The Denver Post used to run a daily teaser for Pat Oliphant’s cartoon, with a small cut from the drawing, on the front page. I was still drawing for my campus paper and just beginning to dream of a career as an editorial cartoonist. I would try to envision Oliphant’s whole drawing from that tiny detail before opening the paper, but my imagination was never as grand as the real opus. Oliphant was reinventing editorial cartooning before my very eyes, creating a whole new graphic language, painting a breathtaking cinematic landscape, which would completely transform the medium.

Because I lived in Denver, I got to see it first.

Not too many years later, when I was looking for work, carrying my hopeful little portfolio from paper to paper, I spent a month in Richmond, Virginia. I couldn’t wait to open the Richmond News Leader every morning to see what new marvel Jeff MacNelly had produced. With his seemingly inexhaustible supply of new visual metaphors and his hilarious use of the Southern scenery, complete with weathered bait shops, rusty pickup trucks, and run-down railroad whistle stops, he was creating strikingly innovative cartoons.

About that time I began to notice Mike Peters, who was adding a unique new comic sensibility to his work, somehow successfully combining the high purpose of journalism with the slapstick of The Three Stooges.
I mention these three editorial cartoonists because they were such originals. Looking at their work, one never had the sense that they spent a lot of time pouring over the drawings of other cartoonists. Yes, Oliphant borrowed from Sir David Low, and MacNelly and Peters from Oliphant, but mostly they seem to have invented themselves out of whole cloth. We cartoonists work—or, at least, we used to—in isolation; we were essentially alone with our drawing boards, our pens, and that daunting blank sheet of paper every day. It might have been frustrating to be the only person on a newspaper staff who did what you did, but this isolation also led artists to develop highly original styles.

But unless someone lived in the city where these cartoonists worked or was lucky enough to have a hometown paper that carried their syndicated work (or haunted the newsstands for out-of-town newspapers), it was hard to follow the work of favorite cartoonists. Even if, like Oliphant, they were nationally syndicated cartoonists who drew little local work, they were still local phenomena—they belonged to the communities whose newspapers they worked for. Hometown readers saw them first and saw all of their work; the rest of us only got to see whatever our local paper printed from syndication days or weeks later.

To travel around the country in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s meant being able to pick up local newspapers and find the work of wonderful but relatively unknown cartoonists. They drew cartoons about national politics, but their bread and butter was local cartooning, and their drawings evoked the landscape and architecture of the region. My files hold hundreds of yellowing newsprint copies of their work, clipped from many newspapers and saved for future reference.

Cartoon Look-Alikes

I don’t collect clips any more. Any time I want to, I can see everybody’s work on the Internet.

Daryl Cagle’s Professional Cartoonists Index
This wonderful accessibility has a serious downside. It has given rise to a depressingly homogenous American style, not just of drawing but of the way we conceive ideas. Anyone who logged on to Daryl Cagle’s Professional Cartoonists Index the day after actor Christopher Reeve died would have found no fewer than 11 drawings of Superman flying from his wheelchair. On any given day there will be a numbingly repetitive series of cartoons, all on the same subject and using the same metaphors and visual images. This is not a case of group plagiarism, but it is a suspicious case of groupthink. With the exception of a handful of artists who have made a conscious effort to develop a distinctive graphic style, our drawings, with minor stylistic differences, look pretty much alike, as well.

We’ve become like a huge family of identical siblings; we can tell each other apart at a glance, but nobody else can.

When I came into the field, it was understood that syndication and the Pulitzer Prize belonged to a handful of nationally known cartoonists. They were cartooning royalty; the rest of us need not bother. Each of us had to be content with being our community’s cartoonist, a local institution, perhaps, but largely invisible outside of our paper’s distribution area.

Today nobody is a local cartoonist. I don’t mean this just in the sense that we don’t draw local cartoons. We don’t belong to our local communities, either. Editors at newspapers throughout the country can decide to publish our work the same day our own newspapers print it. All of us are syndicated and, as a consequence, all of us draw cartoons primarily about national and international issues.

The Pulitzer Prize—a career-making and life-changing award (as arbitrary and capricious as its bestowal might be)—is now within reach of us all, or at least that’s what we have come to believe. Why not? We all draw alike and we all think alike; we are all equals, except at Pulitzer time, when one of us gets to be more equal than the others.

The resulting sameness of so much of our work has left us vulnerable. Our editors and publishers might actually be some of the nasty things we say about them, but they are not stupid. So if my editor can buy from a syndicate the same work I’m doing for a tiny fraction of my salary, why should he keep me employed? This worry led me to rethink my career. When my paper became embroiled in a costly newspaper war, and its budget woes were great, I began to fear for my job. I asked myself what I was doing for my newspaper that couldn’t be duplicated for $25 a week. And I started to draw more cartoons about local subjects, but I couldn’t build a strong enough local presence and feed the syndicate at the same time. After several false starts, I began drawing a daily comic strip about a fictional Denver family and, at the same time, I cut back on the number of editorial cartoons I did.

Finding a New Local Connection

What did this accomplish? It ended the possibility that I’d ever be more widely syndicated than I am now and made it virtually impossible that I’d ever have the time to develop a nationally syndicated comic strip. And it saved my job. More than that, it rejuvenated my career while completely changing—for the better—my relationship with readers. Because my cartoons are intensely local and deal with how people live in my city, my comic strip became a Denver institution in a way my editorial cartoons never were.

I don’t pretend that I’ve accomplished anything all that special. I would like to claim that, like Oliphant and MacNelly, I’ve reinvented the medium, but I haven’t. I’ve just reinvented my job. Cartoonists complain that their editors don’t treat them with the same respect they give their local columnists. Now I’ve become a local columnist—one who fills the space more with drawings than with words.

There are other cartoonists who have accomplished the same thing in somewhat different ways. Rob Rogers’ Sunday feature, “Brewed on Grant,” does for Pittsburgh what my “Denver Square” strip does in Denver. Dwane Powell, Bruce Plante, Scott Stantis, Matt Davies, and a few others make a concerted effort to draw local landscapes and politics. Jim Borgman’ s cartoons have always had an intimate connection with Cincinnati, to an extent that he did what very few of us can do—he published a book of cartoons about his city.

I’m not suggesting that if editorial cartoonists just start doing more local work, all of our problems will be solved. The economic and technological forces threatening our craft are real and are not going away. I am arguing that cartoonists should seriously think about how to build a distinctive local identity in their work—the kind of presence that used to make a newspaper’s own editorial cartoonist indispensable to its readers.

When Jeff MacNelly went from the Richmond News Leader to the Chicago Tribune, he didn’t actually move to Chicago. He never really drew the most architecturally distinctive city in America; his cartoons continued to feature those marvelous graphic references to the rural South. What might have happened, I wonder, if he had made the Loop and the Sears Tower and the harbor lighthouse and the water tower landmarks in his later work? Would the Tribune have been in more of a hurry to replace him when he died?

Ed Stein is the editorial cartoonist for the Rocky Mountain News.

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