The Interview: Alt-Political Cartoonist Ted Rall
When we caught up with "alternative" political cartoonist TED RALL recently, his resume was as long as our arm -- and since then, he's probably tacked on a few more projects and titles. The New York-based Rall -- a former Pulitzer finalist who will appear at the SPX event in Rockville this weekend -- is employed by two syndicates (one as a cartoonist, the other as an editor) and also creates and edits graphic novels, columnizes, blogs, and has reported as a journalist from such hot spots as Afghanistan. In September, the "bad boy" cartoonist, 45, tacked on two more job titles: president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, and co-animator of political cartoons. Rall took time to discuss his many passions:
MICHAEL CAVNA: Congrats on your Obama animated short. Is that your first one, and had that been in the works for a while?
TED RALL: Thanks. I did one before that I'll never release. [Collaborator] David Essman had approached me. ... I said, "Okay, sure, take a shot." ... We've been working for months. Everyone else is into the song parodies and fake ads -- those are the two main approaches. I think it should be a skit and a short that creates these people as characters. We wanted to go about it in a kind of punk and "South Park" kind of way. I was very happy with it.
MC: It reminds me of both Robert Smigel ("Saturday Night Live") and "Dr. Strangelove" -- Slim Pickens on the missile. Are we reading too much into the possible influences?
TR: It's supposed to show a Predator drone and look like "Strangelove" -- that was what I was trying to do. And [the Obama character] sounds like the mayor of Springfield [in "The Simpsons"]. It's an alternative reality. People find it either brilliant or incredibly annoying. It's a mix of a lot of effort and very little effort. Even the "Hello, Kitty" flag -- it's hard to do that. ... I deliberately made the voices really crappy. You don't want to make it look super-slick. I wanted the walking to be deliberately clumsy and all very intentional -- with hat-tips to the early "Simpsons." ... I hope I'm able to sell it. I want to syndicate them to newspapers. We will be lean and mean and do them weekly.
MC: In recent years, the Pulitzer finalists for cartooning have been dominated by entries that included animation. Is that the future of political cartooning?
TR: So far only one [political] cartoonist makes any money doing this, and that's [San Francisco-based Mark] Fiore. For me, it's an experiment. My theory is that what I do will be more compelling than the other [political cartoonists] who are doing this. Fiore doesn't need to worry about me. He's fantastic. But I think my approach satisfies a demand. ... We're going to try to turn this into a TV show, and then to every industrialized nation in the world!
MC: You've had your share of controversies as a cartoonist, like when you criticized Pat Tillman for joining the military and going to war in Afghanistan. What was your career like after 9/11?
TR: I kind of became radioactive between 2001 and 2004 because I refused to draw Uncle Sam rolling up his sleeves and going to war. I was more strident. The idealogues are always waiting in the wings.
MC: So congrats, too, on becoming the AAEC president. Were you at all surprised by your election, or did you know you had the swing states in the bag?
TR: (Laughing) I knew the outcome. The way it works is, you are elected vice president and then the following year, you're president-elect. It's kind of like a Florida election -- it's kind of fixed.
MC: Not unlike our nation's next president, you face perhaps the toughest challenges an AAEC president has ever had to face. Surely you were chosen for certain leadership qualities.
TR: I am a loudmouth. And I know there's some worries among the conservative cartoonists -- that's just ridiculous. ... To me, the responsibility is to raise money for the association. As a cartoonist, the organization is hurting financially; I want to be the Bill Clinton who pays off the debt.
MC: And what about all the staff newspaper cartoonists losing jobs and being cut back?
TR: Obviously the biggest challenge is job losses and the future of the profession. I do take issue with [cartoonists'] whining about getting fired. I think it's a mistake in a huge, huge way. I want to try to explain that editorial cartoonists are rock stars [of the newspaper]. Readers LOVE us. ... Imagine the power of a Mike Luckovich or Mike Peters or Nick Anderson. It's still the most thrilling thing on the editorial pages. What newspapers need to understand is that cartoonists are expensive but one of your opportunities to get a rock star -- they need to see that. We've been perceived as [though editors should] hire us out of a sense of obligation. The truth is: You should be so lucky.
MC: Jim Borgman [the outgoing Cincinnati Enquirer cartoonist] recently told us he thinks cartoonists should "go local" to survive.
TR: I agree with that. I think it's the only way. You have to make yourself as invaluable as you can. The future of journalism is local. ... If Cincinnati doesn't hire a new cartoonist, they're going to miss out on having new compelling satire on the page. It's another way of saying: We don't care about young readers. It's death by a thousand cuts. No one thing will [be the cause of] where we jumped the shark and ceased to be relevant. It's collective -- the closing of foreign bureaus and getting rid of ... arts and cultural journalism and padding with syndicated stuff. All that destroys you.
MC: And what about online exposure for cartoonists? Is that a path to survival?
TR: Exposure is worthless. The model worked 10 years ago: "Bring them to our site and sell them T-shirts and books." If there's no product to sell them, it's a snake eating its tail. Exposure can only be used to validate your job.
MC: So what's the future of cartoonists in journalism?
TR: Well, there ought to be 1,000 staff cartoonists, but the newspaper industry is committing suicide. ... It's not being local, it's coming to the Web and slashing your print operations and replacing analog dollars with digital pennies and ... [not appealing to] younger readers. Publishers are obsessed with quarterly profits... It's a million things. They all boil down to bad management and the quest for short-term profits. I don't mean to denigrate how difficult it is. It can't be easy. You fear advertising is shrinking. You're scared. They're flailing. But you can see signs of hope. .... At the end of the day, you still have as many people reading print newspapers in the future. New technology doesn't kill old technology unless new technology can offer everything than old technology offered.
MC: And what about political cartooning as a creative force of satire now?
TR: Creatively, this is the golden age of editorial cartooning. Never have there been so many great cartoonists doing so much amazing work. ... Being an "alternative" editorial cartoonist became exciting in the '90s with Ruben Bolling and Tom Tomorrow and, I hope, me.
| October 2, 2008; 11:17 AM ET
Categories: Interviews With Cartoonists
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