Perils of Editorial Cartoons

The comic book industry often goes through moments of doom-and-gloom, like when a tentpole Big Two publisher breaks up with the primary distributor. However, there are times when I’m reminded that cartoonists in general—regardless of whether their comics be books, strips, or editorial—often live in a state of endangered species. This was a common refrain when I attended last year’s conference of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC) in Columbus, OH. Done in concert with Cartoon Crossroads Columbus (CXC) (which that year featured headliners like Jeff Smith, Mike Mignola, and Jaime Hernandez), it was a fantastic celebration of the comics medium. However, among the festivities, there was talk of editorial cartoonists in particular facing dwindling numbers, with newspapers deciding the cartoons were more a liability than benefit. 


A couple weeks back, I wrote about the power of editorial cartoons, how a single image can invoke emotions from laughter in agreement to anger in dissent. They can also, most importantly, cause the reader to take a moment to think. Of course, when newspapers are themselves facing an extinction event as they compete against 24-hour news channels and social media, the last thing some want is to risk losing a subscriber who reacts poorly to that moment of thought. That very scenario played out across the country this month, and at least twice in my own state of South Carolina.


One instance was particularly alarming given the newspaper publisher’s response, published as an editorial titled Editorial Cartoons are Expendable. In it he addresses the outrage the publisher received over a recent Gary McCoy cartoon that attempted to tie Black Lives Matter to a pro-life abortion debate. In his editorial, the publisher claims he “was aghast” that the cartoon “found its way into the paper,” and excused it as a “mistake” by a “busy” editor. He then goes on to defend his opinion that editorial cartoons are “expendable” given the ones they publish are from syndicated cartoonists—as opposed to a local creator—and are seldom funny and “often divisive and heartless.” As such, he had come to the decision that they would no longer include any cartoons on their opinion/editorial page, which they viewed as a “broad marketplace of thought.” While this commentary was a happy reminder that I’m a rare cartoonist with the support of a local soapbox, it was also clear this publisher took away all the wrong lessons from the outrage and experience. 


As discussed earlier, the visual media of editorial cartoons can be a powerful contribution to a “marketplace of thought.” But like the old adage from Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben, “with great power comes great responsibility.” The cartoonist owns some responsibility for their work, and in the case of this cartoon, tying an always-polarizing issue like abortion to a racial movement is questionable, especially during a time when the nation is reckoning with its bigoted past. So it’s understood why the paper’s readers took offense. But syndicated cartoons like this don’t magically appear on the op/ed pages; the editor chose it out of a wide selection of options to run. The choice to run a cartoon the publisher found “divisive and heartless” seems to speak more about the editor’s views or performance than the nature of editorial cartoons. Rather than pass the buck on to the entire medium, the publisher could instead harness the power editorial cartoons can bring to his paper. 


Want more local focus to the op/ed page? Hire a local cartoonist rather than rely on syndicated voices. Editorial cartoons aren’t supposed to always be funny; they’re meant to be thought-provoking. They’re the opposite of an apolitical feel-good strip like Marmaduke, no matter the similarity in format. Sometimes provoking that thought requires a hard swipe at a politician or hypocritical issue. If the publisher would like to avoid more divisive stances, he could require more discretion in the choices the editor makes as they build their “broad marketplace of thought.” To silence editorial cartoonists on the page completely is akin to Peter Parker never leaving the wrestling ring after his Uncle Ben’s tragic end.

Thoughts on the cancelation of editorial cartoons? Share them in the ShoutFyre forum!

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