What future is there for political cartooning?
When Chairman Mao was asked in the 1970s whether the French Revolution had been a success, he said it was "too early to judge”. The same could possibly be said of the online revolution that is dramatically changing the way we view political cartoons. When the internet finally kills off the printed newspaper, will it lead to the demise of the political cartoon too? Well, it is in some ways, of course, too early to tell. As we know, predicting the future, especially as in prophesying advances in technology, is nigh on impossible. However, many agree that the political cartoon could be, like its host the newspaper, in terminal decline. In the United States, this dystopian future has already largely happened.
Due to falling circulations and dwindling advertising revenues, there are barely a handful of staff cartoonists still employed by American newspapers, compared to the 1980s when 300 of them were gainfully employed. American cartoonist and columnist, Ted Rall, has said that cartoonists are like "the canaries in the coal mine" for the newspaper industry: "You know a newspaper's in trouble when the staff cartoonist gets the axe." Most American cartoonists are now freelance or have their work syndicated, but as a consequence, it is a tough call for them to earn any kind of living this way. The former editor of The Observer, Peter Preston, succinctly summed all this up almost ten years ago:
“Once, they stood in the vanguard of editorial attack, drawing big salaries, winning big prizes. But now the internet is felling them fast at the rate of two erstwhile stars a month. A Pulitzer in the bag makes no difference to job mortality here. Somebody is drawing final lines under the trade they love. Political cartoonists are an endangered species... Until a quite recent time, print cartoons on the leader or op-ed pages (sometimes even on the front) were badges of distinction for editors everywhere, especially in the US, land of Mauldin, Herblock and Garry Trudeau. Yet see how the terms of trade are changing. On the surface, the cull seems just another damned crunch thing. Staffs have to be reduced.”
In the UK, despite declining newspaper circulations and falling advertising revenues, things are nowhere near as bleak as they are in the United States. Maybe it has something to do with the centuries of tradition in Britain, along a path that stretches from Gillray, Tenniel and Low, to Scarfe, Brookes and Bell. It is a satirical heritage that has truly stood the test of time. In Britain today, every broadsheet still prominently carries a daily political cartoon, and George Osborne must be especially congratulated for bringing the political cartoon back to the London Evening Standard after a hiatus of 13 years. Of the tabloids, only the Daily Express and the Daily Mirror should be shamed for dropping the political cartoon entirely from their pages. However, the really bad news is that two years ago we lost the print version of the Independent, which can now only be seen online. The paper, which had been losing money for nearly 30 years, found that its dwindling readership of just 40,000 simply made the paper financially unsustainable. At the time, the owner of the Independent, Evgeny Lebedev, tried to put a brave face on the move from print to digital by saying: "The newspaper industry is changing, and that change is being driven by readers. They're showing us that the future is digital.”
One of the major reasons for declining print sales is that the younger generation do not buy newspapers. They tend to obtain all the information they require from the web and online social media. The Guardian’s Steve Bell told me that: “I’m my newsagents best customer when it comes to buying newspapers, but my four grown-up kids have never purchased a paper in their lives.” Bell also thinks that papers are in decline because, in his opinion, they are "rubbish" and the only decent aspect of them, as far as he is concerned, is the cartoons themselves. Even those magazines that carry cartoons, like Private Eye and The Oldie, Bell believes do cartoons an actual disservice: “They publish the cartoons way too small, giving them no fucking space to breath!”
As print sales continue to dwindle, the broadsheets have, over the years, looked for ways to make up for falling sales. One cost-cutting measure has been [apart from The Telegraph] to downsize to tabloid format. This has resulted in the cartoon competing for space, with editors feeling the pressure to replace it with advertising, photographs or additional articles, as has happened in the tabloids. Up until the 1990s, all the ‘red tops’ carried daily political cartoons. Now only the Daily Mail and the Daily Star do so and they are topical gags rather than political cartoons. Photo montage, a cheaper alternative to cartoons, has become far more prevalent in the tabloids. In the past, images by staff cartoonists would be used on the front page to cover big political events such as general elections and Budgets etc. Now newspapers use photo montages. Who can forget The Sun's 1992 election-day front cover featuring Neil Kinnock with a lightbulb head, or the one of former England football manager Graham Taylor as a turnip?
