Today's cartoonists who caricature Dubya with pencils, paper and even digital drawing tools are only a few evolutionary stones' throws away from the earliest among us, who scrawled images of mastodons and warriors by chewing charcoal and spitting it on the cave wall. (We're betting some of those early cave paintings were cheeky; we just don't have the cultural context to prove it.)
But as traditional newspapers have slashed staffs and, in the process, whittled down the number of editorial cartoonists around the country, some media prognosticators are reading into these trends the demise of our craft.
I beg to differ. To perhaps exaggerate (something we cartoonists excel at) my faith in our resilience, I think cartoonists may be entering a new golden age with the online media revolution. Because in a time marked by shortening attention spans and harried lifestyles, what better way to make your political point than with little pictures that make people laugh?
Let's face it, the basic activity hasn't changed: idea in head goes down arm and is drawn on something -- anything. We don't care if it's a rock, a piece of paper or a digitized tablet. We just want to draw. For the better part of the past 30,000 years or so, we've had an easy run. If you wanted to get a message across, you needed those of us who could create images and convey ideas with our bare hands.
Then someone had to spoil it by creating this written-word thing. Ever since, we've had to share the media landscape with others and acclimate to one annoying communications revolution after another.
We probably shouldn't complain too much. We adapted to the printing press, which turned out to be a more effective way of distributing our drawings. Paper really does beat rock when it comes to carrying pictures around. That little breakthrough ushered in the newspaper era and, with it, a high point of cartooning. In fact, some of our earliest and greatest political pundits were the cartoonists of this inky epoch.
Good drawing skills and virtuoso caricatures could make you a rock star -- and Thomas Nast was a master of both. His drawings in Harper's Weekly, often a full-page caricature in a double-truck spread, helped bring down Boss Tweed in the 1870s. He also created such lasting political icons as Uncle Sam, the Democratic Party donkey and the GOP elephant. Even presidents worried about how he would ridicule them with his razor-sharp pen.
Thus, long before TV and YouTube videos, it was the newspaper and magazine cartoonists who created "them damn pictures." Politicians and officeholders learned to fear cartoons in the same way they now fear the backlash of talk radio, captured video "macaca" moments and the blogosphere. In fact, Paul Conrad of the Los Angeles Times was such a relentless and jabbing critic of President Richard Nixon, his cartoons earned him a place on Nixon's infamous "enemies list." The Washington Post's Herblock wasn't one of Nixon's favorites, either.
Political cartoonists also adapted to Sunday comics sections with the opening created by Gary Trudeau's "Doonesbury" in the 1970s. Berkeley Breathed's "Bloom County" brought a lighter and more broadly humorous touch to political and social commentary, which in turn opened the way for Aaron McGruder's edgier and more politically pointed "Boondocks."
Today, as the age of newsprint cartooning gives way to the digital revolution, some worry that without that traditional perch, political cartoonists face a shaky future. But we handled and even thrived in the transition from rock to paper. Jumping from ink to pixel is easy.
Let's face it, one of the greatest compliments that can be paid to a cartoon is to have it cut ut and stuck on a refrigerator door. Forwarded e-mail works even more efficiently. While some think of the Internet as a "series of tubes," cartoonists know it's really just one gigantic refrigerator door. Daily newspaper publishers making the jump to pixels are finally waking up to the fact that this radical shift to lively websites begs for more, not fewer, cartoons.
Just recently, Ann Telnaes, an independent American cartoonist, started creating animations that have been running off the home page of the United Kingdom's GuardianUnlimited website. You can find both traditional and animated cartoons on the front pages of other prominent political and social commentary websites, such as Salon and Slate. Even the somewhat staid New Yorker is putting up animations on its home page these days.that he won the Pulitzer for editorial cartooning this year, and the Pulitzer committee for the first time cited Web animation in the commendation. Other staff cartoonists venturing into animation include the Houston Chronicle's Nick Anderson and Matt Davies of Long Island's The Journal News.Jen Sorensen of "Slowpoke," Mat Bors of "Idiot Box," and others still sell to dead-tree readers -- mostly to alternative city newspapers -- but augment this with ambitious websites, blogs and even merchandizing. Mark Fiore pioneered the independent Web cartoon niche and Web-friendly Flash animation with the weekly postings he has been doing since 2002.
Some traditional print cartoonists are melding the two worlds of print cartoon and viral Web animation. Walt Handelsman from Newsday did such a fine job with both
But it's not only about a shift to animation. The vast majority of cartoonists still draw static cartoons, and they, too, seem to have adjusted handily to digital. There's something of a "toonosphere" shaping up out there, and if a corporate media outlet won't house you, the Web makes it easy for a cartoonist to create an outlet and find his or her own audience.
Sandy Northrup, who has broken ground getting political cartoons on TV news programs (and who co-wrote with Stephen Hess a book on cartoon history, "Drawn and Quartered"), observed at a recent conference of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists in Washington how independent cartoonists aren't looking back at the old model. "The next generation of alternative, or 'altie' cartoonists is looking forward, thinking of what it is they want to say and how to get it out there in new ways."
Independent cartoonists like Tom Tomorrow, creator of "This Modern World,"
Lucky for cartoonists, our inspiration is timeless, thanks to corrupt and hypocritical politicians and the public outrage they provoke (or worse, don't).
"The technology to deliver their drawings may change, but cartoonists with fire in their bellies never will," said Harry Katz, the curator of the Herblock collection housed at the Library of Congress. "Obsessively driven to challenge with intelligence, wit and artistry overreaching and overtly unrepentant public officials, today's editorial cartoonists are on the front lines of American democracy, sheltered by the Constitution and aiming at those who threaten our civil rights and liberties."
Who knows what that technological shift will bring? Before long, we may be creating cartoons that are some sort of holographic projection that shoots out of the iPhones in our nose rings. Whatever it is, it will start with an idea that starts in the head and goes down the arm to the hand.
Something that could just as easily be scrawled on a cave wall.