Rod’s musings – Cartooning in the 21st Century and Beyond

Published On December 17, 2008 | By Joe Gordon | Comics

When I blogged about the recent Cartoon Art Trust Awards ceremony (see here), I realised that what irked me, really irked me, was that the ceremony itself was a kind of metaphor for cartooning.  It was largely an anonymous affair, of interest only to those already interested in cartoons.  In fact I only discovered the thing had taken place because a cartoonist on The Cartoonist Club of Great Britain’s open forum posted a link to Bloghorn, two weeks after the article detailing who had won the awards was posted.  It also seemed blissfully unaware of the 21st Century and webcomics, independent publishing, mini-comics, and anything happening in the wider world – you know, like newspapers laying-off editorial cartoonists, going digital, dropping comic strips, and going bankrupt.  And giving an award to Raymond Briggs struck me as almost a desperate attempt to vicariously align those awful little pocket cartoons, or worse, editorial cartoons, with an artform that really does have some cultural merit – the comic book, or graphic novel.  Has there ever been an editorial cartoon about the arms race that has had a fraction of the impact that Raymond Briggs’ book When the Wind Blows has had?  No, there has not.

When the Wind Blows nuclear war page Raymond Briggs.jpg

(the balloon goes up and this time there won’t be jolly knees-up singing along in the shelters as the Blitz falls outside in Raymond Briggs’ classic When the Wind Blows, published by Penguin)

I’m not going to list the award winners and the categories again, but one or two of the awards struck me as being almost antediluvian.  It was sort of like, “best remnant of a by-gone age”.  I mean, if you are going to narrow an award to something like “best pocket-cartoon in a national newspaper that still publishes pocket-cartoons” then you really must be struggling for new winners if you’ve been awarding it since 1995 – unless, of course, you employ a rota-system, or you give someone you like the same award several years running, or everyone on the rota the award several years running for that matter.  Let me be honest, I’ve actually never liked pocket-cartoons, I never rated Lancaster or Calman or Boxer, and I could never understand why the cartoonists who were really very bad were never replaced by someone with a sense of humour.

This award ceremony did nothing whatsoever to calm my major worries for the future of cartooning in general, but in Britain in particular.  Where was there a mention of Kieran Meehan’s achievement in getting his comic strip, Pros and Cons, syndicated across the world by King Features Syndicate?  Where was there a recognition of Trains are Mint being shortlisted for an Ignatz award (do the “Cartoon trust” even know what that award is)?  Where was the recognition for Jamie McKelvie’s work for Image Comics, for Brian Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland, or Tom Gauld’s achievements getting into The New Yorker, The Harvard Business Review and Kramer’s Ergot 7?  Or, for that matter, Simone Lia’s Fluffy being picked up by Dark Horse.  All these people surely create cartoon work that has more in common with the work of Raymond Briggs than any one of the Cartoon Trust award winners.  Looking at the site, and the original cartoons on sale, I see the people behind the awards have a very narrow definition of what constitutes a cartoon, and that’s fine, but let’s not pretend these things are the best example of cartoon art, they plainly are not, and let’s not try to associate some of the really poorly executed cartoons from a handful of publications, with illustrations from a golden age of British illustrators.  It is either a museum of cartoon art, like America’s MOCCA, which embraces the old and the new, or it is a shop selling an antiquated idea of cartoon art.  Again that’s not a bad thing; but it is what it is.

This is not so much a criticism of the cartoonists themselves; they simply made a large and easy target.  To be fair, they are simply making a living and do not make the rules, but the small amount of publications that make up this small, insular world of parochial British cartooning has no real impact outside its own peculiar goldfish bowl, and it doesn’t gain credibility by trying to adopt Raymond Briggs as a member of its tribe.