If the day comes when all newspapers are only online and there is no longer a print version, will papers have the funds available to employ the very best political cartoonists? If they do not recompense Britain’s best as they do now, will they, like gag cartoonists before them, find more rewarding avenues for their sublime talents? This has already happened with the gag/joke cartoon. Until the 1980s, there were numerous outlets such as newspapers, magazines and periodicals for gag cartoons. They could be regularly found in the likes of Punch, Everybody’s, Tatler, Reveille and Titbits, for example. In the past, tabloids like the Daily Sketch, News Chronicle and the Daily Mirror would even carry a whole daily page of gag cartoons. Talented gag cartoonists thrived. Now such outlets have all but dried up. Private Eye and The Oldie, being the exception, still carry gag cartoons, but the pay is meagre in comparison to the good old days. The result is that there is no longer sufficient reward to attract the best gag cartoonists in Britain today. They have taken their talents elsewhere. For example, look at the likes of Pont, H M Bateman, Rowland Emett, Fougasse, Ed McLachlan, Michael Ffolkes, Alex Graham, Norman Thelwell, Smilby, Larry and Bill Tidy to name but a few from the past. Where are their equivalents today? The answer is that they simply do not exist.
This scenario could easily happen with political cartoonists. Peter Brookes of The Times confirmed to me his belief that with the decline in circulation, newspapers will, at some stage, no longer have the revenue to afford to employ the very best cartoonists. They, like the gag cartoonists, will find other more financially rewarding careers, and as has happened in America, the result will be a drastic deterioration in quality. Kal believes that political cartooning is facing oblivion as the next potential generation of cartoonists will most likely be put off a full-time career as they see salaries and opportunities diminish. He says: “The real threat to the profession during the next decade will be when the present cartooning crew moves on. Few new aspiring cartoonists will likely be inspired to cut their teeth in this niche, challenging and complicated profession. As the seasoned and successful veterans begin to retire finding experienced replacements will be tricky. This will be a time of danger as future news organisations might be tempted to trim the cartoon position rather than try to fill the large empty shoes with less experienced newbies.”
In America, some political cartoonists have found alternative online platforms for their work such as thenib.com. Here, sadly, the old adage that less is more does not apply as the website is overwhelmed with poorly drawn and crassly thought-out cartoons. The site is free to subscribe to, but the cartoons, a mixture of static and animation, are simply amateurish. I unsubscribed fairly quickly as a consequence. The same goes for many other political cartoon websites. None of them claim to be financially viable despite boasting impressive traffic stats. On the other hand, it could be said that, because of the internet, the art of political cartooning is reaching a larger audience than it has ever done before. However, the artists themselves are not being paid for their contributions and if they are, it is a pittance. If these websites try and charge an access fee, evidence has shown that not enough people will subscribe to them to make it profitable. If this were the case, at least cartoonists would be able to earn a living wage from it. A number of American cartoonists who have lost their jobs have even set up their own professional websites. The problem here is that unless you are actively looking for them by name, you would never come across them on a search engine. Type in ’political cartoon’ and you instantly get 183 million hits on Google (I come up third by the way). The consequence of all this is that the great American editorial cartoonists of the past, like Herblock, Oliphant, Fitzpatrick, Mauldin and Conrad, to name but a few, have been sadly replaced by pale imitations of themselves. Therefore, the internet, unless you work for a major media outlet, has so far proved, especially for those who go it alone, to be a cartoon graveyard for political cartoonists.
Another disadvantage of online cartoons is that they do not get anywhere near the same type of exposure as they do in print, meaning they have less impact on those that see them. In a newspaper, the cartoon has its regular daily slot and readers, working their way through a paper cannot really avoid them. As a consequence, the majority, even if they are not particularly interested in the cartoon, cannot help but become familiar with it. Cartoonist Andy Davey agrees: ‘You read the whole newspaper and come across, traditionally at least, an image amidst a page of type. Your eyes are drawn to that image because it's strong. You have to go and search for a cartoon on a newspaper website, whereas you would be confronted with it in a traditional print newspaper.’ As Davey observes, on most newspaper websites, including those with a pay-wall, you have to seek out the cartoon. This is often difficult to find and many newspaper websites either forget to update the cartoon from the day before or do so sporadically. As a consequence, I suspect most online readers just do not actually bother. Steve Bell agrees that online cartoons are diffused and websites are generally difficult to navigate through: “People can’t find the cartoons they want as most outlets are pretty poor.” Peter Schrank believes ‘cartoons do have a problem making their mark and standing out from the relentless flood of images and information.’ Ten years ago, the late Guardian Editor, Peter Preston, expressed his fears that digital media did not suit the traditional drawn forms of communication:
'It needs to be there on a page of print: to catch the eye and react with the articles that surround it, a self-contained comment from a different world, where terse wit and a vivid imagination work their own package. Transfer that to some laptop, however, and the whole context changes. Digital somehow kills individual vision, makes it more like a frame of Disney than Illingworth or Giles. You have to hunt to find Martin Rowsons, as though strung along an obscure wall, or Garlands and Adams… The images don't dominate, but are politely filed away.'
