Graphic Lit: Killed Cartoons
Ask David Wallis to pontificate on the state of editorial cartooning in America and he’ll sum it up in one word.
“Not in terms of the quality level,” he quickly added from his office in New York City. “Dismal in terms of the dwindling opportunities for cartoonists to present their work to readers.”
Wallis ought to know. He’s the editor of “Killed Cartoons: Casualties From the War on Free Expression,” a collection of cartoons, illustrations and comic strips that, for a variety of editorial decisions, never made into the newspaper or magazine they were designed for.
Along the way it manages to touch on such hot-button issues as the Iraq war, the Mohammed cartoon incident, pedophile priests and abortion.
The book is a follow-up of sorts to Wallis’ 2004 collection, “Killed: Great Journalism Too Hot to Print.”
“I had originally wanted to include cartoons in that book,” he said. “There was such a wealth of material ... I realized it was a book in itself and deserved its own tome.”
A number of cartoonists known for pushing buttons — Garry Trudeau, Steve Brodner, Ted Rall — have work in “Killed,” but there are also a few names you wouldn’t expect to find, such as Al Hirschfeld and even Norman Rockwell.
“I tried to find cartoons that were killed for controversial reasons or for reasons of taste, which allowed me to explore different issues in our society,” Wallis said. “I focused on strong imagery that newspapers and magazines spiked because of the potential for controversy. That was pretty much the main criteria.”
In some cases it’s easy to see why a certain cartoon was pulled. No editor wants to be the one who allowed an image of an elephant sodomizing a donkey into the paper.
Others, however, seem completely baffling. A Time portrait of Ronald Reagan was nixed for being “not paternal enough.” TV Guide pulled a lightly mocking piece on “The X-Files,” because it was afraid of offending David Duchovny, the book says.
Perhaps more disturbing though, are the cartoons that were pulled simply because they didn’t jibe with an editor’s own beliefs.
“There is a lot of nervousness out there from cartoonists,” Wallis said. “In the post-9/11 era they tend to be progressive voices that have felt the boot from publishers.”
There’s also the harsh economic realities of the print world to deal with, too, Wallis notes.
“Newspapers and magazines have decided to cut editorial cartoonists from their staffs because they can get for much, much cheaper — without paying for health benefits — syndicated cartoons that don’t necessarily speak to the local community,” he said.
It’s gotten so bad that a number of cartoonists Wallis contacted refused to participate. Others initially agreed, but pulled their work from the book for fear of losing their jobs or worse.
Even “Killed Cartoons” faced its own bout of censorship. An editorial cartoon by Doug Marlette, entitled “What Would Mohammed Drive?” and featuring an Arab man driving a van packed with a nuclear warhead, was removed from the book by the publisher for what Wallis calls “fear of fatwa.”
“I think it was a mistake but I wasn’t going to walk away from the book because of one cartoon,” he said. “I had a duty to publish [the other cartoonists’] work.”
While the current situation for editorial cartoons might be bleak, a future might exist online. Wallis notes cartoonists such as Walt Handleman, Lee Judge and Bob Englehart have been experimenting with either Web animation or blogs that allow them to post their censored cartoons.
But whether online or in the daily paper, Wallis stresses that editorial cartoons serve a vital function in today’s media.
“When we open our op-ed pages in our papers, our eyes naturally are drawn to the cartoons. I think they hit us on a very primal level,” he said. “If you plunk down 50 cents and you can be made angry or feel something ... you’re getting your money’s worth.”
Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007