IT MAKES SENSE, looking through the longer prism of history, that the first widely circulated American political cartoon would revolve around a snake.
Good ol’ Ben Franklin published his segmented serpent in 1754 as a metaphor for the American colonies, pairing it with a simple and defiant rallying cry as caption: “Join, or Die.” This Founding Father’s inky adder was perfect, in fact, as our nation’s prominent kickoff cartoon: Not only did his woodcut drawing offer a resonant image and rousing text; it also suggested that a nation’s nascent cartooning art could be delivered with both bile and bite.
More than two-and-a-half centuries later, the question has arisen: Has American editorial cartooning become defanged, as some noted critics have declared since the Charlie Hebdo attack. Has satire’s poison pen lost much of its venomous power in the United States?
In other words: As cartoons inflame on other continents, has the art form here lost its bite? For nuanced views, Comic Riffs turned to a handful of expert handlers.
MAD magazine is a granddaddy of American satire, having influenced generations of commentators and comedians in its six decades, including Lewis Black and Stephen Colbert, and writers for “The Simpsons” and The Onion. Its editor, John Ficarra, has seen the magazine ebb from seven-figure circulation as Baby Boomers were coming up to a smaller, humbler number of mostly aging readers now. Still, MAD practices world-class satire, ever expertly lacing the silly with the serious (such as when tackling fatal V.A. hospital breakdowns in last month’s issue).
MAD, as it’s proved for decades, does not reflexively bend to stunning events, such as last week’s attack of the Charlie Hebdo offices by masked gunmen that left 12 dead, including five prominent cartoonists.
“MAD Magazine will continue its longstanding tradition of lampooning American pop culture, lifestyle and politics,” Ficarra tells The Post’s Comic Riffs. “Recent world events and attacks on free speech won’t change that.
“However,” Ficarra continues, “we’ve always believed that just because you can print something, doesn’t necessarily mean you should.”
Tom Richmond, a veteran MAD caricaturist, notes that his satirical magazine, unlike the “nothing’s off-limits” Charlie Hebdo, works within certain parameters.
“MAD has always worked within a set of self-determined boundaries, mostly based on what is culturally acceptable in this country in mainstream media,” Richmond says of the New York-based magazine. “No nudity or ‘blue’ humor, no profanity … that type of thing.
“But I think they also critically examine what their message is, and make sure they have a message,” continues Richmond, who is president of the National Cartoonists Society (which come May will host its annual Reubens convention in D.C.).
“If within that context they can skewer their target, they do so gleefully. It’s still all with a western/American set of cultural boundaries,” he says. “Other countries have different boundaries. You see more sexually explicit humor in Mexican and South American cartooning, often right in mainstream newspapers and publications. In Europe, you see a much more relaxed attitude toward not just racy content, but editorially, they get a lot more personal with their criticism. They sometimes don’t separate the people from the policies or actions they are ridiculing.”
Richmond, like many American cartoon satirists, prefers to work surgically in his humor’s precision.
“I’ve always thought that if you have something to say, you can figure out a way to say it without being crass or grotesque. The best satire is done with a scalpel, not a sledgehammer,” Richmond tells Comic Riffs. “I think your message is better received that way.
“I’m not an editorial cartoonist — my most ‘hard-hitting’ satire in MAD might be making fun of Kim Kardasian’s butt or the latest Jennifer Lawrence movie,” says Richmond, noting that “Terry Schiavo Media Circus” might be his most overtly political work. “Still, personally, I would draw the line at personal attacks on individuals as opposed to the things they do or say that deserve criticism. I would not ridicule an entire religion when the target is meant to be a relatively small number of extremists. Others might, and do. I would defend their right to do so with the same strength I would those whose voices are more like my own. That’s the crux of free speech.”
And choosing to work within accepted parameters, Richmond says, does not require an artist to turn in his editorial fangs.
“Within the print media, just because you work within certain mainstream boundaries does not mean your message need be blunted,” Richmond says. “Personally, I think it’s more challenging to use that scalpel than it is to use the sledgehammer. We have many examples of excellence in sharp and biting editorial cartooning in print here in the U.S. that still works within our cultural boundaries.
“Besides, no one is stopping a publisher from doing an American version of Charlie Hebdo. … After all, we have Hustler and other publications that push or obliterate what is culturally acceptable on Main Street, USA,” he continues. “The only barrier is commercial viability.”
That said, Richmond feels a kinship with his cartooning brethren in France.
“Ultimately, we all speak with the same language in cartooning: ink, lines and imagery,” he says. “Maybe the way we speak is a little different, but in the end our message is the same. We get to have our say, and we say it.”.
Sitting over his drawing board in California’s state capital, Jack Ohman echoes Richmond’s belief: Boundaries are no impediment to brilliance.
“U.S. cartoonists on daily newspapers operate within family-newspaper parameters,” says Ohman, who is staff political cartoonist at the Sacramento Bee. “I think that there is a lot of brilliant, pointed commentary still going on in American political cartooning.
