IN THE FALL of 1998, a legendary actor-musician died, and I was moved to pay tribute through pen. I rendered him with his signature look, guitar in hand, being greeted at the pearly gates. The cartoon drew a warm response.
A few days later, a call came. The performer’s family was moved by the cartoon and sought the original art. I was invited to a big public celebration of the entertainer that was about a month away. The touched widow would love to meet me and shake the hand that so captured her husband. I would be honored.
A month passed, and I headed to the event, a couple of hours away. I was told to wait, and wait I did. For hours. The event ended and I was never called to the stage or the wings, as had been suggested. The event was over. So on my way to the parking lot, I swung past the family to fulfill my end of the deal and deliver the art. The relatives and organizers looked at me blankly. Nothing. So I simply handed them the illustration and left with a lasting lesson:
The obituary cartoon may move people in the moment, but most of the time, its impact — and worth — is as ephemeral as a funeral bouquet.
Which is why now, when I draw an obituary cartoon, I do it for myself as a personal salute and visual tribute, because there was something about that person that moved me. That is its inherent personal worth; it is an exercise in expressed gratitude.
Some of my colleagues, however, don’t even find value in that.
“I hate obituary cartoons,” the editorial artist Clay Jones writes this week on his blog. “I mean, I really hate them.”
Jones goes on to blast the stock setting of in memoriam cartoons. “I hate the St. Peter imagery and the Heaven thing. Bleagh!”
Still, he decided to create a Gene Wilder tribute. “I was thinking,” he writes, “what would a horrible cartoonist do with Gene Wilder’s death? What would be so sickening sweet that it’d make me groan? I thought of this without any effort. … I also drew it without much effort.”
The self-syndicated Jones notes that he did love Gene Wilder’s work, yet as he reasoned: “If I’m going to do a bad obituary cartoon, I’m going to do a really good bad obituary cartoon.”
The obituary cartoon is a staple of the industry that attracts readers who like images that reflect their feelings toward the departed. Yet when dozens of cartoonists arrive at variations on the very same idea, the industry can become perceived as lazy and cliche-happy. You don’t want to be the cartoonist who puts the “hack” in “hackneyed.”
So the question arises: Has the obituary cartoon become an anachronism?
“If stand-up comedians had gone on stage for the last 50 years and slipped on banana peels and said it was a rich tradition in comedy and, by the way, people love it, no one would care about that field anymore,” Matt Bors, the Oregon-based past Pulitzer finalist, tells The Post’s Comic Riffs. “Instead, they innovated and changed their approach constantly, and stand-up is now more vital and popular than ever.”
By contrast, “Editorial cartooning is as dead as Haramabe, except it deserved what it got,” continues Bors (author of “Life Begins at Incorporation”), who will appear Sept. 17 to 18 at Small Press Expo in suburban Washington. “You have to innovate the art form and push forward humor or criticism, not cynically regurgitate old tropes.”
(When Bors won the Herblock Prize, part of his portfolio was a viral cartoon that noted the death of Steve Jobs while remaining editorially critical [see above], using St. Peter only as a way to spoof how his colleagues used that trope despite Jobs’s stated belief in Buddhism.)
The California-based Darrin Bell — who will appear Sept. 24 at the Library of Congress’s National Book Festival — notes that he, like Jones, tries to be careful about the tropes he uses or twists. “I’ve used the pearly gates a few times myself, I won’t lie … but I’d like to think I subverted it just a little bit. And I try to only use that trope when it’s highly appropriate.”
(Some cartoonists this week are drawing Wilder at the pearly gates without a hint of irony, despite his stated disbelief in a divine power — the type of disregard for the deceased that often draws flak.)
And Bell, unlike some of his colleagues, doesn’t see the obituary cartoon as a scourge upon the industry. He thinks the key is originality.
“I don’t think too many colleagues do too many obit tribute cartoons, but I think too many draw the first idea that occurs to them,” says Bell, who thoughtfully has used his comic strip “Candorville” to pay layered tribute over days to the recently deceased. “Years ago, when George Carlin passed away, I just knew there’d be a flood of obit cartoons by cartoonists who went with their first idea, without regard to the fact that Carlin was an atheist. So I went another direction entirely,” having the comedian visit the strip’s lead character in a weeklong tribute:
Ultimately, Bell also sees value in how obituary cartoons find meaning in a celebrity’s life and death.
“Cartoonists comment on our culture, not just our politics. Our culture is comprised of people who affect us for good or ill,” the RFK Award-winning Bell says. “Sometimes they lead us, sometimes they entertain us, sometimes they disappoint us, and sometimes they make us proud. When they pass away, it’s a good time to point out who they were and what they meant to us, because doing so points out who we are and what we value.”