AMERICAN EDITORIAL CARTOONING gets murmured about quite a lot these days, in nostalgic and wistful and pitying tones, as if it’s some storied national family whose power, influence and profit margins date back to the Carnegies or the Astors — but who is now living largely on legend and lore and banked goodwill as a shell of its former robust self. The money’s dried up, the thinking goes. The social relevance is surely in decline, old sport. The scions are few and the lions are long gone.
Onto that contextual stage, in the shadow of that near-century-spanning late lion Herblock, steps the Perennial Young Cartoonist.
On Thursday night at the Library of Congress, alt-cartoonist Matt Bors -- already a veteran of the business by his late-20s -- will receive the esteemed Herblock Prize, an award and foundation tellingly made possible by the great riches that the Washington Post cartooning legend amassed before his death about a decade ago.
Bors, by bank-book contrast, tells Comic Riffs that the award’s $15,000 cash prize will allow him to pay his rent in Portland for a year.
What many of the critics and skeptics and snipers of modern editorial cartooning completely miss or undervalue, however, is that in terms of talent, Bors -- like some of his enterprising colleagues -- has a remarkably diversified portfolio. Herblock could invest his decades almost exclusively in the steely tradition of the standard, single-panel political cartoon. But for many practitioners, the industry no longer trades and traffics in that luxury. So Bors, out of both necessity and creative curiosity, practices comics journalism and works on graphic novels and follows his career passions knowing that the sturdy job model -- stretching far to the gauzy 19th-century past of Thomas Nast — no longer applies.
The family business is changing.
Bors knows it’s time for his field to adapt and reinvent with the times. And if that $15,000 cash prize can instead be used as seed money for a political cartoonist’s career innovation, then what Herblock has bequeathed is far more than money.
Comic Riffs caught up with Bors for a conversation about his breakthrough year (he also has been a Pulitzer Prize finalist and SPJ Award recipient in 2012); whether certain cartooning tropes should be retired; and how online competition forces cartoonists to earn those reader eyeballs with new urgency and inspiration.
MICHAEL CAVNA: First off, Matt, congratulations on the award. Now that you’ve touched down in D.C., does it feel real yet -- or surreal?
MATT BORS: It feels great and surreal. And a little nervous. My speech, which I’m still working on, better be entertaining because I’ll be followed by Garry Trudeau.
MC: So what are some of the things or themes you’ll touch on in your speech?
MB: I’m talking about the future of editorial cartooning, but honestly I’ll be trying to throw a lot of humor into my speech. I’m going to talk about the challenges we face without being depressing. ... I’m really charged [up] to have this prize and money, but at the end of the day, it’s still a question of how to do this for a living. Fifteen-grand will pay my rent this year. I still need a way -- we all need [a way] -- to figure out how to do this long-term. How to survive. ... I have a line in my speech [about how] a lot of the time, cartoonists talk about political cartooning and romanticize the importance of it [like] it’s necessary and vital for a democracy to function. That’s not true. The world can go on without political cartooning.
MC: And many newspapers who’ve cut that staff position seem determined to prove that point.
MB: The diminishing numbers of cartoonists in this field is not a good sign. I’ve become kind of the Perennial Young Cartoonist. That’s great -- I can have that field to myself. It’s a small list, and there are less people to compete with. But it’s not as vibrant a field as it was. [Look at] a lot of guys [who] came up in the era of Herblock -- you could have a real cush job and be well-paid and well-known. Now, you can still be well-known, [thanks to] web traffic. On my website, I have as many readers as a larger paper. [Readers] have just shifted. [The political cartoonist’s job] just doesn’t come with the same amount of money. I came up never trying to get a gig at a major paper. ... What political cartooning does require is someone paying you.
Like I’ll say in the speech, cartoonists kind of need to adapt and embrace this stuff faster than Obama’s position on gay marriage. Websites need to embrace us and pay us like they do writers. Sites like the Atlantic and the Huffington Post have staff writers, but they say they don’t have the budget for cartoonists. I’ve had no luck in getting these websites to hire me. But I feel like the dam has to break at some point.
MC: And perhaps counterintuitively, websites that feature click-happy galleries know firsthand the value of images.
MB: Images are the language of the Web and infographics are all the rage. That’s what we share on Facebook -- it’s all the images. If websites start to recognize what newspapers used to do -- back in Nast’s day, there was a cartoon in a sea of text -- [they’ll see that] images stand out and have power.
MC: Can you speak to how you view what we could call the Decline of the Staff Position?
MB: There has been a gradual decline, but since the 2008 crash, newspapers are shifting in ways that are not over yet. How many staff cartoonists are we at now? Sixty? And that’s not the end of it. I hope to reach retirement [as a political cartoonist]. But it’s not like all these papers are going to replace people and I’ll have a staff job. That’s over. It won’t be a real possibility -- big hires like [Matt] Wuerker at Politico and Scott Stantis at the [Chicago] Tribune are exceptions to the rule. It’s a bad situation.
MC: So what do you do to adapt?
MB: The field is shifting to be online. My readership is that of a decent-size paper, but a staff job would be nice for the health benefits. Back in the day, [in terms of] power and influence, if you weren’t widely syndicated, you were only seen there [in your newspaper’s circulation]. But for me, my cartoons are starting to get out more and more readers through my website -- that’s the main portal for my cartoons -- and I’ve been directing people to my website for nine years.
MC: And your Steve Jobs cartoon last fall, of course [on the occasion of Jobs’s death], went especially viral. And that was partly ABOUT modern political cartooning.
