Out of Toon

Political cartoons don’t make a huge chunk of change, but they do change the culture. If only that were as valuable to the media as money.

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | July 2019 |  8 minutes ( 2,193 words)

 

More than 11,000 people retweeted Michael de Adder’s controversial cartoon of Donald Trump next to a golf cart, asking the drowned bodies of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter Valeria if he could “play through.” Had each of those people paid the cartoonist the same $100 reprint fee as the daily comic site The Nib, de Adder would have made at least $1.1 million off a single drawing. As it stands the cartoon was shared widely and the cartoonist did a slew of press spots, but probably did virtually no business, maybe only that $100. “They rush to grab it and post it and get the traffic, but they don’t pay for it,” says Matt Bors, founder of The Nib. “Never would they consider actually paying the cartoonist.” The Nib did.

But it’s apparent how people with money feel about The Nib. At the end of June, First Look Media, owned by billionaire Pierre Omidyar, announced it was closing the digital long-form magazine Topic and would no longer be funding The Nib, a haven for cartoonists that, unlike newspapers with their piecemeal offerings, gathered together the work of a group of artists, many of whom were neither white nor male. Contributing editor Sarah Mirk told me that the site actively worked to find diverse contributors — women, artists of color, nonbinary artists — and paid them a living wage. “We are elevating the voice of the people who are marginalized in our society and who don’t get the chance to get published in traditional media outlets,” she says, adding, “that’s part of why it’s so especially disappointing and frustrating to have our funding cut out of the blue.” In almost six years, The Nib has published 4,000 comics and paid cartoonists $1.5 million. It was first backed by Medium, then, starting in 2016, by First Look, where the staff was working toward subscriber-based funding before it was dropped.

“After three and a half years, we will no longer provide funding for The Nib, however, we are working to transition it back to Matt Bors so he can continue to publish independently,” Jeannie Kedas, the chief communications officer at First Look Media, wrote to me in an email. “We have been honored to support and provide a home for The Nib during the last few years and are thankful to Matt and his fantastic team for their provocative and impactful work. We look forward to seeing where he takes The Nib and its unique brand of comics next.”

Mirk believes First Look’s decision had to do with The Nib’s modest revenue even though, within four days of the announcement, they had 1,000 new members. “There’s a huge demand for this,” Mirk says. “That’s not the problem. The problem is the people who are deciding the funding levels of media don’t understand comics, don’t see their potential, don’t want to fund them, and don’t get what we do.”

That goes for all of journalism, really, but editorial cartoons seem to be particularly misunderstood. According to Eisner Award–winning Vancouver cartoonist Pia Guerra, who contributes to various publications including The New Yorker and The Nib, the artform provides a crucial democratic service to each community by “helping people understand what’s happening in that community so they can fully participate in it.” Yet Nieman Lab reported in 2016 that there were fewer than 40 full-time editorial cartoonists left at American daily newspapers (compared to around 2,000 in the early 1900s at the peak of cartooning). And just last week, news broke that even 67-year-old satirical stronghold MAD magazine, which is owned by AT&T’s WarnerMedia and published by DC Entertainment, will no longer be producing new content after issue #10 in August. While Hollywood executives are so hungry for feel-good animation that they can’t give away their millions fast enough, political cartoonists trafficking in critiques are being drained of their cash flow. Besides de Adder losing a 17-year gig at Brunswick News Inc. after posting his work on social media, Robert Rogers lost his job at The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last year after 25 years, following a series of rejected comics that also focused on the president. Even more troubling, The New York Times announced in June that it was no longer publishing daily political cartoons in the paper’s international edition after two of them were deemed antisemitic. Four years after France was moved to protest in the wake of 12 people being murdered at the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo for exercising free speech, political cartoons, in Bors’s words, are “just a huge afterthought.”

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Political cartoonists have been drawing down people in power since the early 1800s when they were the cornerstone of satirical publications. By the 1870s, Thomas Nast, who worked for Harper’s Weekly, was as indelible as the writers on the New York–based magazine’s staff. His main target, the notoriously corrupt local political boss William Tweed, knew that those of his constituents who couldn’t read words, could still read pictures. “That’s why [Nast] was so dangerous,” explains University of New England’s Richard Scully, who specializes in the history of political cartoons. “That’s also why Napoleon III [France’s President from 1848 to 1852] imposed a particular censorship regime on cartoons — they were more dangerous than the printed word.” But it wasn’t until the 1880s that cartoonists started working for the dailies, at which point Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst tried to outdo each other with their hires. According to Scully, the editorial cartoonist peaked in the 20th century — the first Pulitzer for editorial cartooning was awarded to New York World newspaper’s Rollin Kirby in 1922 — before losing steam in the 1990s, then all but disappearing with the rise of the web in the 2000s. These days, cartoonists, if they are even around, are on contract, like de Adder, or freelance. When they are on staff, if they move on they are unlikely to be replaced.

I spoke to Bors last Monday, when the ink on First Look’s memo was still fresh and he was, literally, sick and tired (he had a cold). The Nib’s editor in chief thought he would be protected by turning the site he founded in 2013 into a sustainable publication. The site made revenue in the six figures, but it was part of the for-profit side of First Look and was expected to be highly profitable in the wake of splashy nonprofits like The Intercept, which, according to the company’s 990 form from 2017, cost about $16.7 million to run. And while The Nib is successful in its own right, growing slowly and steadily, like so many media sites it’s not Facebook or Snapchat, which is to say it’s not a billionaire’s (or even a millionaire’s) business. “It’s not something where you get a high financial reward on your investment — what you get back is cultural change,” says Mirk. “For people who just care about money, maybe they shouldn’t be funding journalism.” In terms of making rich people richer, The Nib is as unsustainable as every other media site that has been shut down by rich people within the past decade. It appears to be yet another instance in which business execs misunderstand what journalism is —  a wealth of information as opposed to a source of financial wealth itself.