The factors that cause me concern are compounded by the economic downturn, but have, in the main, been around for a long time and they are partly psychological.  Cartoonists, and once again bear in mind that I am one, so I am also part of the problem, are often dishonest with themselves and everyone else about the state of the market, the money they make, and the future.  As a very young man, with a very young family, I launched myself as a self-employed full-time cartoonist when I sold cartoons to Punch, and almost simultaneously sold a comic idea to IPC.  Of course as soon as the difficulties of “payment on publication” as opposed to “payment on acceptance” started to factor-in I realised that my income dipped, because I was constantly overdrawn and paying interest on the overdraft so that when the payments did arrive they substantially devalued.  Nobody in cartooning, in those days, bothered to talk about this stuff, and I really felt very betrayed to discover that many of my peers had other jobs that paid the bills, or very understanding wives with enough income to keep them afloat until things evened out – which is generally calculated as anything from 2 years to never.

About a year later, when I had to supplement my income with the Government’s Enterprise Allowance, and FIS, Family Income Supplement, which I had to appeal several times to receive, to allow me to continue working as a cartoonist, I was equally astonished to discover that quite a few other cartoonists shared my guilty secret.  I had discovered, in short, that cartooning didn’t pay very well, that it wasn’t a very secure job, that being published regularly didn’t mean being paid regularly, and that there were often fewer opportunities in many publications than there first appeared to be.  That is to say, there are contributors to whom most publications are fiercely loyal, and their spots are more-or-less guaranteed so that a magazine that publishes maybe 10 cartoons every issue, actually only has 6 spots up-for-grabs.  This understanding, of course, helps explain the earlier quandary about why many of the pocket-cartoon producers remain in a job despite being pretty darned awful, and way past their use-by-date.

One of the worst aspects of an arrangement like this awards ceremony, for me, is that we appear, we cartoonists that is, to be encouraging two new people every year to take up cartooning.  I can only hope, especially if it is the narrow definition of cartooning that the Cartoon Art Trust seems enamoured with, that we encouraging them to take up cartooning as a hobby.  After all, the world has changed dramatically since a number of the “judges” of these awards had any sort of contact with the real world of freelance cartooning.

Back when I began as a cartoonist there was, let me see, Reveille, Weekend and Titbits, and the Weekly News, all publishing weekly pocket, single-column and magazine cartoons, and between them they carried around 80 cartoons a week.  In addition, the Sun, the Express and the Mirror all carried about 6 cartoons a day, 6 days a week, with the Sunday papers carrying maybe another 6 cartoons each, that’s around 108 spots a week.  Then there were monthly magazines like Accountancy and Woman’s World, and She Magazine, also publishing cartoons; maybe 30 between them, and there were dozens of trade papers like the TASS News and Journal,  that paid at least as much as the national papers, that’s maybe another 100 spots.  Even The Stage carried gag cartoons, there’s another 20 a month.  Of course we also had those great cartoon-supporting markets, Punch and Private Eye and the Spectator and the New Statesman, and Readers Digest, running tens of cartoons every month and in addition we had many regional dailies like the Yorkshire Post and the Edinburgh Evening News, running maybe 2 to 4 cartoons a day.

I haven’t counted it all up, but it must have come to around 2,000 or more cartooning opportunities every month, less those spots that went to the regular dependable cartoonists favoured by the publications, and that still left almost 2,000 spaces for a freelance cartoonist’s work.  And there was even more opportunity, if you include all the Spot the Difference cartoons, and the slots in puzzle magazines, and the possibilities of slipping one by in the Radio Times, or Sounds, or the NME, or even the Guardian, and other cartoon-friendly papers and magazines.  Sometimes, there was even the odd gap in some of IPC’s kids’ comics for half a page, or even a full page, of cartoons, and cartoonists like Ken Pyne or Styx or even me, could eagerly fill those.

Ken Pyne Tony Blair BBC.jpg

(Ken Pyne’s reaction to the government’s convenient scapegoating of the BBC to cover their own policies, (c) Ken Pyne and borrowed from James Miller’s Pyne website)

Today, in the UK, cartoon markets that published bread-and-butter cartoons, like Weekend Magazine have long gone – and new magazines with a cartoon-friendly ethos, like Chat Magazine, came and went, and of those that once offered so many opportunities only the Weekly News is left (at least the last time I looked that publication still carried some cartoons).  Of the daily papers, only the Sun still publishes cartoons, although it abandons them every so often, and the monthly magazines aimed at female readers have completely lost their sense of humour – there is a whole new generation or two out there who don’t even know that those publications often published cartoons.

