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Reflections Of An Editorial Cartoonist
By Karl Hubenthal
Originally published in 'The Quill, The Magazine For Journalists', January 1966.
Ironically, much of what Hubenthal asserts in this1966 thesis remain valid and fresh decades after he first penned it. Throughout his career, Hubenthal staunchly adhered to his personal ideology regarding how an editorial cartoonist should responsibly approach his craft. His manuscript is reprinted here, without editing, and with the same cartoons used to originally illustrate it (BS)

The popular conception (if there is one) of the newspaper editorial cartoonist pictures him as an irate crusader, dipping his pen in venom and lashing out in all directions at the collective bad guys of this world. A sort of modern Don Quixote, with a permanent madon, continually tilting at windmills. A talented zany, not entirely reliable, who devotes his waking hours to deflating balloons or stuffed shirts.

As a practicing editorial cartoonist, I am delighted with this opportunity to puncture a few balloons my-self. The first is that accepted public image. I submit that such a character never has existed. Any more so than those "Front Page" archetypes, the drunken reporter and the tyrannical city editor. The pressures of a daily deadline inhibit any flamboyant behavior on the part of the cartoonist. The mere mechanics of the job leaves little time for screwball antics. "Four hours of think time and four hours of drawing" is the general work pattern. Add to that the hours of reading, researching and waiting for editors to get off the phone and you have a full work day by anybody's standards.

Yet the illusion still persists among editors and publishers (who should know better) that this ability to make a concise, to-the-point statement each day, couched in a clever drawing, is some sort of odd gift that flows from the cartoonist's head and hand as easily as turning on a spigot. The complexities of creative writing editors can understand, because that is their racket. The ordeal of creative drawing... composition, design, perspective, anatomy..the vehicle we must use to present this idea we have been polishing for four hours, is beyond their ken. The suspicion still gnaws at them that somehow we just "knock it out." The point I am belaboring here is that every cartoonist I know is a hard working man. Ours is not the glamourous profession movies and fiction picture it to be.

The very nature of his work habits tends to make the editorial cartoonist a loner and consequently something of an introvert. He is one of a kind in the city room. Accepted with considerable suspicion by his fellow journalists because of this strange marriage of writing and drawing skills. Oddly, the degree of introversion seems to be in direct reverse ratio to the inhibitors he loses the moment he takes brush in hand. The angriest of cartoonists...the Herblocks, the (Paul) Conrads, the (Frank) Interlandis...are the meekest of men, reluctant almost to the point of being anti-social. Gregariousness is certainly not their long suit.

"It takes more than just cleverness...You must have something of substance to say..."
   It would be wrong to tar all the fraternity with this "reluctant dragon" brush because of a few nonjoiners, however. As a past president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, I have had occasion to know all 100-odd political cartoonists in this country on a reasonably intimate basis and I assure you there is no stereotype for our craft. Their only common denominator is an aversion to ordered discipline that knows no bounds. Conducting a business meeting at our annual convention is no mean feat, believe me.

Nothing sets a cartoonist's adrenalin to surging so much as that familiar query, "Who gives you your ideas?" Eccentric we may be, but cartoonists are also intelligent human beings fully capable of having ideas of their own. Editors and readers often try to supply us with ideas but they are seldom, if ever, usable. Largely because these people do not think in visual terms. It's been my experience that editors are much too literal-minded to be good idea sources. When one suggests 10,000 Chinese crossing the Vietnam border, he actually means draw 10,000 Chinamen all marching. It doesn't occur to him that one big figure would tell the same story and be more effective doing it.

Consider a moment what the cartoonist is asked to provide each day. His must be a unique comment about the world around him. It cannot be just an illustrated headline. It must have a personal slant. . . must convey a feeling about the news that the reader can identify with. This idea must be presented in an arresting way and at the same time be clean enough for even the laziest of readers to get the message. Unlike the columnist, with his generous allotment of space and his easy access to the "on the other hand" and "according to current estimate" dodge for avoiding outright commitment, the cartoonist cannot equivocate. His is a single-shot impact delivered, hopefully, with a sense of humor.

 Larger papers employ an editorial writing staff composed of several men. Usually each man is sort of an expert in one particular field. One will be versed in international matters while another will cover the Washington and political scene. Yet another will handle the local editorial subjects. However the cartoonist is expected to know something about everything. He must be prepared to draw cartoons about international problems, what is going on in Congress, what's doing in the City Council.. . to speak knowledgeably about economics, social change, scientific progress. Add still another factor: Television and the wider use of photography in newspapers and magazines have made people in the news much more familiar to readers. Their faces . .their physical characteristics appear nightly in living rooms throughout the country.

