From June 16 to June 19, I went to Portland to attend a conference of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. It was a fun time to meet cartoonists from all over the country and to learn more about the state of the political cartoonist trade in the U.S. During the 4 days, I attended many informative panels where various speakers talked about the local cartooning scene, and political cartooning in the web, political cartoons from across the world. We also got to hear from two legendary political cartoonists.
One interesting panel consisted of Mike Keefe, Ted Rall, Tjeerd Royaards, and Caroline Dijckmeester and they discussed possible new business models for editorial cartoonists. This is of special interests to editorial cartoonists, as recent years have seen many cartoonists lose their jobs as part of a larger trend of newspapers folding in the face of declining subscriptions and ad revenue. With the decline in newspapers, political cartoonists have been exploring other avenues to expose their work and earn some revenue. Mike Keefe talked about the website Sardonika as being a possible place to submit cartoons. Sardonika is a fictitious island off the coast of the United States that looks upon the U.S. sardonically and spoofs many of the late breaking news of the country. The Sardonika website is a bit like The Onion or Mad Magazine. I checked it out and found quite a few funny articles, although I couldn’t figure out if there was a place that was just for the cartoons.
Ted Rall talked about using Kickstarter as possible way for cartoonists to raise funds for cartoon projects that they desire to work on. Ted thought this would work best for those cartoonist with a passionate base of fans. Ted Rall used Kickstarter to raise funds for a return trip to Afganistan to investigate areas of the country that news reporters have not gone to and to see for himself the war situation. In November 2001, The Village Voice and KFI Radio in Los Angeles sent Ted Rall to Afghanistan to cover the U.S. invasion. His cartoons and reporting of Afganistan earned praise from The Nation and The Washington Post called Ted’s work “the best journalism from Afghanistan by an American reporter.” Through Kickstarter, Ted was able to raise $26,000 for a return trip to Afganistan.
Tjeerd Royaards, and Caroline Dijckmeester gave a talk on the Video Journalism Movement or VJ Movement for short. The VJ Movement is a network of over 150 professional video journalists and editorial cartoonists from around the world that brings stories that are not covered by the regular media. Journalist Thomas Loudon came up with the idea while covering the conflicts in Afghanistan and teamed up with web veteran Arend Jan van den Beld, who turned Loudon’s concept into the VJ Movement website.
Matt Bors hosted a panel on local Portland cartoonists Shannon Wheeler, Meredith Gran, and Jeff Parker. I don’t know much about the Portland cartooning scene, but I found out from the panel that it seems to be a thriving scene. Jeff Parker is part of a studio of cartoonists, layout artists and fine artists called Periscope Studios. Meredith Gran is the creator of the web comic Octopus Pie, and she described how she gets profits from booksales, t-shirts and stickers. Gran’s information was especially helpful to me, as I do a political web comic about my cat Jasper in my spare time and was thinking of ways to make some profit out of that cat. Shannon Wheeler is the creator of Too Much Coffee Man, a comic that appears in various newspapers and alternative press weeklies. I was fascinated to hear that his comic was made into an opera, which I’ve never heard was done to another comic. I looked up wikipedia on more information on the opera and found out that Wheeler collaborated with composer David Stevens Craft and their opera debuted at Brunish Hall at Portland, Oregon’s Center for Performing Arts on Sept. 22, 2006. The opera proved a great success.
Two cartoonist legends gave talks at the convention. Jeff Danziger gave a presentation of some of his cartoons and talked briefly about his life. Jeff served in the Vietnam war as a translator, and later taught journalism in a school in Vermont. One of his students was comic book writer/artist Frank Miller. Danziger was the regular cartoonist for the Christian Science Monitor from 1987 to 1997, and since then, has been a freelance syndicated cartoonist. His great influences are Walt Kelly, the great New Yorker cartoonists, Thomas Nast, David Lowe, Paul Conrad, and Pat Oliphant. Jeff Danziger gave a very funny and casual talk. He said that he frequently worked on doing a great drawing to cover up a bad idea, which cracked me up because I frequently do the same thing. He observed that people do the right thing when we’ve tried everything else.
I had actually met Jeff the day before his talk without realizing it. I was at the hotel lobby talking to a group of cartoonists when a genial man came up to join us in conversation. He was sharing stories with Ann Ganz about the people in Martha’s Vineyard, and we were all amused by their stories. When we got around to introducing ourselves, he mentioned his name and the other cartoonists gave a collective jolt. After he left, one of the cartoonists sitting next to me said, “Oh my God! I was talking to Jeff Danziger!” After he did his talk in the convention, I happened to be sitting around the Smith Memorial Student Union lobby and he and a few companions joined me and they began an extended conversation on “Til Death Do Us Part”, the comedy that “All In The Family” was based on. They are big fans of British comedy and Jeff began imitating some Monty Python characters with a hilarious British accent.
The other cartoonist legend is Dick Locher, a Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist as well as the artist for the comic strip “Dick Tracy” since 1983. He first worked on Dick Tracy as the assistant of Dick Tracy’s creator Chestor Gould from 1957 to 1961, and he related some funny pranks that Gould pulled on his naive assistant. Dick shared his latest activity, bronze sculpturing, which has garnered him many prestigious commissions. One of his most prestigious commissions is the bronze trophy The Land Of Lincoln Trophy that he created for the winner of the annual college football game between Illinois rivals Northwestern University. I didn’t get much of a chance to talk to Dick Locher, but in the few occassions that I got to say hi to him, he was always gracious and had a funny quip to say.