Cartoons that find themselves online, especially on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram often lack any type of context that they would normally have in a newspaper. In the newspaper, the cartoon generally either relates to the paper’s editorial or a news story within the paper itself. Online, without context, they can prove unfathomable to the reader. This is exacerbated by the fact that they can be viewed all around the world and therefore easily misunderstood or misinterpreted, as Dave Brown explains:
‘Of course now, particularly a home news story, there's going to be a lot of people looking at The Independent around the world who don't get some of the nuances. There'll be characters, some of the Ministers and Shadow Ministers in particular, and they'll have no clue who they are. So that can lead to some confusion, especially now things on the web hang around a lot longer. With the paper, once it was wrapping your fish and chips, it was gone.’
The other issue with social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram is that political cartoonists have to face competition from other, less specialised forms of visual satire. These appear to be produced by people without a talent for drawing, albeit with a sense of humour, who obviously have just too much time on their hands. Bob Moran sees this as having a detrimental effect on online readers and feels the public will eventually tire of this and revert back to those who do it best, the cartoonists:
‘Today on social media, you find numerous people creating cartoons, gifs, memes, slapping a speech bubble onto a photo of Donald Trump - everyone's a cartoonist! But there's a difference between that stuff and a professional cartoonist attached to a specific newspaper. As time goes on, I think people will gain a greater appreciation for quality journalism and reliable voices. Good political cartoons are striking images that only require a short span of attention and will be updated by something completely new in less than twenty four hours time. That must stand them in pretty good stead for surviving the digital revolution.’
Whatever happens in the future, Martin Rowson thinks that cartoonists will be able to adapt to the changes: “Even if the main medium through which cartoons are consumed finally succeeds in blowing out its brains, like any sensible parasite we'll simply jump off our dead host and find another one. It's worth remembering that daily political cartoons only began appearing in British newspapers in 1900.” Although Steve Bell believes that newspaper circulations will continue to fall, he thinks political cartooning is still in great shape here in the UK: “They are a vital form of communication and as visual satire will always be relevant, they will survive be it online or in another format."
The Evening Standard’s Christian Adams is even more optimistic. He is firmly of the opinion that newspapers will survive the technological revolution. He thinks people get fed up of looking at computer, tablet or phone screens all day especially at their place of work and actually enjoy reading the news in a newspaper either on their way to work or on their way home. He compares it to what is happening with electronic books. Despite the initial popularity of ebooks like the Kindle, sales are now falling as people go back to buying real books. Like the newspaper, maybe readers prefer their physicality i.e. the feel and touch of a book. They seem to want something that is tangible; that exists in the real world. Adams also thinks the resurgence of vinyl record sales at the expense of digital uploads is a similar counterrevolution. Adams says: “People feel if they own something like a newspaper a book or a record they feel a closer affinity to it, be it to the writer or the musician.”
DIGITAL VERSUS PEN AND INK
Advances in technology have also dramatically changed the way some cartoonists now produce their work. In the United States, the vast majority today use a tablet or computer, to the apparent detriment of the quality of the drawing itself. Interestingly, Kevin Kallaugher ‘Kal’, whose cartoons for the Economist appear annually in this anthology, is one of the very few who still works with pen on paper. Is it a mere coincidence that he is also clearly the best draughtsman cartooning in the United States today? For Kal, it is the physical connection with his drawing materials that is all important to him:
‘I am a mad keen fan of the ancient nib pen. It took me decades to master it and it is incredibly pleasing to work with once you get the knack (after about 80,000 hours!) Part of the pen’s effectiveness comes from its tactile experience. There is friction created as the sharp point grabs the surface of the paper creating resistance and depositing the ink with some control. You can feel it working in your fingertips and beyond. Working digitally (as I also do) there is a different dynamic… the plastic point of the drawing instrument skates across the glass surface of the receiving device. There is marginal friction, little no tactile experience. Instead the eye is the guide and the driver of the artistic experience. Both are effective, but if I had a choice I would prefer the pen when possible.’