Some trade papers still publish the odd cartoon, now and again, but Punch has gone, and the New Statesman isn’t really a cartoon market anymore, not in the sense that freelance contributions are widely accepted.  The regional dailies that do buy cartoons buy them from stock agencies, and none of the other markets that carried the odd cartoon still do, that’s those that are still around.  Private Eye and the Spectator and Readers Digest are still publishing cartoons, of course, and they have been joined by a new market, Prospect Magazine.  What does that offer up then – around 200 a month?  It is less of course, when you deduct the spaces filled by certain cartoonists who have earned (or not, as the case may be).  And most annoying aspect of that situation is that these cartoonists, the “dependable” and “reliable” ones that the magazines can “trust” to get the fun into the pages regularly, is that those dependable and reliable cartoonists are not on the equivalent of a New Yorker contract, which recognises the role of a “dependable” funster, and pays those stalwarts a fee for being “reliable”, they are just secretly recognised as so.  This then, is the brave new world of cartooning that we cartoonists have introduced, I take it, 2 new cartoonists to every year for some years now.

These things trouble me, not because of the small amount of increased competition, because I work largely in the US these days and I don’t do a lot of traditional gag cartooning, but because this paucity of markets, and of cartooning space, contributes to what I have described as a de-skilling effect.  There is no need, really, for anyone with a local spot on one of these dailies to continue with any form of professional development – why should they?  There is, in fact, one “award” on the list who was a very important cartoonist, a very influential one; I have an original of his in my living room wall.  He was, in the 1980s one of the few new Punch cartoonists who had his own unique style.  Many, like me, were still copying Mahood and Noel Ford, and trying to find our own style, but he was bold and confident and was already carving out new territory.  He was, along with other cartoonists of the day, profiled in She Magazine (those were the days), and he drew a comic-strip for a national paper, and his comic pages for IPC.  He was a well-rounded cartoonist, but we had the outlets back then.

Since then, as I have outlined, many of those avenues have closed to cartoonists, and you have no idea how depressing it was for me to read that he has been “awarded” for working in a medium that sounds to me like a wholly retrograde step.  Surely, in a country that really celebrated the art of cartooning, he would have published a string of books in the manner of Claire Brétecher over the last couple of decades.  Dear God, when did we take that wrong turning?

More now than ever then, cartoonists have to look toward new outlets for cartooning opportunities, or the craft of cartooning, in the UK at least, will surely wither and die.  From what I can see, many of the established cartoons are not worried about the future and perhaps it’s only right that they shouldn’t be, but most cartoonists do not have a regular spot and therefore a regular income, and as a result we cartoonists are not prepared for this economic calamity that will see newspapers abandon cartoons and comic strips and even fold completely, or just appear online, because we have narrowed our vision to suit the constraints of the market we have left.  Or rather the markets that are left are dictating the amount of skills or lack of skills we need by sticking to tired old formats like pocket-cartoons.  The next Raymond Briggs, will most certainly not be a cartoonist who has spent every day of the last decade drawing a 4”x3” “topical” cartoon – they just won’t have the skills, and the talent and promise they did have will have been wasted.

Gordon Brown head explodes Daniel Merlin Goodbrey.jpg

(New Labour meets Scanner courtesy of Daniel Merlin Goodbrey, borrowed from his site)

In the next post, we’ll look at how forward thinking cartoonists like Daniel Merlin Goodbrey, Ger Wyhman, John Allison, and this blog’s own Darryl Cunningham, are preparing their cartoons for the challenges ahead.

Internationally published cartoonist Rod McKie has a regularly updated blog which you can check out, and for more information and a glimpse at some of his many works visit Rodtoons and enjoy browsing the gallery.

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About The Author

Joe Gordon

Joe Gordon is ForbiddenPlanet.co.uk’s chief blogger, which he set up in 2005. Previously, he was professional bookseller for over 12 years as well as a lifelong reader and reviewer, especially of comics and science fiction works.

10 Responses to Rod’s musings – Cartooning in the 21st Century and Beyond

  1. Rod says:

    Christ Joe, you made that piece look and read a lot better. I actually enjoyed reading it.