Another panel discussion that I enjoyed listening to was one with cartoonists Matt Bors, Alan Gardner, and J.P. Trostle on the importance of editorial cartoons and the First Amendment. From the time of Thomas Nast and his campaign to expose the corruption of Boss Tweed in the nineteenth century, political cartoons have been keeping those in power accountable. The great political cartoonists have played an important part in protecting people’s rights through the First Amendment. In order to maintain that role, though, political cartoonists need a platform like the newspaper to show their work and exert some influence in their community.
It was good to hear these words coming out of this panel. With a lot of the talk in convention focused on the decline of subscriptions and the loss of jobs, it was good to be reminded why political cartoons are important in the first place. We don’t just make funny gags of current events for people to laugh at. Political cartoons have provided a needed avenue of dissent during the history of this nation. Whether it’s Thomas Nast’s fight against Tammany Hall corruption, or the cartoons of Art Young and Boardman Robinson railing against World War I, or Herbert Block and Walt Kelly’s Pogo attacking McCarthyism in the 1950s, frequently political cartoons have been the only consistent voice of dissent in a newspaper in times when a conformity of thought is forced upon our nation.
This point was brought home when a panel of Arab cartoonists spoke on the third day of the convention. Many of these political cartoonists have faced harassment and threats on their lives when they drew cartoons that criticized the government or fundamentalist groups. Amr Okasha, an Egyptian cartoonist, has had to field threats due to his political cartoons criticizing the Egyptian government and Islamic fundamentalists. Okasha related a story of a colleague who was abducted after work, was roughed up, then left in the middle of the desert. Mohammed Subaaneh is a Palestinian cartoonist based in the West Bank and his cartoons are critical of Israel and American foreign policy in that region.
Aayed Mahdi is an Iraqi cartoonist who related to the problems of power outages in Iraqi, especially during the hottest times of the year. Mahdi was asked about the war and he felt that the Iraqi War was bad but that the regime change away from Sadaam Hussein was good. Husham Al Dhuhaibani and Ala’a Kadhum Abed are cartoonists who have used cartoons and animation to urge Iraqis to take part in the election process. During the first Iraqi elections after the fall of Sadaam, a significant portion of the Iraqi population did not take part in the election due to sectarian concerns, and the cartoonists are trying to change the perceptions of the elections for Iraqis.
That night the The Cartoonists Rights Network International hosted a dinner to honor two political cartoonists for their courage in taking on controversial issues in their communities. Mana Neyestani is an Iranian cartoonist who drew the ire of the Iranian government for drawing a cartoon depicting a cockroach speaking in the Turkish Azeri slang. This cartoon sparked clashes between the Iranian Azeris and the Iranian government, in which at least five people were killed. Mana Neyestani was jailed for over two months. Through the aid of the Cartoonists Rights Network, Mana and his wife Mansoureh were able to journey through Kuwait and Turkey and eventually settle in Malaysia.
The other cartoonist being honored is Prageeth Eknaligoda, a Sri Lanka cartoonist and political commentator who has been missing since January 24, 2010. Prageeth Eknaligoda has been involved throughout his life in using his cartoons and writings to publicize issues of injustice, exploitation, and discrimination to the Sri Lanka people. His cartoons and writings bear the influence on his knowleadge of ancient Indian and Buddhist texts, as well as his leftist politics, and he is well connected with social justice groups and trade unions in his area. Prageeth disappeared a day before the Presidential elections in Sri Lanka, and he was a supporter of the political opposition.
For that night, Prageeth’s wife Sandhya, accepted the honors that the Cartoonists Rights Network International bestowed on her husband. Since Prageeth’s disappearance, Sandhya Eknaligoda has been meeting with political leaders and members of Parliament to force the police into a stronger investigation of Prageeth’s disappearance. The Prageeth Eknaligoda Foundation has been set up to support Sandhya and their two sons and to keep Prageeth’s disappearance in the public eye. At one point in the night, I saw Sandhya sitting alone. So I went to her table and attempted to tell her of my admiration for her courage and the courage of her husband. Sandhya doesn’t speak much English, however, and her translator wasn’t around, so all I could do were some simple hand gestures. I was able to get Sandhya’s photograph, however. I felt honored to have been in her presence, as well as the presence of those Arab cartoonists who were risking their lives to create cartoons that keep those in power accountable.
Overall, my time in the Association of American Editorial Cartoonist convention in Portland was great. I had a chance to meet fellow cartoonists and to talk. I was inspired by their knowledge of the political scene and their appreciation for the First Amendment and the freedoms that it gives us. My appreciation of the First Amendment was reinforced from listening to the experiences of the visiting Arab cartoonists, as well as learning of the stories of Mana Neyestani and Prageeth Eknaligoda. I wish I had more time to spend talking to the Arab cartoonists. I wanted to ask what artists or cartoonists inspired them. I wanted to know if they were inspired by the work and the life of artists like Daumier, who spent time in prison for his cartoons against the French king, or Thomas Nast, who criticized the corruption of New York City politics in spite of threats to his life. All political cartoonists who are inspired to try to move their communities through their art are building upon the legacy of Daumier, Nast, Goya, Jose Guadalupe Posado, Kathe Kollowitz, and other great satirists of the past.
I looked up Youtube and found these videos of political cartoons. Included is an interview Daryl Cagle did this year with Nate Beeler
A youtube video of Jeff Danziger
A youtube video of Chip Bok
A youtube video of Mexican political cartoonist Gonzalo Rocha
A youtube video of Canadian cartoonist Bruce Mackinnon
A youtube video of Doug MacGregor
A youtube video of Kevin Kallaugher
A youtube video of Prageeth Eknaligoda