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Posted at 12:05 PM ET, 03/11/2009

Last of the Staff Cartoonists: How Can Some Keep Their Jobs?

By Michael Cavna

Cartoonists Ed Stein and Drew Litton have lost their Rocky perches in Denver. Their colleague John Branch is among the latest layoffs in a showdown at San Antonio. Ben Sargent took the buyout in Austin. And in a small town in Pennsylvania, the New York Post's Sean Delonas keeps right on scribbling.

It's a good thing so relatively few cartoonists use dip pens anymore, because this bleak state of editorial-cartoon employment could cause one's thoughts to turn to seppuku by Speedball.

But I scurry to say: Step away from the X-acto, O noble artists. Stop to realize there's too much public love for the craft of political cartooning to let the art form disappear entirely from the journalistic landscape.

Isn't there?

How does one reliably and regularly gauge the popularity -- and not just the necessity -- of a newspaper political cartoonist? Especially when his or her job all but requires the stoking of ideological UNpopularity?

Many journalists don't like to think of their jobs being reduced to popularity contests, but as surviving newspapers across North America carry out brutal cost-cutting, the reality might be that having the biggest sashes -- high national visibility, a full shelf of national awards AND a virulent local following -- could be what saves at least a handful of staff cartoonists from being pink-slipped.

Compare the political cartoonist's trade with that of the comic-strip creator. Comic-strippers frequently see their feature's popularity forced to step on the scales -- even when it involves (as we've famously noted here) woefully inexact reader polls. But at least comics artists can have ongoing hard numbers to point to.

Many political cartoonists, on the other hand -- usually for the better, but now perhaps for the worse -- don't have as many polls backing their case. Often, the only numbers making their case involve their newspaper's most recent survey about overall reading habits.

The political cartoonist's virtues should be self-evident; but as many newspapers hemorrhage money, it's not an easy time to remain virtuous.

So it's time, it seems, for more political cartoonists to encourage reader polls both local and national. Plus, with so many newspaper cartoonists blogging now, more of them could implore their readers to make their fandom heard--and not simply by supplying online "clicks."

We should note, too: The survival issues at hand are many, and sometimes interwoven. Cartoonist/AAEC President Ted Rall recently told Comic Riffs that editors promote "hack work over quality" by choosing safe, less ambitious cartoons -- a practice that he says in turn helps render editorial cartooning irrelevant.

But when one reads a typical Toles or Luckovich, Ramirez or Benson, that's enough to remind how powerfully relevant cartoons can be.

What do you think about the state of editorial cartooning, 'Riffs readers? Have an opinion about visual opinion-leaders? Fire away. (As it were.)

Meantime, we offer our usual good ol' Wholly Unscientific Self-Selecting Comic Riffs Readers Poll to ask:

By Michael Cavna  | March 11, 2009; 12:05 PM ET
Categories:  The Political Cartoon  
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Unfortunately, my newspaper's cartoonist Kevin Siers, an excellent artist, has been sidetracked by a relatively new "contest" ripped off from the New Yorker, wherein the readers are asked to fill the empty dialog balloon. There are weekly winners, etc. And I suspect Siers loves this for some reason.

This sort of thing should be done in moderation, as the results are so often disappointing, and it sidetracks a good cartoonist. As an occasional thing it would be amusing.

Posted by: Jumper1 | March 11, 2009 7:07 PM | Report abuse

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