You so rarely see sports cartoonists in the wild. They are nearly a vanished breed, though given their once-glorious perch, I prefer to think of them as more condor than dodo. Given the opportunity, they can still soar.
Which is why I'm thrilled to see that ESPN.com is giving veteran sports cartoonist DREW LITTON a crack at creating weekly "Monday Night Football" animations.
It seems counterintuitive that as sports has grown into a 24/7, "Jerry Maguire"-sized media-entertainment complex since the dawn of ESPN three decades ago, the art of cartoon sports satire and commentary has largely receded from the landscape. With the likes of "SportsCenter" and "PTI" and sports-talk radio and fantasy name-the-sport leagues and no-niche-too-small websites helping identify daily heroes and villains and goats -- forever propping up objects of gossip and worship and derision -- fans might reasonably think that sports satire would be a booming business. Instead, struggling for relevance, it has become the Clippers.
Perhaps part of the problem is that so much of sports entertainment long ago trod onto the turf of self-parody. But that phenomenon certainly hasn't stopped "The Daily Show," say, from finding success in satirizing politics. Which is why I have high hopes for "The Onion Sports Network," which is due in 2011.
But whither the cartoon satire so many years after Willard Mullin? When I met the living history that is Bill Gallo several months ago at the NCS Reubens, he spoke of sports cartooning's heady, high-flying world that was New York at midcentury -- when a Bill Gallo was so celebrated, he could rub shoulders with Jack Dempsey and Pearl Bailey and get a table at Toots Shors. To someone coming on the sports scene four decades later, as I did, though, that highballing world might as well be as fictional as "Mad Men."
Much of this, of course, has much to do with the momentous shift in where readers-turned-viewers go for their sources of satire. As the cartoonist Tom Tomorrow has told Comic Riffs: When he launched his political commentary two decades ago, he didn't have much competition for his alt-weekly audience; now by the time his work appears, he says, Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert tilled that topic several days and news-cycles prior. And "Doonesbury" creator Garry Trudeau has told Comic Riffs about the new "competition": "Any kid can knock this kind of stuff off in his bedroom and throw it up on YouTube. ... Satire is no longer in the hands of responsible licensed professionals like me."
Which is why I think it's smart and savvy for ESPN.com to open up the field for a licensed pro like Litton to begin doing online animations -- this about a half-year after it hired him to create static cartoons for their site. (Litton, we should note, cracked the sports-cartoon world about a decade after the launch of the Millar/Hinds strip "Tank McNamara," which predates ESPN.)
Litton was a longtime fixture as a Denver cartoon commentator (and an early supporter of my own syndicated sports cartoons) before the Rocky Mountain News shuttered in early 2009. The very day Litton got final word of the Rocky's closure, he told Comic Riffs: "The changes in our industry are real and moving at a pace much faster than anyone in the business imagined. With the economy the way it is, it's basically the time for reality to set in."
A year and a half later, Comic Riffs caught up with Litton to discuss life as a freelancer and contract player with ESPN and the Chicago Tribune:
"I've been doing cartoons for ESPN.com since last March," Litton says. "I do regular regular cartoons for the Commentary page and illustrations for some columnists. ... I was invited to a meeting in Bristol [Conn.] in late August, and one of the things they wanted me to start thinking about was doing some animations."
"I had done some before," Litton continues, "so I worked some up with Rich Moyer, with whom I'd worked with before. He's an incredibly talented cartoonist and animator whom I first met [many years ago] who had gone into the direction of Flash animation."
"ESPN wanted us to put something together" for the start of "Monday Night Football," Litton says, "so we working under a very tight deadline. It really does take two people [in that situation]: One jamming away at the drawing, and the other person doing the animation. And we have a great sound guy -- Mike Kaminski -- who actually as an understudy of sorts has been the backup voice for Homer on 'The Simpsons.' "
Litton created multiple storyboard ideas and sent them to Michael Knisley, the senior deputy editor for ESPN.com's Commentary page. "We wanted something that's got some edge to it," Litton says, "and some timely commentary and some action."
So Litton and Moyer created their first online "MNF" animation pegged to last night's New York Jets loss to the Baltimore Ravens -- and particularly to Rex Ryan's style of coaching.
"They've greenlit us for another one," Litton says of ESPN.com, indicating that the feature would likely be going weekly. "And that," Litton notes, "is exciting for a lot of reasons."
"It's an ever-changing industry, and you've got to just try to stay relevant within the marketplace," says Litton, who also blogs about his cartooning experiences. I've been working pretty hard since the Rocky closed -- probably 10 times harder than I ever did then -- and I'm not making as much [money] as I did then. ... But you've got to survive first in this tough economy.
"You've got to branch out and try some other things."