Here in the UK, we are fortunate that most political cartoonists still traditionally work with pen on paper. However, the Sun’s Steve Bright and the Telegraph’s Patrick Blower have gone over to doing everything digitally. Before I continue this essay, I must admit to having a vested interest here as I earn my living from the sale of original cartoons, and therefore, for obvious reasons, the digital medium directly threatens my future livelihood. If, the American model were to happen here, I would, most likely, go out of business. Fortunately, the majority still do it the old fashioned way. Blower and Bright have embraced technology both believing it is not only quicker to use, but also offers them technical options not available with traditional methods. As we will see, a battleground has opened up between the traditionalists and the digitisers. According to Steve Bright:
‘The issue of digital drawing is still quite divisive among many cartoonists, and I know there are some who may never accept that it's not real cartooning unless your hands and desk are covered in ink and paint, and mistakes such as ink splatters from temperamental nibs are classified as "happy accidents" - all part of the joys and spontaneity of "real drawing". I get that – been there, done all of that for the first 20 years of my career, and mostly loved it. But now, using exactly the same skills, I can draw faster, not have to worry about mistakes (still make them, but have the choice to easily correct them or just leave them), thereby allowing me to experiment more, and zero mess to clear up at the end of the day. Time is probably the most important factor. I could still do what I do using traditional tools, but not quickly enough, and with far less versatility and available options that allow me to resize and reposition the layout of a drawing in seconds (for example). It's made me a better cartoonist, I'd argue. Some will always disagree, and I've even heard the argument that using digital tools is somehow cheating. By that logic however, we should all be drawing cartoons on cave walls using fingers dipped in bull's blood. The computer doesn't draw these things for you - it's simply another tool...or rather, box of tools. I use exactly the same skills and talent I needed for my pre-digital days, and have added and o developed a few more using the additional tools available thanks to the technology. Horses for courses, and certainly digital isn't for everyone. But for me, there's no going back now.’
Steve Bright 'Brighty' works completely digitally.
The great advantage of working on a computer is that it is easy to amend, part of, or all of a drawing. If an editor at the last moment wants something omitted or changed in the cartoon it is not too difficult to accommodate compared to a heavily rendered cartoon on paper. If you make a mistake on a screen you can just press ‘Control Z’ and go back and correct it. Whilst with pen, ink and watercolour, one mistake may force you into starting the whole drawing from scratch. Saying that, Ralph Steadman makes a point of never correcting his artwork: “Of course you make a mistake! But there’s no such thing as a mistake really. It’s just an opportunity to do something else.” Despite Steadman’s unconventional view, Patrick Blower and Steve Bright appreciate that working digitally is, above everything, a great timesaver especially when it comes to making corrections and alterations. However, to those like Steadman, who claim digital work is, as a result, somehow artificial and therefore of a lesser value than the traditional methods of cartoonery, Blower is not only indignant of such views but dismissive of them too:
‘The overriding reason that I draw my political cartoons digitally is that it's twice as speedy as execution by ink and watercolour. Moreover, it also seems entirely logical; as more and more readers view my output on backlit digital screens, why not produce the images in the medium in which they're being consumed. For those dwindling newspaper readers who still prefer print, the vast majority spend no more than several seconds looking at the cartoon and are oblivious to the means of production. They simply require that the cartoon make its point well and make it clearly. It is true that there is a (tiny) group of cartoon connoisseurs who see quality in ink and watercolour and who eke out a living from trading original cartoon artwork and who, therefore, have an interest in promoting 'analogue' production over digital. Among certain cartoonists there is an Ancien Regime snobbery against digital drawing as if it's somehow worthier to wield a real nib and brush. Good luck to them. A digitally-made image isn't better or worse, it's just different. The other huge advantage in drawing digitally is the ability to create layers. This allows me to keep the numerous elements of the drawing separate from each other - colour from linework, the background from foreground figures etc. Where I'm drawing a detailed crowd scene for example, layers allow me to make up the drawing up as I go and add ideas as they occur, without having to go to the bother of planning it all upfront with a detailed rough. It's also the case that I draw for a paper which asserts editorial control over what I do and, inevitably, I am often called to make adjustments to my work. I concede that something is lost in not having a living, breathing, ink-spattered, tippex-studded, tea-stained piece of artwork but, alas, I've just got too used to the unbeatable advantages of working digitally.’
