Drawing Power

Is an idea trite because a lot of people have it at the same time? Or could it be, on a day such as September 11, simply an overwhelming idea? There are only about 110 to 120 editorial cartoonists working full-time for the nation’s newspapers, and by their own count, when the twin towers collapsed some 50 of them turned to the same symbol: the Statue of Liberty standing in the nearby harbor. The cartoonists disagree as to whether this should embarrass them.

Before the day was over the first self-criticism had been lodged at the on-line discussion site of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. “If you haven’t drawn your cartoon on this yet,” wrote syndicated cartoonist Scott Bateman, “whatever you do, don’t draw the Statue of Liberty turning away and crying, because a lot o’ folks beat you to it. A whole lot o’ folks. Many, many folks.”

“And we wonder why editors are replacing us with syndicated material?” wrote John Kovalic of the Wisconsin State Journal on September 12. “This was/is, tragically, the biggest story we may ever be in. Did we, as a professsion, blow it yesterday?”

And Ted Rall of Universal Press Syndicate asserted, “If a single image does convey the real deal, it’s the New York Daily News’ photo of a severed hand lying on the street next to cigarette butts, and not even that does it. The Statue of Liberty crying, with a hole in her chest or with a model airplane smashing into her side only conveys one concept: Lazy Editorial Cartoonist.”

No one who drew a weeping Statue of Liberty could have believed the idea was original; it owed an obvious debt to one of the most famous editorial cartoons ever drawn: the grieving Lincoln of the Lincoln Memorial that Bill Mauldin drew for the Sun-Times when President Kennedy was shot. But does that heritage mean the September 11 versions were lazy or archetypal? And if 50 cartoonists drew some variant of the Statue of Liberty, who besides the cartoonists themselves saw more than one? And was this a time for cleverness? “What else was there to base our cartoons on besides raw human emotions?” asked Larry Wright of the Detroit News. “This wasn’t lazy, it was reality.”

It wasn’t as if the cartoonists had just one chance to make a statement. For days only one topic was worth drawing, and like newspaper columnists–who wrote from their guts on day one and with their heads thereafter–the cartoonists quickly reached for more considered effects. On September 13 Jack Ohman of Portland’s Oregonian cut to the essence of the country’s predicament when he drew a soldier entering a house of mirrors in which a black, hooded figure labeled “Terror” loomed menacingly from every wall. And on September 15 Jeff Stahler of the Cincinnati Post published what might have been the most affecting of all the early cartoons: a cell phone lying in the rubble of Ground Zero and a voice coming from it saying, “I love you.”

By then the on-line battle of the cartoonists had run its course. T. Brian Kelly of the Bay Area Independent Newspapers had responded that the Statue of Liberty belongs to the “collective memory data” that all Americans draw from when they react viscerally to “horrific shared stimuli.” And John Kovalic had written a second time, this time allowing that even banal symbols can be the stuff of great cartoons. He cited, among others, Signe Wilkinson of the Philadelphia Daily News. “Signe’s cartoon of a torch rising above the smoke was brilliant.”

But Paul Nowak of In Business Las Vegas posted a rebuttal. “The original question was, when we all come up with the same idea, why should an editor want to hire a local cartoonist when they can get what will most likely be the exact same cartoon for $1.25 from the syndicates?”

Syndicated cartoonist Mike Luckovich of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was one of the 50 who drew the Statue of Liberty. He drew her face, actually, with a tear on one cheek and the assaulted towers reflected in her round, horrified eyes. “That was a difficult image not to use,” he tells me. “It was in the harbor there and bearing silent witness to what was occurring. What other image could be more fitting? I was trying to come up with a way of showing the pain, the anger, and the shock I was feeling. In a case like that cartoonists look for a simplistic but stark image. There were three main themes. Pearl Harbor, a day that will live in infamy, was used in various ways. There was also a number who used the American flag. The majority who used the Statue of Liberty–90 percent of them had her with her head in her hands.”

Luckovich continues, “I think that most cartoonists, whatever they did on September 12, probably received a lot of good feedback on it. People were looking for something to find solace in.”

Ohman liked Luckovich’s cartoon. Yet he says, “I went into work consciously thinking, ‘Do not do a weeping eagle. Do not do the Statue of Liberty. Do not do a flag.'” Instead, he drew the silhouette of a city skyline, and on it the date, 9-11-2001, the twin towers serving as the 11. His cartoon, like Luckovich’s, became a poster that has raised thousands of dollars for the United Way’s September 11 Fund.

