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'Drawing to the end of an era'

by Lawrence Pollard

The political cartoon has long held a vital place in newspapers around the world, often a means of ridicule or poking fun in circumstances where mere words might fall foul of the law or a repressive regime.

But the age of spin, Draconian press laws and the pressures of self-censorship are combining to make the cartoonist s job more difficult and forcing subtle changes in a craft that its practitioners see as vital to freedom of _expression.

"I think there s no doubt that syndication and the downturn of the local newspaper industry in the US is damaging editorial cartooning" says Kevin "KAL" Kallaugher, the cartoonist for The Baltimore Sun and the Economist in London. "In an age where politicians present themselves more and more via their image, who will be left to de-spin, to unpick that if not the cartoonist who deals in image?"

Kallaugher is a veteran of the traditional single frame political cartoon. He sees that form slowly dying, but has an IT vision of the future. "Kids today don t grow up with comics and cartoons as we use to. They have computer games and their technology the cartoon of the future will be animated in a virtual world, maybe 15 seconds long, and sent to your mobile phone or laptop.. I think there s a bright future for visual satire."

His concerns are echoed by Ravi Shankar, deputy editor of India Today and a campaigning cartoonist. "Cartooning has become an irrelevance like most political commentary . India s going through a consumer revolution and people don t care about politics. If a politician s a thief, who cares. There's no outrage how s a cartoonist to get oxygen?"

However, just as economic pressures are damaging those countries with cartooning traditions, the form is assuming a vital reformist importance in other societies. Iran s cartoonists have long been admired, but have been working in difficult circumstances. "We are surrounded by red lines the problem is you don t they are there until you tread on them," says Nikahang Kowsar, who s been embroiled in the political struggles in Tehran. Since he was last let out of prison his mission has been to establish the cartoon as a permitted part of the political ecology. "I want to show the political authorities that we are not their rivals ; that I m a journalist not a politician. We have to speak out loud what other people won t say."

This is the role so contested by the powerful that they ll imprison, harass and occasionally sponsor the killing of cartoonists. They fear the magic of cartoonists, where the tables are turned. One of the most effective ways is caricature Jonathan "Zapiro" Shapiro has worked in South Africa for many years. "When the police arrested me they asked why do you draw us police as pigs? I said because I like to draw what I see . They put me into solitary."

Dr Bro Russell of the cartoonists Rights Network, recalls the case of a Rumanian cartoonist who drew his local mayor as a pig. The cartoonist was arrested and taken to jail.

As well as political pressures, there s also the censorship that raises the issue of taste Ted Rall, in New York, outraged American sensibilities with his strip Terror Widows, which attacked some relatives of victims of September 11 tragedy. It provoked calls for new censorship laws to suppress any "assault on the decent national sensibilities crucial to the war effort", and was removed from The New York Times and The Washington Post websites. "I never apologised because I did nothing wrong," Rall says. "My cartoon strip attacked what I saw as some lousy people using the events to promote their religious and political agendas. I got a load of support from other victims relatives."

Rall went to Afghanistan last year to produce a cartoon strip on the war and the country, a growing development in political cartooning.

Maltese-American Joe Sacco calls himself a comics journalist. He produces comic books on the Middle East and the conflict in Bosnia, which look like Spiderman and read like dispatches from the edge. He spent four months in Gorazde, and took more than three years to write and draw the book. "I use comic book art and tell journalistic stories. A photojournalist aspires to tell a story with a singe image, I use repeated images to land you in a place , take you down an alleyway and into someone s head." And it works.