MB: That was one of the most popular [that I included in my contest portfolio]. The reason that was popular was because it said something that hadn’t been said yet. Part of it was really satirizing cartoons that had already come out. It was based on the previous week of obit cartoons. I have those guys to thank. Editorial cartoons are supposed to be vital -- not kind of bland and cheesy. [As for the viral nature], it’s not even a 24-hour news cycle now. It’s a minute-to-minute news cycle. If you say something predictable, it’s not going to get out and be relevant. People are having to adapt to the way humor works now [in cycles] and you have to think two steps ahead.
[STEVE JOBS SMACKDOWN: Matt Bors delivers our Cartoon of the Day]
MC: So how does the field change as a whole?
MB: We need to bring editorial cartooning out of this predictable mold. It’s [become] like a process that goes through an editorial-cartooning filter and comes out predictable.
MC: And that predictabilty seems more highlighted now since because of [readers’] online access, staff cartoonists no longer work in relative silos of readership.
MB: Before page-views, if you had a prominent perch, you pegged your readership as whatever the newspaper’s was. Editorial cartoonists [have been] often cited as the most widely thing in papers. But [in that model] cartoons didn’t have to compete. Once online, they do. There may not be a lot of money to go around, but your readership is currency. And basically, that’s death if your [cartoons are] predictable.
MC: Judging by both your output and now the honors, 2011 seemed like a breakthrough year for you. Do you see it that way -- or was it more about critical mass and many readers suddenly finding your work?
MB: I think it’s a little bit of both. I feel like I had a really good year -- like with the Steve Jobs one. And I did a lot of cartoons on the Occupy movement. I was just firing on all cylinders and [creatively] the cartoons were just coming to me. So I feel like I had a good year. I think that critical mass is a good way to put it. The popularity and awareness of my work grew. ... And for whatever reason, there was this convergence of the Pulitzer [finalist honor] and SPJ and the Herblock Prize. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. Awards are not objectively awarded; it’s all subjective. Some years I agree with the awards, some not. But if was just my year, it was a combination of luck and some good cartoons.
MC: You also had a very diverse year -- including your comics journalism and your work with Cartoon Movement. That also seemed to raise your profile and invigorate your work. Can you speak to that?
MB: I did have a broad portfolio, from Portland-related cartoons to my trip to Haiti [for “Haiti’s Scapegoats”], things that were nonfiction. I think to me, comics journalism and editorial cartoons are related. They kind of overlap in my areas of interest. ... They’re two different approaches to presenting answers and gaining some insight into what’s going on. I don’t want to just come from the perspective of editorial cartooning. I like nonfiction and graphic novels. It just so happens that I fell into editorial cartoons and have had more success with it. Hopefully over a long arc of my career, you’ll see me doing books and traveling [for comics journalism]. Right now I’m mostly editing other people’s work.
MC: Do you think we’ll see more cartoonists doing that -- becoming part Herblock, part Joe Sacco?
MB: I don’t know how it’s going to shake out. I’m stirring a lot of pots. I’m doing political cartoons, doing graphic journalism -- but which one is going to be viable? I don’t know. The thing we [political cartoonists] have to do is carve out something different. What we’ve been doing isn’t working. Serious nonfiction cartooning that is not related to memoir -- that is about other people and journalism -- is one of the last unexplored areas of comics; stuff that isn’t about the cartoonist [him- or herself]. There’s not really a big body of work in that area. In the next five years, you’re going to see more [from people like] Susie Cagle. ... I don’t know if that’s for everyone. A lot of people just want to do political cartoons. My interests in comics are pretty broad. A lot of my friends in editorial cartooning come at it from a totally different perspective; they don’t pay attention to the comics field, they don’t read a lot of graphic novels. They’re not like me, who grew up eating and breathing all sorts of comics. I’m more like Ted Rall [in that] I have a broad taste in comics.
[NO FILTER: Bors and Rall depart for Afghanistan reporting].
MC: So as you look at all these options, what’s next on the horizon for you?
MB: Next year, what I’m doing with the prize money is, I have the opportunity to not take on additional freelance work and to give myself a little space to focus on editorial cartoons, redesign my website and do some promotion. ... Besides the accolades and the honor, I want to use this opportunity -- this gives me the breathing space to do that -- and I want to flip this into a career of making money through a web audience. The truth is, I don’t really make very much from editorial cartoons. If I’m going to do this as long as Herblock, which is my goal, a different kind of model has to be figured out.
MC: You’ve also been vocal about fighting what you perceive as creative laziness by some of your political-cartooning peers. Tell us more.
MB: Some cartoonists re-use their [own art]. The thing is, the Internet world can look this stuff up. ... I think if we have multiple Tumblrs ridiculing the field, it shows there’s a problem. I agree with what the sites are saying: It’s just a bad sign for the field as a whole -- where the humor’s at, and where the political discourse is at. ... I feel that [criticism] is becoming more relevant by the hour.
MC: And what about the language of political cartoons? Some critics say the labeling and relying on Nast’s ol’ political animals make the art form seem dated.
MB: Some cartoonists do it well. [Pittsburgh’s] Rob Rogers use donkeys and elephants and [is among the] people who conceptually can do it well. But all other forms of cartooning use straightforward methods of communication. Comic strips, graphic novels -- nothing complicated. But editorial cartooning is the only genre that has this internal language -- and I’m thinking that’s bad. If Rick Santorum is wearing a sweater that has “Santorum” written on it, that means [to me] he literally has Santorum written on his sweater. ... That used to be [considered] the most concise way to get across an idea -- with a metaphor that needs labels. I don’t know that it’s so anymore. You see humor Tumblrs and memes that aren’t using that language. There’s a lot to learn from what is popular in imagery right now.
People argue that “tropes” is a positive word for something recognizable. But it’s like the trope of a sinking ship. We’ve got to do something that people want to see and share. I feel like it’s time to catch up.