Nick Anderson of Louisville’s Courier-Journal drew a father and son staring through a store window at a wall of television screens, each tuned to the catastrophe. “I chose to do something other than the Statue of Liberty because I knew it was an obvious image,” he says. “But it’s unfair to seize on that day as an example of bad work. I saw a lot of people I respect whose image was the Statue of Liberty. I’m ambivalent about what I did. I got good feedback from readers, but–I’m not sure–I believe I would have gotten a stronger reaction from readers if I’d done the obvious image that day. And that’s the irony. I don’t subscribe to the conceit that on a day of national tragedy the only good cartoon is an original cartoon.”

I didn’t call Luckovich, Ohman, and Anderson at random or because they’re personal favorites. They are, however, the Chicago Tribune’s finalists for a successor to the late Jeff MacNelly, who died in June of last year. It’s been a long search that isn’t likely to end anytime soon, and the Tribune’s nonchalance is telling. It announces–the Tribune has told candidates this–that in a time of recession and war, when operating costs are extraordinarily high and executives are taking pay cuts, it’s in no hurry to assume another large salary. And it suggests that the Tribune regards the job as too vital to be filled carelessly. But the message cartoonists are getting is that even in this most turbulent and historic of times, their skills are unnecessary.

“Editorial cartooning is in some straits,” says Scott Stantis of the Birmingham News, who’s president of the AAEC, “when you see the editors of the Chicago Tribune saying for 15 months, ‘No big deal.'”

If MacNelly had been his paper’s top sports columnist, his successor would have been introduced in two weeks. The Tribune wouldn’t have thought for a minute that it could get by with a syndicated columnist writing on national topics. But it’s made do with syndicated cartoonists. Editorial cartoonists are feeling squeezed literally–into ever-shrinking holes on a narrowing editorial page that make some of their best effects illegible–and metaphorically. A house cartoonist is beginning to look like an indulgence.

At bottom, the September 11 debate was an argument about the state of the profession, and the Tribune’s chronically unfilled opening (there’s an even more desirable one at the Washington Post, to replace Herblock) is to some cartoonists one more reminder of lost–or forfeited–importance. “The profession generally needs someone to come by and kick it in the ass,” says Stantis. “Many cartoonists are just writing jokes.”

Cartoonists remember somebody who did kick them in the ass. Jim Squires spoke at an AAEC convention back in the late 80s, when he was editor of the Tribune. Luckovich remembers, “He said there were like five good cartoonists, and then there was everybody else. A lot of people were upset, but I’d tend to agree with him. A lot of the stuff is really not good at all.”

“There are maybe 25 really good political cartoonists,” says Ohman. “But there ain’t 25 MacNellys.”

How many are there?

“Oliphant. I used to say [Pat] Oliphant was Elvis, MacNelly was the Beatles, and then there’s 25 Lovin’ Spoonfuls. Maybe ten guys who have a real fastball. Maybe 15. Everybody else is working for a living.

“MacNelly’s great genius,” Ohman goes on, “was his artistic ability. He was a tremendous illustrator, and he coupled that with a great sense of humor. He had a tremendous sense of language and rhythm that’s extremely rare. But a lot of the time he was not taking big positions on things, the way [Paul] Conrad would. Conrad was a great statement maker. The profession basically is stuck in this netherworld of trying to be funny and do these pleasing humorous drawings, saying things that are acceptable in American editorial pages.”

MacNelly lived in Virginia and drew national cartoons. Whoever succeeds him will be expected by the Tribune to live in Chicago and take on local issues too–a completely appropriate stipulation, but not one that’ll make the job any easier to fill. Still, a lot of cartoonists would give their left arm to get it. Stantis, who had early conversations with editorial page editor Bruce Dold that didn’t lead to anything, is one of them. It burns him that Luckovich, Ohman, and Anderson are all, in his view, more liberal than MacNelly was and too liberal for the Tribune. There aren’t many conservative cartoonists out there, he says, but he happens to be among them. “Like most people in the business I have a humongous ego, and I’d love to be the one considered.”