A number of cartoonists, such as Christian Adams, Ben Jennings and Brian Adcock have found a middle way, where they are of the opinion that they have the best of both worlds. What they do to produce their cartoon, is to draw out a preliminary sketch in pencil on paper, then overlay the line work in ink. The final composition is scanned onto a computer where colour, shadow, tint and other effects can be added digitally. Ben Jennings explains how and why he works this way:
‘I still draw all my line work traditionally by hand onto paper. I then scan the drawing into my computer and colour using Photoshop, where I have a variety of brush sets installed along with my own hand made textures, which I play around with until it looks finished (or until time runs out!). I use a Wacom Cintiq, which allows me to draw directly onto the screen, to maintain that hand drawn feel whilst working digitally. Whilst studying Illustration at university I'd often work in black and white, so when I got my first commissions to produce FULL COLOUR editorial cartoons, I had to find my voice using colour. I started out by hand drawing in ink and then painting over the top of the line, which I often felt resulted in my original line work being washed out. I then started to play around with incorporating digital techniques into my work and began to feel much more comfortable adding colour digitally, as it allowed me to paint behind the line as well as being able to constantly edit whilst I work, such as changing colours and sometimes the composition as I see fit throughout. It also makes amendments much easier for those occasions where clients have caveats. I also felt this might help me develop a unique 'style', incorporating the traditional exaggerated aesthetic of satirical cartooning with more contemporary illustration techniques. This is of course an ongoing process…’
Brian Adcock’s experiences are similar to that of Ben’s. It seems, by their own testimonies, that cartoonists who work this way appear to lack confidence in their ability to use watercolour, gouache or acrylics. Adcock explains why that is the case:
‘I prefer drawing in pen and ink rather than direct onto a computer for a few reasons. There is something about the relationship between the artist and the paper that just isn't there with digital surfaces. It's more real, tangible, dare I say natural. You make mistakes, there is a randomness brought on by the tools you are using, the surface texture of the paper, the type and condition of your nibs and the sort of Ink you are using. It's utterly joyful to create something in this way and doing it not in the real world as such, the digital world, just doesn't have the same feel for me. However, that said, technology is advancing so fast that soon you will be able to have the experience of drawing pen on paper with digital technology. So never say never. Being more a linear kind of artist colouring was never a big thing with me and so I never really developed that relationship with colouring, be it watercolours or ink or anything else, and the paper. When I started working professionally as a cartoonist most of the work I did was in mono as that is what the newspapers wanted. This meant I was already familiar with editing black and white cartoons in photoshop so when publications started to use more and more colour it seemed a natural and easy progression to colour cartoons in digitally. I do love using paints and ink but I am not that experienced at it and so find the time restraints of producing a political cartoon too demanding for colouring with traditional methods. The experience I now have with digital colouring means I can produce work faster and edit easily if necessary, and if you make as many fuck ups as me that's a useful thing to have. 20 years ago i was never keen on computer generated colouring as it looked so flat and artificial. I always wanted my work to look like other cartoonists work and more painterly and so made my colouring style to mimic a more watercolour style. That has changed now though I think and digital art and colouring has come on in leaps and bounds and artists like Ben Jennings have shown us that a digitally rendered cartoon can have great depth, soul and balls.’
Bob Moran used to produce cartoons in this middle way, but as he became more experienced and confident in his own abilities he decided to revert to more traditional methods. Interestingly, as a result, not only has his colouring made his cartoons more vibrant, but it has also had the effect of actually improving the quality of his draftsmanship. Moran explains the reasons behind the change:
‘When I began working for national papers, I drew my cartoons by hand then coloured them in Photoshop. At the time, I told myself and other people that it was modern and progressive - a way of bringing political cartoons into the 21st century. In reality, it was solely because I wasn't confident about using colour and I worried about missing the deadline. I quickly realised that I wasn't happy with the results and became increasingly frustrated with having drawers full of uncoloured ink drawings. Gradually, I started to learn how to paint with watercolour properly and transitioned to doing the whole thing the old fashioned way. Because I was no longer distracted by my dissatisfaction with how my cartoons looked, I could focus much more on the subjects and ideas. I still use a computer to make little tweaks at the end of the day - I always balance the colours a bit, darken the blacks and clean up the whites. I often play with the lettering to make it as clear as possible. But ultimately, the finished artwork I have on my drawing board is what ends up in the paper. There's something very satisfying about that. Modern newspapers, both in print and online, are full of neat typesetting, sharp photographs and glossy, digitally rendered graphics. Even most editorial illustration is now created digitally. Therefore, a cartoon rendered entirely by hand with blotted ink and bleeding washes of colour really stands out. It's a complete contrast to everything around it. I think that's going to be increasingly important as journalism evolves.’
Not surprisingly, those who refuse to adopt new technology tend to be those who started drawing daily cartoons well before the digital age. It maybe a case of not being able to teach an old dog new tricks, but unlike the ‘half-way brigade’ it is no coincidence that those who still use traditional methods continue to feel most comfortable doing so. According to Peter Brookes:
‘Drawing on paper, as far as I am concerned, is the real thing. I suppose part of that is my age as all this new digital technology was introduced well into my career. I personally feel most at ease with the tools of the trade that I am most familiar with, i.e. my pen and brush. For me, there is nothing quite as satisfying than the sound of my pen nib on a sheet of cartridge paper… I know it’s a bit of a cliché but a lot of digital work tends to look the same, especially backgrounds. After a while, it all becomes repetitive. They are too perfect as there are no rough edges unless, of course, you falsify them. Two cartoonists working digitally will produce similar images compared to two cartoonists working in pen, ink and watercolour on paper. The process of working digitally is soul destroying and you just don’t get the same satisfaction.’