“The latitude that Charlie Hebdo had is an unfair comparison to those who work on daily newspapers,” continues Ohman, as he draws a distinction. “Some newspaper editorial pages are still more than willing to print very pointed and effective material. We go as far as editors let us, and many of still prefer the scalpel than the car bomb. It can be more effective in the long run.”
Over the past half-century, more nuance has permeated the cross-hatchings of American editorial pages. Ohman credits one Australian transplant of a legend particularly.
“Since [Patrick] Oliphant’s arrival in the U.S. in 1964, there has been a tectonic shift in editorial-cartoon approaches. Pat revolutionized the American political cartoon to a more subtle and effective approach, using a combination of humor and editorial points,” says Ohman, who is president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists.
“Now, some cartoonists here just try to make jokes about currents in the news. There is room for that, and many of them are very entertaining and effective in their genre,” continues Ohman. “Others are more issue-oriented, and I prefer those. They may not get as many newspaper clients, but they enjoy the respect of their peers, and they’re secure in the knowledge that they are doing what they’re supposed to do. They don’t abdicate or equivocate, and they are the in the forefront of American editorial cartooning.”
(Ohman roughly divides most editorial cartoonists into three groups: The writing-oriented Ironists, the gag-centric Comedians and the pictorially oriented Symbolists. Each serves a function, he says, with the Ironists generally proving to be most effective at delivering a message — one that can read like an editorial in haiku form.)
“From Ted Rall to Mike Peters, American cartoonists run the gamut of cartooning approaches, and there is still a lot of really effective work being done,” Ohman says. “Sometimes, the more alternative cartoonists inspire the daily newspaper cartoonists to push the boundaries of their craft a bit more, and I think that’s good for the profession.”.
Those alternative cartoonists that Ohman refers to often lack the steady, at least semi-livable paycheck that the last staff cartoonists roaming the planet receive. It is sometimes those alternative cartoonists, in turn, who are compelled to seek gold in digital frontiers.
But with an online orientation can come fewer boundaries, and a different range of opportunities.
“Ultimately today, we have the Internet. There is no one between you and an audience, if you don’t want there to be,” MAD’s Richmond says. “Any boundaries or limits are self-imposed on an individual basis online.”
“I think that technology shifts have made some cartoonists more independent, depending who they perceive their audience to be,” Ohman says. “The Internet is a free-fire zone with no real speech restrictions, and those who operate solely on the Internet have way more elbow room than those working at daily newspapers.”
One of those “altie” cartoonists who is finding opportunity online is Jen Sorensen, last year’s recipient of the Herblock Prize. She says digital cartoons are carrying on the Franklinesque tradition of political bite.
“I would say political satire in the U.S. is alive and well, and even experiencing a Renaissance of sorts, if you’re looking in the right places,” Sorensen tells Comic Riffs. “Sure, many mainstream daily newspapers have gone milquetoast, preferring non-controversial cartoons or firing their cartoonists altogether. But there are many great, hard-hitting alt-weekly strips and daily cartoons, and there’s been a welcome burst of websites starting up comics sections and actually paying for work — Daily Kos, Medium, and the new Graphic Culture section I edit for Fusion, to name a few.
“A rise in Internet activism and discussion of social issues,” she continues, “has led to cartoons being shared more and more.” (By way of example, Sorensen points to Fusion’s roundup of Charlie Hebdo cartoons.)
Sorensen spotlights, too, a key difference in this Charlie Hebdo era. “I would also make a distinction between biting satire that’s saying something intelligent and witty and speaking truth to power, vs. hateful cartoons that exist ‘only’ to offend.
“I would be saddened if we let terrorists bait us into extremism.”
Another non-staff cartoonist who is creating and curating biting editorial work is Matt Bors, the past Herblock Prize recipient and Pulitzer Prize finalist.
Bors, who is a cartoonist for Medium and Universal Uclick, is also cartoon editor of Medium’s The Nib. Today, Bors is featuring a smartly curated package, titled “Laugh, Cry, Be Offended,” of Charlie Hebdo-related works — seven comic essays from “French cartoonists influenced by Hebdo, Muslims who think [Hebdo cartoonists are] racists, one of the infamous Danish Muhammad cartoonists, a Pulitzer Prize winner and an angry Canadian.”
“I talked with cartoonists all over the world to pull this together, and it’s been an emotional week,” says Bors, who on Thursday evening will participate in a BlueNationReview.com live chat on censorship and satire (other artists will include Lizz Winstead, Phil LaMarr and “Family Guy’s” Rich Appel).
“There’s a connection you feel to artists around the world,” Bors says, “especially those facing censorship or death.”
As Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman (“Maus,” “In the Shafow of No Towers”) told Comic Riffs in the wake of last week’s attack: “Cartoonists’ lives matter.” And tethered so closely to that is their impassioned work itself.
“If anyone was doubting it before,” Bors says, “what we do matters.”