Now, when the cartoon incorporates images of LBJ, Harold Wilson, Ho Chi Mihn, etc., the caricatures must be dead ringers of them. Gone are the days when you would get by with a poor likeness and a label. Along that same line, editorial writers and columnists can expound knowingly about the walk in space with out having the vaguest idea whether the space capsule hatch hinges on the left or the right, whether the heat shield is fore or aft. Not so the cartoonist. Draw it wrong and the observant reader lets you know right now. Besides reading news releases and background articles, we devote considerable time to visual research. Ask any cartoonist's wife about the hours he spends clipping "scrap" for his reference file.

"The editorial cartoon is by no means an exclusive American art form...nor in the view of many are we its best practitioners."
  The editorial cartoon is by no means an exclusive American art form, nor did we originate it, nor in the view of many are we its best practitioners. The first known drawings of social satire appear in Egyptian hieroglyphs. The great etcher and painter, Hogarth, raised considerable ruckus in the early 1700s with his "Rake's Progress" and "Gin Alley" series of prints commenting on the morals of the times. It remained for James Gillray at the turn of that century to be the first with nerve enough to involve the British court and the antics of Parliament in his copper etchings and thus be come the first real political cartoonist.

 It was he who devised the metaphorical format still commonly used today. His caricatures started a whole new approach to comic art. It was he who evolved the symbols of John Bull, LaBelle France, the Russian Bear, etc. His excoriation of Napoleon was downright devastating.

Gillray was the great, great, great, great grandaddy of our breed in more ways than one. William Pitt, an intimate as well as frequent target of his jibes, described him as "an example of the imprudence that so frequently accompanies genius and great talent . . his habits were in the highest degree intemperate". We gather Jimmy belted it pretty good.

Another tippler who tempered his litho block with absinthe appeared on the scene in the 1830s. A French man named Honore Daumier. He took Gillray's coarse caricature and developed it into a fine art. Daumier is the father of the "forceful" cartoon. His gutsy, vigorous style is inspiration to us yet, but it got him in plenty of trouble. He managed to spend as much time in the Bastille as he did blasting Louis-Phillipe or the Second Republic.

His European heirs today approach the political car- toon quite differently from their American counterparts. Their style is more contemporary, lacking the finesse of American draughtsmanship. Their treatment is more robust, often recoursing to scatological themes we could never get away with, and always satirical. Satire had never been the American's dish. Bill Mauldin has been quoted as saying, ". . . we (Americans) never really did have a sense of humor. Not satire, anyway. We're a fatheaded, cotton-picking society. When we realize finally that we aren't God's given children, we'll understand satire."

Humor is really laughing at a hurt, grinning at misery. Much of the naivete of American cartooning stems from the fact that we have never had to operate under any form of censorship other than that of our own editors. There is no jail threat awaiting an anti-De Gaulle, anti-Menderes, anti-Salazar, anti-Franco cartoon in the U. S. Strangely, the country with the greatest state censorship boasts the most cartoonists. There are 3,500 cartoonists on the 5,000 Soviet publications (with 30 dailies in Moscow alone.) By comparison there are 125 or so in the 1,700 U. S. papers. There are about 165 political cartoonists in Western Europe.


Intellectual critics have paid much lip service in recent years to the caustic, super-sophisticated, savage humor type political cartoon. We have several successful practitioners of that approach, men who boast that they "bring hate to their drawing board each day," and it's not my purpose here to knock it. But I do feel they do their newspaper a disservice by always aiming at a small intellectual segment of the total readership. I contend that the vast majority of readers are not sophis ticated, do not read every word in The New York Times, and do not dig way-out humor. Nothing repulses a reader more than an inside joke he doesn't comprehend.

I have actually had worldly-wise newsmen in our city room bring me my competitor's efforts and ask me to explain whatinell he was driving at. Now that is not my idea of an effective cartoon, yet obviously some editor thought it deucedly clever or he wouldn't have okayed it. The incomparable Herblock, the best in our business and a good friend of mine, maintains that if only 10 per cent of his readers get his message that is still a successful cartoon. I disagree, but Herb certainly has the acclaim to prove his point.

"Poor taste is offensive even if it is funny."
  My main objection to the bitter satire school, I think, is the ugliness that pervades it both in drawing and in subject matter. There is no warmth to it. No effort to present anything but a harsh picture. Poor taste is still offensive even if it is funny. Sarcasm as a steady diet is not a very palatable dish. I have no quarrel with subtlety...I think it's an important element of any good cartoon. My quarrel is with crudity...vindictiveness just for meanness' sake.

I do not mean to infer that a good cartoonist cannot be caustic, even cruel at times ... and it is our job to arouse the reader's anger as well as his laughter. But it must be done with responsibility. Being controversial just to see how many letters to the editor you can get is not responsible cartooning.