  2. Rod,

    I’m going to try to talk briefly through your piece, but first I am going to say that I am the editor of The Bloghorn – the digital publication of the Professional Cartonists’ Organisation in the UK (and which Rod cites high up in his column.)

    http://procartoonists.blogspot.com/

    I should also congratulate FP on getting themselves in Rod a very skilled columnist and professional controversialist (I should know I am one myself.)

    So, here goes;

    Rod said;
    When I blogged about the recent Cartoon Art Trust Awards ceremony (see here), I realised that what irked me, really irked me, was that the ceremony itself was a kind of metaphor for cartooning.

    > Well, it doesn’t irk everybody else. The event is actually the major fundraising activity and event for the UK National Cartoon Museum which opened in 2006 and is completely dependent on its own money-raising efforts to survive.

    The Museum survives through membership subscriptions and begging and cadging as indeed many professionals who make their living through drawing and story-telling have to do. The annual ‘awards do’ is one of the major benefits for supporters of the museum. Would you deny them the fun of it to them? And the ego polish to some of the winners?

    On a broader point, the UK arts council doesn’t appears to recognise any form of non-fine art drawing as worthy of any financial support. Personally, I’d suggest if you want to blog about an ‘issue’ blog about that.

    Viewed from the advantage this context might bring to the reader, (rather than the easy who-are-these-people-who won awards angle), it becomes clear the awards are a vital PR hook to help give interest to an evening of fundraising which allows the UK’s national museum of drawn art to continue to function.

    Infact, we quoted a response to Rod’s original blog posting here – and which I was sad to see Rod didn’t link to directly. I’d encourage readers to go and try it. There is a link below.

    http://tinyurl.com/6rmwss

    Rod goes on to say;
    In fact I only discovered the thing had taken place because a cartoonist on The Cartoonist Club of Great Britain’s open forum posted a link to Bloghorn,

    > Add The Bloghorn to your RSS feed Rod 🙂

    Rod said;
    It [the awards] also seemed blissfully unaware of the 21st Century and webcomics, independent publishing, mini-comics, and anything happening in the wider world – you know, like newspapers laying-off editorial cartoonists, going digital, dropping comic strips, and going bankrupt.

    > We all know change has come late to the economic model for the print media and it would be nice to think everyone in that world was as up to speed as you on the new digital environment, but they aren’t – and denigrating people for ignorance (not stupidity), is daft and in my opinion, beneath you. More seriously, it is absolutely, not beneficial to UK drawn industry in all of its many surviving forms.

    We have more in common, than not and drawn communication might get more respect, if we spent less time slagging off each other’s work and more time making great communication. Having said that, here I am being rude to you…

    Yours pompously (and with marginally reduced respect)

    Matt
    Bloghorn for The Professional Cartoonists’ Organisation
    http://procartoonists.blogspot.com/

  3. ps. I should also say Ken Pyne and Noel Ford, both of whom you cite in your column are members of our organisation – and have spent time investing in learning how to draw the small panel cartoons you denigrate as some sort of tired old form. The drawn form isn’t necessarily tired, the medium of newspapers are.

  4. Rod says:

    It’s not rude Matt, it’s healthy.

    I do agree with you about the Arts Councuil and I’ve written at legth about their failings, but doing something about the bodies – conveniently split to make a rounded attack harder, will take a concerted effort and most cartoonists are too lazy and too stupid to bother.

    I can’t imagine why your respect for me is reduced.

    Seriously though, I can number on two hands the small amount of cartoonists who care enough about the profession to even try to make a differnce. Matt Buck here is one, and he is not that “pompous” and “rude” – ish.

  5. Rod says:

    Oh sorry Matt, no you are utterly wrong there. Noel draws gag cartoons, just as I often do. Those are not the cartoons I am talking about, and I’m hardly likely to “slag off” a major influence of mine. I’m talking about “pocket cartoons”, the sort of thing Boxer and Osbert Lancaster did, there is a difference.