“It’s not great out there for cartoonists right now, that’s for sure,” Pia Guerra accedes, though she feels lucky to have multiple venues for her work. Bors, who was a Pulitzer finalist in 2012, describes cartooning as a “labor-intensive craft,” and says that the kind of work he does — four to six panels — on a full-time schedule would only produce up to three comics a week. Despite his skills and his experience, he has never been offered a staff job. He thinks comics literacy isn’t seen as part of journalism, so editors “just don’t even consider it,” opting for bad prose over good art. Guerra thinks the lack of support could be a matter of “snobbery or partisan bias.” I think it probably has a little to do with all of those things. I also think cartooning is a medium that can appear quaintly static within the increasingly dynamic imagery of online media. Oh, and it costs money when you could just steal something from social media or any number of other places for free.

And yet political cartoons keep bubbling up on the web anyway. Bruce MacKinnon’s assault of Lady Justice, a blond Christine Blasey Ford lookalike being held down by a man with the Republican Party logo for cufflinks, was published in Nova Scotia’s Chronicle Herald during the Kavanaugh hearings and was shared thousands of times on Facebook. Guerra’s cartoon of a baby Trump sitting on former White House adviser Steve Bannon’s lap got tens of thousands of retweets, as did her crushing image of Aaron Feis — the coach who sacrificed himself for his Parkland students — being welcomed into heaven by a crowd of shooting victims. The power of the cartoon is its ability to build various layers of commentary into one image, not unlike the best meme. De Adder’s viral cartoon, for instance, not only captured the tragedy of the border crisis, but the absolute nonchalance with which the current administration in all its privilege beholds its crimes against humanity. That image has more than 20,000 likes on Twitter. It’s easier to share a cartoon than it is to share text — it spreads fast, ironically crossing borders with ease. But even though de Adder claims this was his most successful cartoon to date, his employer, Brunswick News Inc. cancelled his contract 24 hours after it appeared online. Though the company denied the cartoon was the reason, de Adder has claimed he was told Trump was “taboo” before all of this happened. Brunswick is also owned by James K. Irving of the Irving Oil family, which trades with the U.S. “The company line is the bottom line. That’s it,” de Adder told CBC radio’s As It Happens. “Donald Trump and me being fired is not the issue here. The issue is media control and media manipulation.”

The issue is whether you can actually see cartoons for what they are at their most affecting: not only as a means for decoding the world, but for doing it in such a way that the printed word often can’t. In 2008, The New Yorker ran a cartoon by Barry Blitt as its cover, which had a turbaned Barack Obama fist-bumping his Afro-and-gun-wielding wife, a satirical take on the misinformation skewing their presidential campaign. In response to cries of racism, the magazine calmly backed the artist. “Satire is part of what we do, and it is meant to bring things out into the open, to hold up a mirror to prejudice, the hateful, and the absurd. And that’s the spirit of this cover,” The New Yorker told The New York Times in a statement. Contrast this response with the Times ending daily political cartoons in its international edition after two antisemitic missteps. “Just to clarify: we aren’t ending political cartoons — we’re going to stop running a daily cartoon in the international edition of the paper, which circulates overseas,” editorial page editor James Bennet said in an email. “We intend to keep commissioning cartoon projects, including about politics, as part of our broader emphasis on visual journalism.” That still sounds to me like hundreds of cartoons will be lost because of just two. (Two contract cartoonists also lost their jobs.) Imagine if offensive stories in the paper of record had the same effect? Of course, that would never happen, because the Times prioritizes words, and even, to an extent, photographs. But cartoons, which can show and tell in a way that neither photography nor words can do alone, seem to be less of a concern. As Mirk says, “I wish that more left-leaning organizations understood the power of media and cultural change and would put money behind it.”

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“I always say that The Nib basically shouldn’t be able to exist,” Bors tells me, referring to the exceptional cartoonists on its roster, specifically Guerra, who he thinks at any other time would have been one of the most famous editorial cartoonists in newspapers. Despite The Nib losing its financial support, however, its founder has no plans to abandon the site. “I’ve got to keep The Nib going because I don’t have any other option,” he says, and he could almost be speaking for cartoonists as a whole. (On the end of MAD magazine, he tweeted: “It’s brutal out here.”) Bors is looking into donors and grants and setting up as a nonprofit, though he isn’t sure if he will be able to hire back any of his staff (Mirk’s salary was $55,000, while the cartoonists were paid between $200 and $1,500 per comic). Despite the “constant wearing down,” Guerra is going to keep on too. “I’ve always seen editorial cartooning as a way of shining a light on an issue so people can react and act, but after two and a half years of this,” she says, referring to Trump’s presidency, “people are just getting tired and it’s sad to see, it’s sad to feel it.” But there’s something galvanizing about the fact that not only Guerra, but also Bors, Rogers, de Adder and a number of other cartoonists are continuing despite the constant barriers. Because who knows who might be watching? “I often wonder if Trump collects cartoons of himself,” Scully says. “Napoleon III certainly did; so did the Duke of Wellington, and other historical figures — Hitler and Kaiser Wilhelm II are rumored to have done so. Stalin used to draw unflattering cartoons of his colleagues.” Perhaps. We know he isn’t reading, anyway.

Note: This column has been updated to include comments from First Look Media.

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.