I believe a cartoon can be witty and funny without being repulsive. There is still room for the light needle as well as the Sunday punch. Above all there has to be a conscious effort to relate with your audience . . . establish an empathy. The cartoonist who considers himself a superior intellect to his reader is only kidding himself. End of sermon.

Critical morticians continue to bemoan the passing of the political cartoon as a major force in molding public opinion. "There's nobody like Thomas Nast anymore," they say. "You guys have gone soft" is the common cry. Baloney! We only remember the past greats because of their one high moment in history. Homer Davenport battling Mark Hanna and the trusts, Cesare and the Kaiser, Rollin Kirby ridiculing the Volstead Act with his figure of Prohibition, Ding Darling fighting for conservation, Ed Duffy belting the Ku Klux Klan, Daniel Fitzpatrick fulminating against the Nazis. But, look at their daily output over the years and you will be absolutely astonished at the stacks of puerile pap they ground out ...every one of them! There is a greater percentage of really good cartoonists working in this country today and a lesser per centage of trite cartoons being produced than at any time in the history of journalism. There are at least 10 cartoonists drawing today who could shoulder the mantle of any of the gentlemen mentioned here. It's the old story: Joe Louis would have killed Jack Dempsey, and Muhammad Ali-Clay would murder Louis with those fast hands. The old legends die hard.

The Editorial Cartoonist's Prayer:

'Dear Lord, give us this day our daily idea, and forgive us for the one we had yesterday.'

  It appears to me that it's not the cartoonist that has changed so much as the world and subjects he deals with. Possibly the issues of yesterday were more clear- cut than the involved diplomatic decisions of the Atomic Age, but that doesn't mean the cartoonist's lance has been dulled in the process. We put the blast on a LBJ or a DeGaulle with a vigor equal to any of our predecessors. Communism and atomic annihilation are greater menaces to be warned about than anything they ever dealt with. None of us backed away from commenting on the Civil Rights struggle . . . many contributing statements that make Duffy's Ku Klux Klan cartoons pale by comparison. There is no noticeable lack of conviction in cartoons today.

 Like everywhere else, publishers too have changed. The old breed of fire eater has become almost extinct. There was a time when editors and publishers alikewere all out for swinging an editorial haymaker. Newspapers are too big a business now and there are too many toes that can be accidentally stepped on to leave much room for swinging. The ineffective cartoonist is quick to blame his own inadequacy on the restrictions laid upon him by his publisher. But that safe out is rapidly being denied him. More and more over the country, cartoonists are being given the same freedom publishers extend to their columnists. The cartoon is be coming a feature unto itself, not necessarily tied into an editorial, and in some instances even expressing a view in opposition to the paper's policy, though that is a rare occurence. Editors and publishers are discovering that and they get better results allowing their cartoonists elbow room to express his own opinions. After all, a cartoon is a bylined feature. The cartoonist signs his name to every statement he makes for publication. Obviously he must stay within a loose framework of general policy. The working arrangement could not be a very satisfactory one if the publisher and his cartoonist did not share reasonably the same view on most subjects.

Happily, in my own case, I have always generally agreed with the policies of the Hearst papers. There has never been any conflict serious enough for me to feel I must argue the point. The man who hires you has the right to respect for his opinions if not the right to force them on you. I can honestly say that in the 10 years I have been the full-time editorial cartoonist for the Herald-Examiner and the other Hearst newspapers, I have never once been told what to draw, or even what subject matter to concentrate on. Only rarely do I have an idea rejected. Such confidence is flattering but the responsibility that accompanies it is an awesome burden indeed.

 President Johnson summed it up pretty well recent ly in a nationally televised speech before the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists in the East Room of the White House. "I know that I am talking to the most influential journalists in America," he said. "Reporters may write and politicians may talk, but what you draw remains in the public memory long after these other words are forgotten."

Admittedly, the cartoonist's job is a hard one, entailing long hours and considerable mental anguish, but none of us would ever trade. The chance to speak your mind each day before several million people is an opportunity not given to every man. It takes more than just cleverness to hold those people's attention. You must have something of substance to say. And say it with conviction.

I learned long ago to reject the first idea that crops up as my work day starts each morning. I force myself to dig for that second, third or fourth angle on a given subject. As the daily deadline draws closer and closer, the panic compounds itself but that one better idea is always there if one digs hard enough for it. Cartoonists' allegiances and motivations may differ but we all share a common working prayer. It goes like this: "Dear Lord, give us this day our daily idea, and forgive us the one we had yesterday."

Karl Hubenthal

Los Angeles, California