As we see, those who still draw everything in pen, ink and watercolour look disdainfully on their colleagues who now work digitally in part or in full. They see digital output as primarily artificial and lifeless in appearance. For example, Dave Brown says nothing compares to a traditional watercolour image, saying digital artwork can be "flat and soulless". Both Mac and Morland concur. Dave Brown explains further:
“I like spatter, I like the accidents where the ink splashes, where things are a bit scratchy. It's got a more visceral quality to it, which I think the political cartoon needs. It doesn't want to look too neat and clean and tidy, because then it loses a bit of edginess. That just might be me because of the techniques I use and I've always used."
Peter Brookes goes even further: “For me, drawing on a screen is just not real drawing it’s, in essence, mechanical engineering.” The only concession Brookes makes towards digital is that, because screens are backlit, it makes his work actually look better online than in the paper. Like Brown and Brookes, Ralph Steadman is also of the firm opinion that working digitally is not the real thing: “Printed paper is the only way and ONLY if cartoonists still use WET INK!!! The electronic way is a cop out!! Otherwise it will all be like teeming microbes with no individual characters and unique voices.” For Peter Schrank, the comparison between digital and pen and ink is like the difference between chalk and cheese:
‘The difference between a drawing done on computer and one done with pen and ink compares to the difference between a piece of music played on an electronic keyboard, and one played on a real piano. Or, if you will, music listened to on a CD, or on vinyl. The pen and ink drawing will always have more life, more character, more imperfections. Although we may not be aware of the difference, we respond to it on a deeper level.’
These cartoonists seem to relish the unpredictability of natural materials over the scientific certainties of drawing digitally. That somehow they believe the organic nature of the ink, the paints, be it acrylic, gouache or watercolour, all help to bring ‘life’ to their work. Although Morten Morland often tweaks his finished cartoon on the computer, this seems to be the reason why this master draughtsman remains fully committed to traditional methods:
‘The main reason I like using paper and ink is the line and texture that it produces. I feel it gives much more immediacy and energy to a picture. Little imperfections too betrays a process behind it, which adds to the readers' enjoyment of it, I think. When skewering someone it feels even more effective if the cartoon looks like it's been scrawled onto the page with a sharp tool! I can't see myself moving to digital for my print cartoons. I scan every cartoon into Photoshop and tend to do little changes on most of them. It's a great tool for changing colours, correcting typos and removing ink spills, but that's usually as far as it goes for me.’
Like Morten, Andy Davey believes nothing beats the real thing:
'I prefer real ink and paint. I'm pretty non-technical. I prefer "analog" to digital". Some cartoonists have mastered the digital form. I admire them. But others have not - the ones who attempt to recreate their hand-painted style using digital tools. It doesn't work. You have to start from zero and build a whole new style. I just don't like using digital tablets and monitors. In fact, the older I get, the more loose I like to work. And it's difficult to work "loose" on a tablet. I'd rather be painting. Messy, wet, unpredictable."
Of course, doing everything digitally means there is nothing tangible when you have finished your drawing, compared to the traditional method of cartooning where you end up with a piece of original artwork. Mac told me there is something special about leaving behind a body of work going back for him over 50 years. The Daily Mail cartoonist says that the other positive aspect of producing original artwork is that he can sell them off and donate all the money to charity. Steve Bell says he finds the physical side of producing a cartoon meditative. He finds real pleasure from drawing and putting down watercolour: “I don’t want to be hunched over a fucking screen all day. It’s just not gratifying.” Peter Brookes says having the physical artwork is great to look back on because it informs him of how he has composed previous drawings. Brookes, like other cartoonists, appreciates the fact that people can buy them and enjoy having the actual artwork that they saw originally in the newspaper on their walls at home. Finally, original cartoons are also collected for posterity by institutions like the Cartoon Museum, the Political Cartoon Gallery and the British Cartoon Archive. Importantly, these bodies loan and exhibit for the benefit of all those interested in political cartoons.
Unfortunately for the purists – and for me – ever greater number of cartoonists are being won over to the digital side. The Financial Times’s Ingram Pinn, who still draws with ink and watercolour, has witnessed the exodus first hand:
‘A young art student phoned me saying she was interested in my cartoons and could I tell her how I made them. I said that I used a dip pen with Indian ink and then coloured them in with watercolour. She seemed to not quite understand me so I went into a little more detail but we seemed to be talking at crossed purposes in some way. She asked how I got the textured effect which I explained was the way the watercolour dried on the texture of the Arches paper I use. "No but what programme are you using?" she asked, and seemed absolutely astonished when I explained that I didn't draw them on a computer. "Wow, so you actually do them in real life." ‘
The main reason for the change, as already mentioned, is convenience. It’s much quicker to work on a tablet than on paper. ‘Time is probably the most important factor,’ says Steve Bright. ‘I could still do what I do using traditional tools, but not quickly enough, and with far less versatility and available options that allow me to resize and reposition the layout of a drawing in seconds.’ Nicola Jennings, who colours her images digitally, says that tablets allow her to work more efficiently: ‘Since going tabloid the Guardian have brought their deadlines forward to 4pm, and 3pm on Sundays, so every minute counts.’
