Editorial Cartooning Is in Danger
At a time when the world needs new ways to connect, there are fewer opportunities for people whose life's work is to help us do precisely that.
By Liza Donnelly
I have been a cartoonist all my life. I began drawing when I was 7 years old, and my love of cartoons began when I realized I could make others smile with my pen. But it was the chaos of America in the 1960s and 1970s that made me want to turn to drawing editorial cartoons. Because of the power of visuals to connect, cartoons help us see the world in ways that words alone cannot, and editorial cartoons often distill core issues and point up our common humanity. I wanted to help.
One cartoonist who was my original inspiration was Herblock of The Washington Post, my hometown newspaper. I eventually found a home at The New Yorker, and for decades I felt as though my editorial cartoons, and those of my fellow artists, were respected and even loved. The fact that the Pulitzer Prize Board established a category for editorial cartooning in 1922, just five years after the launch of the prize program, has lent legitimacy to our art.
So when the Pulitzer board declined this year to name a winner of the cartooning prize—a year after it rejected all three finalists to name its own winner in 2020—cartoonists rightly took it as a slap in the face, but also as a sad confirmation of what many of us have suspected for some time: Our profession of editorial cartooning is in danger. At a time when the world needs to have a good laugh, when we need editorial cartoons to help us see and understand what’s going on, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for the people whose life’s work is to help us do precisely that.
Editorial cartoons have played an important role in driving the democratic conversation since the founding of the republic. During the suffrage movement in the early 1900s, the cartoons of Rose O’Neill and other artists helped reshape America’s image of the women who wanted the right to vote and thus generated sympathy for the cause. During World War II, cartoons by Herblock, Edwin Marcus of The New York Times, and many others rallied support for the war effort; Bill Mauldin won the Pulitzer in 1945 for his “Up Front” cartoons for United Features Syndicate, which helped bolster morale among the troops and on the home front.
In the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, cartoons commented on and satirized our divisions over the Vietnam War, civil rights, Watergate, and the sexual revolution. Not all publishers were on board with this role: “Doonesbury,” the comic strip created by Garry Trudeau, tackled political and cultural topics in a fresh and fearless way—and, for its pains, was frequently banned from newspapers.
Ironically, the national tragedy of 9/11 may have been cartooning’s finest hour. Cartoons channeled our collective trauma, fear, and nationalism—and helped with our eventual recovery. After deciding not to run any traditional cartoons in its first issue after the attacks, The New Yorker broke its silence the following week. The issue led off with a drawing by Leo Cullum of a woman at a bar talking to a man dressed in garish plaid. “I thought I’d never laugh again,” the woman says. “Then I saw your jacket.”
The New Yorker published a 9/11 cartoon of mine a few months later:
Cartoons capture the zeitgeist and make us laugh, and they can also touch our hearts.
But something started happening in the early 2000s to erode cartooning’s place in our society, just as the internet started undermining the business model of print journalism. Staff cartoonists at newspapers, who had been an integral part of a dialogue with readers—one that could get heated but usually remained civil because the players belonged to the same community—found themselves out of work as the number of local and regional papers dwindled. Many of the papers that survived were sold to chains and other faraway owners, severing the ties between a publication and its local public.
Breaking the link between cartoonists and their communities has had wide-ranging implications. The lack of local outlets has led to self-censorship by some cartoonists, who, as they turn to syndicates to sell their work at a far lower price per drawing, have homogenized their content to be more palatable to more markets. Mainstream publishers, worried about their own bottom lines, have become increasingly wary of any content that might drive readers away. Many have stopped running cartoons altogether, as The New York Times International Edition did in 2019. Despite the increasing diversity of the audience for cartoons, arbiters of the profession, including the Pulitzer board, are actively ignoring the work of newer artists who draw from non-white perspectives or in untraditional formats.
And because of the heated times in which we live, some cartoonists who otherwise would use their art to hold those in power to account—or at least poke holes in pomposity—are holding back out of fear of retribution from a political tribe, be it left or right. I can attest to this from my own experience: During recent presidential primaries, I shied away from drawing cartoons that went after Bernie Sanders in substance. Bernie’s identifiable features and singular personality make him a cartoonist’s dream, and the rise of his candidacy deserved editorial comment in all its forms. I made fun of his exaggerated hand-waving and unkempt hair, but I failed to go after his platform, subconsciously aware I would be inundated with hate from “Bernie Bros” and the far left.
The trend away from publishing editorial cartoons accelerated when cartoonists started becoming the targets of deadly threats—notably in the Danish cartoon controversy of 2005 over drawings of the prophet Muhammad and, most horrifically, in the fatal attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in 2015. Those events also narrowed and sharpened the debate over editorial cartooning into an up-or-down referendum on free speech, with some taking an absolute position that cartoonists have a duty to say what must be said, whatever the consequences.
I see the issue in a more nuanced way. As I wrote in 2015, while I defend wholeheartedly the right of cartoonists to freely choose what they draw, I feel that we have a responsibility to exercise caution, particularly if our work could potentially cause harm to others. While we must be forceful, inflammatory images or words are not always the answer. And of course no cartoons, no matter how offensive to some, merit violent retribution.
In this confusing and condemning age, can editorial cartooning be saved? Yes—but it will take effort, will, and reflection on all sides.
Readers need to let publications know that they want editorial cartoons to remain an integral part of the conversation.
Publishers need to recognize the importance of editorial cartoons by hiring editors who embrace that view.
Editors need to seek out cartoons that reflect the diversity of the community their publications serve and be more open to new forms of graphic storytelling.
Cartoonists need to understand that their creativity is not simply a megaphone for their opinions but also a tool for dialogue, and that sensitivity to others does not constitute a red line in freedom of expression.
The ability to laugh at ourselves and at the absurdity of modern life is good for democracy. Cartoons enrich our lives with humor, connection, and insight. Cartooning needs to be preserved because we need it.