I’m not sure why he isn’t. (Dold isn’t talking about the search he’s leading.) The Tribune picks up his work, though not as often as it’s been picking up Luckovich and Anderson lately, and his cartoons for the first week or so after September 11 were the most consistently powerful I’ve seen–even the first one, of a stricken Statue of Liberty.

One problem, Stantis thinks, is that editorial pages are being run by editors who don’t understand what an editorial cartoon can and should be–a statement, not a diversion. “My position,” he says, “is get someone who kicks ass and takes names.”

Witness to an Execution

Lew Freedman told an appalling tale last month with none of the winks and nods readers expect to be reassured by, and he got hammered. Invoking the literary memories of Ernest Hemingway and Robert Ruark, the Tribune’s outdoors reporter vividly described a “classic, tented safari” in Tanzania by Tom Fitzgerald of Barrington Hills and his 16-year-old son, Tom Jr. The Fitzgeralds were hunting cape buffalo, crocodile, greater kudu, hippo, sable antelope, hartebeest, topi, lions, and above all else, leopard–“the most elusive of big game,” Freedman told us.

It was an exciting three weeks for the brother and nephew of Senator Peter Fitzgerald, and that’s how Freedman (who wasn’t along) wrote it up. There was “the dramatic cape buffalo encounter,” an hour’s pursuit through brush and thorns at sundown before five rifle bullets brought the beast down. “How often do you get to do that at home?” marveled Tom Jr., who made the kill.

There was the 4,400-pound hippo that Tom Sr. felled with a bullet between the eyes and whose carcass gun bearers butchered for bait, hanging hunks of its hindquarters in trees to draw the big cats. The Fitzgeralds and the professional hunter who accompanied them hid in a blind for an hour before a male leopard came sniffing. The cat leaped onto a tree branch 15 feet off the ground, and Tom Sr. shot it through the heart.

Freedman wrote, “‘I got my first leopard,’ Fitzgerald exulted….And then the celebration began.”

The story appeared on November 20. A week later the Tribune published the letters. “Distasteful and unworthy of space….They are idle rich cowards….As much sport as a Biblical stoning….I can barely express the horror I felt….An act of cowardice, something that should bring a feeling of shame, not pride.”

And from Tribune columnist Eric Zorn on November 24: “What decadent, sissified cowardice! What vile disrespect for nature masquerading as sportsmanship!”

Zorn’s column launched another geyser of letters, which he posted on his Web site. And not only the Fitzgeralds were getting pummeled. Freedman and the Tribune got their share of abuse for telling the story.

“For such a beautiful animal to be killed to build the ego of a pair of guys is pathetic, and it is even worse for an article to be written about it….Unworthy of space in the Tribune….I was also upset about the amount of space devoted to the article, as though implying that these men had done something important or worthwhile…..To see it printed in the Chicago Tribune like it was an everyday, okay thing was horrible….That the Tribune and Lew Freedman would glamorize and glorify the slaughter is shameful.”

One letter Zorn posted marveled at Freedman’s failure to “see ANY irony” in the fact that Tom Sr. had killed an animal he was lucky to have even seen. Another letter chastised Zorn for not having “gone after” the writer as well as the hunters. “Why no mention of Freedman? Is it because he works in the same building?”

Freedman’s sin was to tell the story straight. Not merely straight–he told it with relish and romance. He wrote a story true to the Fitzgeralds’ delight in the hunt, rather than to readers’ certain disgust. The reason for this interesting choice might simply be that Freedman doesn’t share that disgust. He wouldn’t tell me his personal opinion of the safari, but he did say that although he doesn’t hunt himself he’s written a lot about hunting and “not every story is for every reader.”

Another possible reason is professionalism. Freedman might have assumed that readers wouldn’t need cues to react to what he was telling them. If so, he decided right. But it was a little unusual to read this kind of a story without those cues. Reporters put them there for their own protection. They want to be sure readers understand they’re superior to the people theyre writing about.

News Bite

Why readers lose confidence in writers. From “Portrait of the Terrorist as a Young Man,” by Jason Burke, in the December-January Talk:

“Syed, who has not seen bin Laden since he returned to Saudi Arabia in 1991, never knew bin Laden was from a rich family.”

Four paragraphs later: “Syed says that bin Laden, himself a Wahhabi, seemed embittered by the fact that his family supported the Saudi regime and had enriched itself in the process.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustrations/Signe Wilkinson, Nick Anderson, Jeff Stahler, Jack Ohman.