BLACK AND WHITE cartoons versus COLOUR cartoons
Despite digital being the so-called future, some cartoonists are still working in monotone as everyone did up to 20 years ago. I have some sympathy for them as personally I feel that colour has added little to the political cartoon since its introduction in the mid 1990s. If anything, it can often prove a distraction. Cartoons have become almost like paintings, their central focus lost in a sea of complex colour. Yes it has noticeably added vibrancy to the cartoon but at a loss of clarity. David Low, Vicky, Leslie Illingworth, Michael Cummings and Trog amongst many others, all managed to convey their message quite clearly and succinctly in monotone. For example, they did not need to use the colour red to denote blood! The drawings alone were good enough to put that across. However, the majority now seem to revel in the opportunity of using colour, and do so in most cases with great panache. Of course, the downside is that adding colour means cartoons require more work and take longer to complete. Steve Bell was rather disgruntled when The Guardian first asked him to add colour as it did not offer him a commensurate increase in his salary. The one big bonus for them is that cartoonists have found that they can charge more for their coloured originals than they could with their monotone ones.
As we see regularly in this anthology, it is only Mac and Kal who continue to produce their work in black and white. I asked Mac why this was, considering his competence as a colourist, having viewed his earlier coloured Punch work and front cover designs for his own annuals:
“I did say to Paul Dacre, the Editor of the Daily Mail, that I would be happy to add colour, but he prefers me to continue in black and white. In the last 25 years, I’ve only ever done one colour cartoon, which appeared in 2014 on the subject of ceramic poppies on remembrance day (as featured on page 37 in Britain’s Best Political Cartoons 2015).”
Mac, Britain's longest serving cartoonist 1968 - 2018), prefers to still work in black and white using traditional methods i.e. pen on paper.
Kal is unusual in that the two publications he works for, being the Baltimore Sun in the United States and The Economist in the UK, both want his cartoons in monotone. Kal explains why that is:
‘The Baltimore Sun does not have colour available in the page where my cartoon appears so I am ( happily) confined to BW. The Economist is a different story. We could run the cartoon in colour but at present we are opting to keep it BW. The cartoon appears relatively small on the page in comparison to my newspaper colleagues whose colour work splashes magnificently across the page. We like the traditional feel that it offers and In a funny way, the BW cartoon stands outs for its unique look, linking more the BW words on the page than the decorative colour that surrounds it. There are times I know that using colour in my cartoon would be more effective than the BW but at present we are happy to stay the course with ancient pen (though things do change!)’
IS ANIMATION THE FUTURE FOR POLITICAL CARTOONING?
If newspapers do cease publication, will political animation become a more effective medium online than the present day static cartoon? If so, will they prove popular or commercially viable in the future? In Britain, attempts at political animation on television have already been made, with indifferent results. Programmes such as Spitting Image, 2DTV and Headcases have not proved to be long-lasting commercial successes. There has been much talk over the years of bringing back Spitting Image to our TV screens, but every time this happens, it’s the costs of producing the puppets that scares off the TV production companies. Also Roger Law, one of the show’s creators, complained that the major disadvantage of the puppets was that they were cumbersome and consequently had very limited movement. ‘’We had to keep the sketches short as a result of not being able to move the puppets easily” Law once told me.
Morten Morland, Patrick Blower and Ben Jennings have all produced very good online political animations. However, interest is still relatively insignificant and all three cartoonists continue to achieve greater success with daily static cartoons. Political cartoonists who create animated political cartoons, have found the process to be very different in execution to static ones as Morten Morland explains:
‘My animated cartoons are done completely digitally, but that's simply because it's hugely more practical that way, given that the animation process is digital. It would be much too time consuming to have to scan ink-drawn elements. And everything needs to be in layers which of course is much easier to do on a computer. As a result though, I also work in a completely different style when I do the animations. When I first started, about 15 years ago, I tried to make the animated characters look like my painted work, but it just looked like a bad version of it. So instead I developed a completely separate, digital style, which suits the process a lot better.’
Political animation is not, in essence, the same thing as a static political cartoon. They may have similarities, but they are not of the same medium. The history of the static cartoon has led and continues to lead a very different life to that of political animation. Cartoon is in itself a dreadful term; it means so many things to so many different people, from animation to comic to gag to political to strip to graphic novel. They are all, in essence, cartoons, but are all significantly dissimilar media.
