The Changing World of Editorial Cartooning

The art of editorial cartooning has gone through many changes over the course of history. My art history professor in college got my attention one day when he referred to the prehistoric paintings in Australia and the cave paintings in Spain and France as the earliest recorded editorial cartoons. He was having a little fun in saying this, but he was also being serious. Drawn and painted anywhere between 40,000 and 15,000 BC, these paintings depicted the earliest form of communication among people. He also suggested that the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt were further examples of political art done to describe the politics of the Pharaoh. Indeed, one possibility for the origin of the word ‘cartoon’ may be the Egyptian word ‘cartouche’, an oval hieroglyph containing a royal name.

In more modern times, political cartoons were accomplished by etching and lithography.  When the printing press was invented, these drawings could be mass produced. With the development of direct printing and then the offset press, cartoonist could do their work on paper using a pen and ink and sometimes a black pencil for shading.

In the early 1960‘s, the use of chemical shading was introduced to America by Pat Oliphant, an Australian cartoonist and one of my heroes. Pat completely altered the landscape of editorial cartooning with his skill and technique. In this process, a chemical is printed on the surface of the drawing paper. After the waterproof ink drawing was completed, the cartoonist would then apply a chemical developer to the paper surface and those areas would then darken. Some cartoonists continue to use this paper.

Around the same time, a product known as Zip-A-Tone came to be widely used. These were transparent sheets of dots or lines with adhesive backing that could be cut and carefully layered to a finished drawing and thus create additional shading.

These advances were often met with resistance among some in the cartooning community who feared the ‘purity’ of their craft was being destroyed. There are also some who even complained about the use of cross-hatching to achieve shading and background.

All of these earlier advances pale when the use of the computer arrived and Adobe Photoshop began to be used by cartoonists. A new world of possibilities has opened. It provides the ability to scan an original cartoon, and then electronically add color and shading. What also emerged was the ability Photoshop photographs into a cartoon. These photographs could be logos, type, or objects such as buildings, faces, shirts, or guns.

This is where the resistance of the ‘purists’ become the loudest. They complain that mixing cartoons with photos is ‘heresy’. While some accept the use of adding color to backgrounds, they often reject the use of adding any of the other possibilities. They are coming to be known as the ‘Cartoon Police’ or the ‘Tea Party Cartoonists’ in their narrow-minded zeal to halt these practices and demand others follow only their notions of what constitutes a cartoon. Some are weekly cartoonists who are more like writers and use multi-panels with multi-captions to explain their point of view. A few are vitriolic in their criticism of daily cartoonists who use symbols like the elephant and donkey in a single panel cartoon. I admire all of them for the work they produce but there are many ways to cartoon other than their way.

The cartooning profession is changing dramatically. Several cartoonists have established themselves as virtuoso Photoshoppers. Among my favorites are Clay Bennett, Mike Thompson, and John Sherffius. Notice when you open these links how they have taken photos of objects and incorporated them into their cartoon. You will see how Clay has taken a photograph of a shirt (notice the material of the collar), imposed the skull and cross bones of a photo, and planted it at an angle on some photographic material to a shirt label. It is an example of superb technical skill and it creates a fabulous idea. Mike Thompson  creates entire backgrounds with photographs, this one of a UFO, a chain link fence, and a rock ground cover while imposing cartoon characters in the foreground. Mike is singular among cartoonists with this technique.

When I first entered cartooning, it was important for me to establish strong drawing skills. Now I want to see where this new technology will lead me. Of the three, John Sherffius has had the greatest influence on me. In this link  see how John used a photograph of the BP logo and imposed an oil-soaked pelican in the center, making his statement regarding the Gulf of Mexico oil spill of several years ago. John has left editorial cartooning, being unable to support his family, but he continues to display an enormous array of artistic and technical abilities that astound me in the work he now produces. In the long conversations I have had with this polite and sincere man, he has encouraged me to further develop my technical skills.

The use of animation in editorial cartooning is a growing technical and artistic endeavor quite different from all that I have discussed here. As you can see, the boundaries are ever expanding. That is a topic for another time.

It is important for all creative people to stretch themselves beyond their comfort zone. It is how one continues to grow. Where this new technology will lead me is uncertain and filled with accidents, as I have learned. Only time will tell as I experiment with these new tools, learn, have successes, make mistakes, and prove I am human.

In addition, the internet and the use of cartoons is changing. Internet users care little for the publishing date of a cartoon, and care only about the message it delivers. With that,  the rules of cartooning are changing. What will emerge is anyone’s guess.

One thing is undeniable. Time does not stand still.

Author: The Blue Route

What say you, the people?