(Jesse Dittmar for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
A successful media model is often a quiet one, gathering up money from the unglamorous corners of the market, cutting checks for its writers and artists in small but regular amounts. When Bob Mankoff retired from the New Yorker this year after twenty years as the Cartoon Editor, he left behind one of most successful new media models of the era: The Cartoon Bank. It was a database he founded in 1992 and ran from an apartment in Yonkers, and it helped cartoonists license their work for thousands of dollars a month. But when Condé Nast bought the Bank from Mankoff in 1997, the money began to dry up and the model began to fail.
Paste magazine recounts the rise and fall of the Cartoon Bank, which was begun by Mankoff with an $1,800 Apple computer and a $745 scanner, and built into a database with over 20,000 images from 50 cartoonists, categorized by subject: “The market was individual consumers as well as businesses; if you ran a dental association, for instance, you could easily find dental-themed cartoons for your monthly newsletter. Early customers included Bloomberg Financial Markets, which delivered a cartoon to 41,000 subscribers each morning,”
With fees ranging from $100 to $1000 for a single image, cartoonists could start to rely on checks coming in from the Bank, and some cartoonists were receiving residiuals of $30,000 to $40,000 a year. But when Condé Nast took over, things began to break and cartoonists saw a reliable income dwindle to nothing.
The comic character Betty Boop is enjoying a renaissance, with new cartoons, a new trademark red lipstick, and women’s fashions on offer. At New York, Gabrielle Bellot explores the original inspiration for Betty Boop—a black jazz singer named Baby Esther Jones, whose signature voice and scat-inspired patter inspired not only Betty’s look, but her signature phrase, “Boop-oop-a-doop.” As Bellot writes, Boop was far more than just a cartoon character—she was the first feminist depicted in animated film.
Betty Boop, it seems, continues to dance across the stages of media, makeup, and memories alike. Yet behind her there’s a ghost, a figure who follows her everywhere, but who’s hardly ever seen: The all-too-often-forgotten African-American cabaret singer named “Baby” Esther who, arguably, truly gave birth to the cartoon character, yet rarely receives credit for it, and whose story, in many ways, tells a larger tale about America itself.
On the one hand, Betty Boop was a creation of the heterosexual male gaze, with an endless parade of lecherous male characters trying to see under her skirt, yet on the other hand she wore power like a light shawl, her image an in-your-face depiction of unashamed sexuality.
She was a stereotype, yet she also defied stereotypes of what female cartoon characters could do onscreen. An early promotional ad describes her as “the first and only feminine cartoon star.” In two 1932 shorts, Betty Boop, long depicted as a virgin, even has to try to fend off grotesque male characters who try to rape her, which she is saved from by screaming for help; these were among the earliest cartoons to depict sexual harassment so explicitly. And she could be subversive in other ways, too: In one episode, she changes clothes onstage from a dress to a man’s suit, a transformation all the more striking because it subtly suggests a possible queer context for the character.
There’s an internet adage — Godwin’s Law — stating that once you’ve made a Nazi analogy you’ve lost the argument. This short post on The Nib gathers the work of five Jewish cartoonists who address the validity of Nazi analogies in our current political climate.
Godwin’s Law by cartoonist Matt Lubchansky
I’d argue that when we invoke Godwin’s Law, we all lose.