 11 years later for his second prize. But that's not saying much.

This example shows the devolution of his work. It's a comment on a former San Diego mayor alleged to have won and lost $1 billion gambling her husband's foundation money.

So … what are we to do about it? What action? The sum is outrageous, the gambling sad, but other than that … I think he flashed on voting booth levers and jackpot levers (they're similar!) and bim-bam-boom, cartoon done, now off to work on his syndicated comic strip "Grand Avenue," where the one-note punchlines come lamely from a mile away. Where is the justice?

Michael Ramirez

Nobody approaches Ramirez for technical mastery; his drawing skills are a wonder, his use of color painterly.

But the same opinion, always from the far right, always some variation on whatever-Obama-does-is-wrong.

Case in point, this recent cartoon. Caduceus, Year of the Snake — clever juxtaposition — to bang the same drum: Obamacare BAD! No particular reason, no nuance, no call to action, just Obamacare BAD!

This cartoon, as most of Ramirez' work, brought to you by Karl Rove and Mitch McConnell.

Another two-time Pulitzer Prize winner.

• The Ugly

Chuck Asay
I'm never quite sure of Asay's point. It's right-of-Tea-Party conservative, but that's not revealing. He's old school, too, though not like Danziger. More like a guy on his front porch, shaking his fist and screaming about the gummit dammit! I guess he's retired, but still syndicates. Here's a recent 'toon.

I think he's saying that the problem can't be solved by addressing the causes of crime, but by reading the Bible and doing as God says. Why this is pertinent specifically to black-on-black crime, if at all, I'm not sure.

The Proverbs verses referred to are, according to the King James Bible:
"These six things doth the Lord hate: Yea, seven are an abomination unto him: A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren."
I say this, it's an opinion, all right. I think. And he did make me look it up, so there's that.

Yeah, I too noticed all my "good" examples are liberal, while all my "bad" and "ugly" examples are conservative. I don't care what way cartoonists lean, except that their side can't always be good and the other bad. Hypocrisy and evil cross all lines, and the cartoonists should say so. Thump the Bible, the Koran, what have you, but be willing to badmouth the beam in your own eye, and have the guts to say something meaningful.

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