Editorial Cartooning: Pointing Out by Poking Fun

Last week, I talked about how I’ve found my cartoon work to require a fair bit of improvisation, from illustrations to longer-form sequential art. That’s no different for my editorial cartoons that appear every week in the pages of Charleston, SC’s alternative weekly, Charleston City Paper. If anything, it’s a requirement while producing a weekly editorial cartoon in a 24-hour news-cycle world—one that’s only accelerated over my 17 years at the City Paper.

Sifting Through the Fodder

In terms of today’s news cycle, the analogy of trying to drink from a fire hose seems appropriate. The City Paper releases a new issue every Wednesday (just like New Comic Book Day), which means a Sunday night deadline, so they have it first thing Monday morning to add to the page layout and to allow for any editorial tweaks before it goes to the printer. Used to be, I would start to eyeball topics for the next cartoon when the current week’s issue hit the streets, giving me Wednesday to Sunday to work it out from idea to cartoon. However, as the news cycle started to accelerate, headlines from Wednesday became old news—at times almost forgotten—by the time the following Wednesday rolled around. Time has gotten particularly elastic under the current Administration—for example, I barely got in a joke about the hiring of former press secretary Anthony Scaramucci as he was already heading out the door. 

 

As a result, while I still keep an eye on topics week-to-week, I usually wait until later in the week to decide which to tackle. Case in point, after more than a month of Coronavirus-related cartoons—from the Administration’s initial response to the woes of living under quarantine—I thought it might be good to tackle something else: recent moves to privatize the United States Postal Service.

Poking Fun While Pointing Out

The role of an editorial cartoonist is really to call attention to the hypocrisies and injustices around us, just with a visual and a sense of humor. I often say that if I either make you laugh or make you angry, I’ve done my job. Even if your anger is directed at me for making a point you disagree with, I’ve made you stop long enough to think about the issue at hand. 

 

In the case of USPS privatization, I have a number of concerns, from the political Whys behind the move to the impact it would have on the citizenry, especially those in more rural America where internet access is still a premium and not a certainty. And really, comparing the cost of a stamp to the price tag of having to FedEx a letter across the country alone gives me a fair bit of sticker shock. 

 

Now that I had my topic for the cartoon and the issues to address, I had to think through the punchline and visual shorthand to ease communicating my point. For the latter, I remembered Mr. Zip. Not necessarily an official mascot of the Postal Service, he’s a classic advertising character created in the ‘60s to help popularize the then-new ZIP Code system, and one who sometimes makes a nostalgic return from time-to-time.

 

From Start to Finish

Given that general concept, I had a starting point for the strip. The idea of an angsty Mr. Zip giving voice to my concerns seemed inherently funny and quirky, so I just started sketching that. But where/to whom is Mr. Zip giving voice to his complaints? For some reason, putting him at a bar, venting to the bartender or another patron came to mind, but in reality, that context seemed unnecessary. Something more consistent with his role as a mail carrier would better help with the visual shorthand and ease the reader’s understanding. Given the small canvas and quick-read nature of an editorial cartoon, any sort of additional clarity trumps unnecessary nuance every time. So rather than be at a bar, Mr. Zip could just be on his route, maybe at a mail dropbox, which would give me another nice visual cue to represent the USPS.

 

But who is he complaining to? He could just be breaking the fourth wall, addressing the reader directly… And I needed to figure out the punchline; a snarky Mr. Zip seemed funny to me, but it still needed that extra punctuation of humor. And therein was the punchline the strip was leading up to: He’d be complaining to a FedEx carrier, which would then enable the strip to end with a pointed jab at the cost differential and the impact the privatization would have on most people’s wallets. Voila, an editorial cartoon. 

 

 

Of course, not long after I hit SEND on this strip, the governor announced ending Coronavirus lockdowns on beaches and some retail stores across the state, causing me to quickly draw up a strip tackling that topic for that week’s issue instead. Blame that fire hose of a news cycle. 

 

Thoughts on editorial cartooning? Share your experience on the forums!

 

Steve Stegelin

Editor, Artist, Letterer, Colorist Steve is the long-running cartoonist at the Charleston, SC alt-weekly Charleston City Paper, where he skewers politicians and criminals (and criminal politicians) alike with editorial cartoons and police blotter illustrations every issue. Steve was best known his indie comic book (and subsequent webcomic)  BOONDOGGLE