When I finally got my job as a staff political cartoonist—the job I had been working towards for move than 15 years—I was miserable. The brass ring was nothing more than a rusty old pop-top. Granted, my timing for landing the job at the San Jose Mercury News was terrible. The dot-com bubble burst, the paper’s parent company, Knight Ridder, began making cuts, the publisher resigned in protest, and my editor took early retirement. I was suddenly naked, under the watchful eye of a large media chain and a new publisher who arrived from Florida wanting to see less criticism of President Bush on the editorial page. Naturally, I saw that as my chance to go out in a glorious blazing fireball of ink, paper and word balloons. Though it wasn’t quite as dramatic as that, let’s just say we parted ways, and I was never happier working for myself.
Cartoonists talk about the demise of editorial cartooning at newspapers but, for me, having a terrible experience as a staff cartoonist was the best thing that ever happened to my career. I suddenly knew there was no more brass ring to grab hold of. I didn’t have to apply for those mythical staff cartoonist job openings in places I didn’t want to live! If I was going to be a “successful” political cartoonist, I was going to have to do it myself.
Before the Mercury News episode, I had built up a fairly large client list of newspapers, mostly in California, that would run my political cartoons. I had also started selling a weekly, animated political cartoon to a few news Web sites. After the episode at the Mercury News, I focused my energy on the animated work, largely because I was so disillusioned with the old-style print newspaper world.
The list of news sites that ran my animated work grew, as did my enthusiasm for this new cartooning medium. It wasn’t long before I stopped doing traditional print cartoons altogether.
While I had always looked at a staff job as a successful, stable point in my career, I soon realized that my job was in fact more stable when I worked for myself. Instead of having one editor in control of my work and my income, I now had multiple editors and outlets that published my work. If one editor thought a particular animation was too hot to handle, that cartoon would still run in other outlets. The result: more freedom to create better work.
I believe a political cartoon should always say something. Message comes first, humor second, and ideally both arrive at the viewer’s eye together. So many political cartoonists waste their time on pointless celebrity gags. They’re simply illustrating current events and pop culture. They are as much a risk to the future of political cartoons as newspapers that eliminate the position of editorial cartoonist.
“What did you do in the battle to keep political cartoons alive, Daddy?”
“Why, I drew some swell cartoons of Michael Jackson and Britney Spears that were hilarious!” Ugh.
While there are still some great editorial cartoons appearing across the country, the newspaper business does not look promising for the political cartoonist, to say the least. The old days of opinionated cartoons that grab the reader by the collar are quickly being replaced with watered-down cartoons that give the declining readership a slight chuckle. I consider myself very fortunate to have found an escape hatch from the print world and to have emerged into the animated world.
The business of newspapers and cartoons aside, animated political cartoons provide so many more tools with which to work. While I still begin each cartoon by following the news, taking notes and sketching cartoon ideas, I now have color, motion, music and sound effects all at my disposal. Done correctly, an animated political cartoon can reach inside someone’s brain and grab just the right spot.
My goal is to get a message across in an engaging, entertaining way, drawing people in with animation so they don’t feel like they’re getting hit with a message-laden sledgehammer. This is the strength of all political cartoons, and I’ve found it even more effective in animation. For example, rather than write a long editorial or column decrying the insanity of capital punishment, I created an animated political cartoon featuring a cute needle character, happily killing a variety of inmates. The animation contained many of the same facts and figures I would have included in a column, but the meat was surrounded by a layer of fun and dark humor. The same message was conveyed, but it was made more accessible with cartoons.
Would Americans rather watch cartoons or read a long column of text?
While the Web might attract a younger audience, that continues to change. I have received e-mails from 6-year-olds and from 80-year-olds. I don’t skew my work to any demographic target and try to follow the model of the old Warner Brothers’ creators by doing work that makes me laugh and is important to me. Selfish, I know, but I have an aversion to focus groups.
I generally arrive at my ideas through anger or, more recently, rage. Starting from the point of reading the newspaper and online news sites, I then take notes on stories that jump out at me as particularly good cartoon fodder. It seems that the most troubling times as a citizen can be the best times for a cartoonist. I’m an ambulance chaser, a hyena. I soak it all in—terrorism, wars, famine, hypocrisy, genocide—then get angry, have something to say, add some dark humor, and spit out a cartoon idea. It’s a strange combination of dark and light, sadness and humor that seems to make the best cartoon.
I’ve received letters from people who tear into me as a crazy blankety-blank pinko who should move to France, or another apparently God-awful place, then say “but I really like your work.” That is what I love about animated political cartoons—people can’t help but watch them, even if they disagree.
Mark Fiore creates his cartoons in San Francisco. His work can be seen at MarkFiore.com, VillageVoice.com, AOL, MotherJones.com, SFGate.com and many other Web sites.