Even within animation there are stark differences from other forms of animated satire, such as with the TV programmes South Park or the Simpsons. The genius of a static political cartoon is its immediacy to the reader, as in the historian Ernst Gombrich's words, a 'static' cartoon is a way of condensing "a complex idea in one striking and memorable image". Thus the cartoonist's point is made to the reader in, at most, a few seconds and it is that immediacy that gives it its impact. With the animated cartoon, the point the cartoonist is making evolves gradually. Thus static and animated political cartoons are different and not interchangeable. Of the animated political cartoons I have watched, the immediacy of the message or comment does not exist. In each case, the punchline is instead drawn out, offering a less satisfying experience than a static cartoon has to offer. Dave Brown thinks "it's harder to make it sharp and snappy in animation. I think lengthening the time you look at something actually can reduce the punch. A good political cartoon, you get the gag in sort of seconds." I think it is best summed up by cartoonist, Andy Davey, who compares political animation to 'a blathering fart'. It is therefore animation for animation's sake. As a political cartoon it is a clumsy and a far less effective tool. A cartoonist could better convey the same message in a static cartoon than these long-winded animation sequences. Peter Schrank states that ‘in the end I think one single strong picture is worth a thousand frames.’
Time constraints are also an issue. The effort involved in creating political animation, even with technological advances, means that producing one for every day of the week would be unrealistic. It would be difficult to keep the animation topical and as up to date as the static cartoonist. Sometimes, on a fast moving news day, a cartoonist may have as little as one and a half hours to complete a cartoon. This would be impossible in animation terms.
As already discussed, in the future newspapers will be faced with much smaller budgets. It is likely that the static cartoon itself, let alone animation, may disappear altogether due to a lack of funds. If anything, the likelihood is that the static cartoon has a better chance of survival than the more expensive and time absorbing animation cartoon. The animation cartoon is not cost effective, requiring a substantial amount of time to sustain regular animation. Although a number of cartoonists have tried their hand at animation, there are fewer jobs available. I imagine they are not paid a commensurate wage with static cartoon work, proving that political animation is presently commercially non-viable. The funding situation, as mentioned, is likely to deteriorate rather than improve.
Believe it or not, attempts to adapt the political cartoon to the radio have been made in the past, with not to dissimilar results to animation. During the Second World War, David Low made a number of radio cartoons that compared poorly to his genius for static cartoons. In fact, they were embarrassingly bad. The scripts that have survived are riddled with puns and as with animation, the point or gag is dreadfully laboured. The result is sadly unfunny. No wonder 'Radio' cartoons didn't catch on. Judge for yourself with this example, with Low first setting the scene for the programme’s producer:
Optimism On The Eastern Front
Radio cartoon by Low
(The keynote of the whole scene is COLD. Sound background should be a miserable moaning wind. Goebbels’ voice should have an acid cheerfulness, in contrast to the deadly gloom of the German soldier. His stress on the word cold should be longer drawn out with every repetition until it merges in the howl of the wind.)
Announcer: Goebbels deplores pessimism on Eastern Front. Demands that Nazi soldiers look on the bright side. Goebbels to make personal ‘cheer up’ Tour.
GOEBBELS [brightly] : Here ve are, back at der front.
GERMAN SOLDIER: [sourly] : Back to Front Dodt’s right. It’s a coldt. Brrr.
GOEBBELS: Vot’s for dinner? Snow soup and frozen mud pies?
Excellent! Much better than Rommel’s baked dust.
GERMAN SOLDIER: Ve iss coldt. Brrr! Our clothes and boots iss full of holes.
GOEBBELS: Good. Aind’t this a holy war?
GERMAN SOLDIER: Ve iss coldt. 2,000 of our comrades were killed yesterday.
GOEBBELS: Grand. More Russian territory occupied.
GERMAN SOLDIER: It’s coldt. Und ve were pushed back twenty-five miles yesterday.
GOEBBELS: Splendid! Our victorious troops are returning in triumph.
GERMAN SOLDIER: It’s coldt. Und here iss der enemy.
Rasttle of machine guns rapidly rising to crescendo of battle noises. ZIP CRASH BOOM
GOEBBELS: Wow! Aind’t it hot!
There may be dark clouds ahead for political cartooning. They face an uncertain and bleak future as the medium in which they exist moves inexorably from print to digital. Will the pitfalls of the internet, which we have discussed, prove insurmountable? They do say all good things have to come to an end. The evidence points towards a ‘clattering train’ scenario where political cartoons hurtle towards their doom, with no one capable of or knowing how to stop it. On a slightly more optimistic note, may we assume that because of our long and proud heritage, and with the best cartoonists in the world still to be found in the UK, cartooning has a fighting chance of survival? In the meantime, just in case it does not, let us savour yet another year of brilliant satirical cartoons by Britain’s best cartoonists.