Drawing, Because They Can
Social commentary in the cartooning world has expanded thanks to the combination of talented young cartoonists and young readers who want more than just funny in their funnies.
Field Report, August J. Pollak, Mar. 23, 2005
Cartoonist Garry Trudeau became famous while still a college student. Now, social commentary in the cartooning world has expanded thanks to the combination of talented young cartoonists and young readers who want more than just funny in their funnies.
By August J. Pollak
Back in 1976, President Gerald Ford famously remarked, “There are only three major vehicles to keep us informed as to what’s going on in Washington: the electronic media, the print media, and Doonesbury – not necessarily in that order.”
For Garry Trudeau’s political comic strip to have earned such clout- Trudeau was 28 at the time- is a sign of the influence editorial cartoons can have in public discourse. Now, in an era of compressed sound bites and “dialogue” in the form of unedited talking heads screaming at each other, a younger, more media-savvy audience has rediscovered the labor intensive and thoughtful art of comics – which requires time to sketch, ink and letter before being presented to the public. The average cartoonist does more work to get their message out than your average newspaper op-ed columnist. And the cartoonist often makes more sense.
|Tom Hart’s cartoon Hutch Owen|
Starting today and running through the next week, a trio of young cartoonists will be speaking and displaying their work on the Laugh While You Can tour – a seven-city traveling gallery of slides, animation, and discussion. The artists- Jen Sorensen, Tim Kreider, and Tom Hart – are all controversial and passionate about their message. While they were only in kindergarten when Doonesbury was rising to national prominence, they already have an extensive set of notches on their belts: Hart has published over 10 books and novellas since 1994. Sorensen has two books of cartoons. Krieder’s original artwork appears in gallery shows across the country. And both Hart and Sorensen are previous recipients of the Xeric Foundation grant- an annual award given to cartoonists to fund self-publication of their work.
The newspaper comics industry is just that- an industry. Most cartoons appearing in the paper are the properties of a handful of large syndicates, and with a few exceptions, most daily comics need to meet the family-friendly appeal of the “general audience,” serving a commercial purpose rather than an artistic one. As a result, editors ignore artists like Sorensen in favor of other tamer, simple fare. In what little room is left for cartoons amidst valuable advertising space, editors seem reluctant to go out with the old and in with the new. (Many strips run in newspapers as reprints, their creators having retired or died years ago.) Despite being edged out of the local paper, more and more alternative cartoonists are finding an audience – and more important, an audience is finding them.
The Laugh While You Can tour proves something new about political cartoons’ readers- they don’t just want to read their favorite artists, they want to see and hear them as well. Art shows like the Small Press Expo and the MoCCA Art Festival, sponsored by New York’s Museum of Comic & Cartoon Art, offer fans the chance to actually meet their favorite independent artists face-to-face. And for the younger generation of cartoonists, the environment is more engaging and more interactive than firing off an e-mail to the editor at the corporate office.
“Totally love it. Bravo,” says Hart, regarding the new interactivity and how it bypasses the roadblocks to newspaper publication. “It’s a choked distribution chain that needs to be upset.”
|Jen Sorensen’s Slowpoke|
“Altweeklies are my bread and butter, so I have no desire to bypass them – though the Internet certainly allows me to have a much wider audience,” says Sorensen. “Adding a blog to my site has multiplied my readership severalfold. I think people appreciate that personal touch, and enjoy the behind-the-scenes commentary. It also gives me another outrage outlet – a chance to cover issues that don’t necessary lend themselves to cartoons.”
And readers are all about the outrage outlets. Cartoonist Dan Perkins, who under the nom-de-cartoon Tom Tomorrow produces the strip This Modern World, attracts around 10,000 readers a day to his website. And he’s just as popular when speaking on college campuses- something he’s invited to do frequently. “My audiences may be self-selecting, but they are also large,” says Tomorrow. “It’s not like I’m talking about one or two kids from the political science department who happen to wander over.”
Readers, especially college-age audiences, are anxious to listen. And cartoonists are just as eager to speak their mind. Both Sorensen and Kreider have been featured in the Attitude books- anthologies of new, original, and subversive cartoonists edited by syndicated cartoonist and writer Ted Rall. Not just a collection of reprints, the books feature both a selection of their cartoons and interviews with the cartoonists.
With the increasing popularity of weblogs and other new media, it’s clear that readers are happy to get more from their favorite cartoonists than just a quick laugh over the morning coffee. Young audiences have found a valuable and energizing resource in the next generation of social commentators who can express themselves in the cartoon medium.
“I don’t really view the cartoon as something that will ‘motivate’ young people, as if they are dead car batteries in need of a jump start,” says Tom Tomorrow. “Every campus I go to, I find students who are interested and engaged with the world. Sure, I can probably point out a few things they haven’t thought about, and humor is always an effective tool for doing that—but from what I see when I go out, this myth of the disinterested college student is exactly that, a myth.”
For information on the Laugh While You Can tour, as well as galleries of cartoons from Jen Sorensen, Tim Kreider, and Tom Hart, check out the official website. And be sure to check CampusProgress.org’s cartoons archive for more of Jen Sorensen’s cartoon Slowpoke!