Stephen Hess is forever optimistic about the American editorial cartoon. He believes in the power of the pictorial commentary and speaks with a faith so unshakeable that one wonders whether he even realizes that there now seem to be more major-league baseball teams than there are major-league cartoonists working full time for a daily metropolitan newspaper. Has this scholar spent so many hours rummaging through musty archives — tracking his way back to what he calls the first American editorial cartoon, Benjamin Franklin’s “Don’t Tread on Me” rattlesnake woodcut — that he hasn’t fully grasped just how many pink-slipped political cartoonists have been trod upon?
Hess can’t help it. Even as the marketplace changes, he believes in the creative and commercial ingenuity of the American political cartoonist.
“I’m not only trying to honor our political cartoonists,” Hess tells Comic Riffs, “but also to note the problems that exist now in editorial cartooning, which has been so tied in with daily print journalism. They’re in trouble. But at the same time — with the Internet — it could be a turning point.”
Hess, a senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution, is speaking by phone late Friday, just hours after learning of his latest honor. Earlier that day, the National Press Club announced its 2011 award recipients. Hess and co-author Sandy Northrop received honorable mention in the Press Criticism category for their book “American Political Cartoons: The Evolution of a National Identity, 1754-2010.” (First place went to The Post’s Paul Farhi — my Style section colleague — for an American Journalism Review piece.)
A previous National Press Club winner, Hess says it’s “very nice” to be honored, and acknowledges that his entry, as press criticism, “was a little unusual.” Yet, “I felt it was worthy to remind people of the role that cartoonists play, the trouble they’re in [due to cuts] and the potential they have...,” he says. “I thought these were qualities that would resonate.”
Hess’s book traces the rise of the political cartoon, from Revolutioniary fervor through the legendary Thomas Nast to today, even tripping through a slew of Pulitzer winners. Hess revels in this legacy — he was born in 1933, little more than a decade after the first cartooning Pulitzer was awarded, to the New York World’s Rollin Kirby — and enthuses over the current crop of cartoonists, noting that he was on the Pulitzer judging committee that awarded the Prize to Tom Toles in 1990, when The Post cartoonist was with the Buffalo News.
Out of that commitment to the art form, Hess continues to judge cartooning contests — which he says helps him survey the present state of the industry.
“I recently judged the RFK [Award], and that gave me a chance to see a lot of cartoonists,” Hess tells ‘Riffs. “ I was damned impressed with what is out there.”
Hess has previously written about the mighty influence of the cartoonists he calls The Big Four: Herblock, Paul Conrad, Bill Mauldin and Pat Oliphant. He is gratified now, however, to see just how the latest wave of cartoonists has broken from the sometime-yoke of that influence. “There are people breaking through with their own style -- they didn’t look like anyone else. Now, you turn over a new leaf.”
By encouraging editors and readers to appreciate the modern American political cartoon, he aims to help pave the way toward greater understanding of the form — on a journalistc road that has run from horse carriages to superhighways.
“I’ve been the one who has been the optimist, going to cartoonists’ conventions [to cheerlead for] political cartoons. It’s like being at a buggywhip convention in 1920...” Hess says. “The suits just have to realize that political cartoons are going to attract people to your brand.”
The possibilities presented by the Internet give Hess further hope. “I’m optimistic that it gives people a chance to be seen,” says the scholar, noting that cartoonists now “are not limited by the number of daily newspapers — they are only limited by their own imagination. In a great capitalistic market, I think there is an opportunity to break through.”
Hess confesses, though, that he has no great wisdoms into just how political cartoonists can make a significant living from such online opportunities.
“I don’t know how to solve the [new revenue] problem,” he says. “I’m not the guy to figure it out. When [journalism] figures out how to make money on the Internet, political cartoonists will be back in business.”
Hess notes that he is encouraged by the online political animations of Pulitzer winners Mark Fiore and The Post’s Ann Telnaes, whom he calls “fearless.” “The problem,” the author says, “is that it’s so labor-intensive. You don’t just do a couple of lines and you’re finished for the day. It’s a rough way to make a living.”
Hess’s words, though, then return to his belief in the resilience of the political cartoon. Centuries after Franklin’s woodcut, he believes the art form is carved too deeply into the American consciousness to be easily dismissed. And he places his faith squarely with the current practitioners.
“These people are terribly talented,” Hess says. “To pictorially present an idea ....and say something you hope is important is quite a challenge — and quite a talent.”