  6. John Freeman says:

    Interesting piece. I’ve found there does seem to be a strange dichotomy between the world of newspaper cartoonists and some professional cartoonists in the UK, and the “comic creator community”. The cartoonists have been getting on with their trade and even running their own events like the annual one in Shrewsbury but few of us in the comics community seem to have noticed it, myself included until recently. These cartoonists have also successfully ensured their worth has not been eroded by accepting low page rates for their work – I know some are very strident about it as opposed to comics artists who have willingly accepted drawing for profit share in some cases. That said, the humble cartoon in newspapers and magazines aimed at the general public has take a hit over the past few years — and it’s the same elsewhere in the world. The US newspaper industry has always syndicated strips and I don’t think there are any ‘local’ strips published in any major metropolitan newspaper there. I also know of cartoonists here such as Steve English who tried to pitch a locally-oriented strip to many regional newspapers for ages with no success: they couldn’t be convinced. And yet popular comics and cartoons are recognised by marketeers and business as an important Unique Selling Point to a newspaper. Ask someone if they read comics and nine times out of then I bet they’ll say no. Ask them if they read cartoons and you might get a response like “What like Garfield? Yeah…” It’s a strange perception of comics but it’s out there.

  7. Rod says:

    It is odd John. Mark Anderson, who draws cartoons for mainstream publications, thinks nothing about turning up at Comics Cons with self-published minis featuring his gag cartoons – and in addition he runs one of the most technologically advanced websites I’ve seen. He sees himself as a cartoonist and a businessman and you get the feeling that although he is promoting the Mark Anderson Cartoons brand, he also feels himself part of the comics and cartooning industry, making no distinction between the various genres of cartooning. The same is true of NCS representatives like Mike Lynch, who keep in touch with comic artists and web cartoonists and virtually anyone and everyone involved in the business of cartooning. Both these cartoonists are Americans, of course.

    Over here though, I have detected that “disconect” you speak of with cartoonists simply not interested in anything outside the area of their involvement. I can’t help but feel that it is due, largely, to the demise of markets like IPC which gave cartoonists the opportunity to break out of the single-column box and to experiment with narrative and form. Thankfully, new markets, like ROK Comics are now there to fill the void, but there is a great deal of catching up to do.

    There is a British Syndicate called Knight Features, which used to supply the regional British press with strips like Hamish, I think, but if you could cut a local deal you’d probably have to compete with the syndiate’s $21 a week, which would barely cover the cost of materials. My local evening paper, the Edinburgh Evening News carries two strips, still, Garfield and Hagar, and they will happily reproduce them 5″ x 1/2″.

    I gave up trying to sell a strip idea here because the market was always too difficult and even hostile. Editor’s would say things like “we haven’t had a comic strip in all our 50n years, why would we need one now?”; it was very depressing and I’m sure a lot of possible cartoonists with very good ideas, that might have become successful BD artists in France or comic strip artists in the US, discovered the same and eventaully gave up trying and went into other lines of work.

    Today, in Britain, to get a new strip in a national publication you either have to be married to the Editor, have gone to art college with the Art Editor, or you have to be the latest overseas sensation so that cartoon-unfriendly papers can run a 4-page story on how brilliant you are; or you can just be Chris Ware.

  8. Rod, you speak great sense about Mark Anderson and the inspiring example he sets, but there are examples of this behaviour in the UK too. I note with interest your admiration for his ability not over-worry about exactly what it is he makes, but rather to concentrate on whether he can sell it. (I feel this way.)

    I don’t see the traditional syndicated US model of drawing business thriving any more visibly than our own quaint versions of the drawing businesses are.

    There are people out in the world still trying to make a living through drawing and by being creative in the new media – and it is possible.

    So, my and our major quibble with what you say is the assumption that the situation of all formerly print-employed cartoonists is hopeless (and by inference) that many of the practitioners must be too. It is not so.

    Bloghorn for The Professional Cartoonists’ Organisation
    http://procartoonists.blogspot.com/

  9. Rod says:

    Let me address those issues point by point, Matt.

    I can’t think of one UK cartoonist who has a set-up like Mark Anderson’s going, I know one or two who are trying but none who self-syndicate so successfully and who also manage to sell to such high-paying markets as The Harvard Business Review, Readers Digest US and Barons as regularly as Mark does, nor do any have the same amount of greetings card deals. And who, at the same time, get down into the Comics Cons and to MOCCA and the like, mini-comics and camera in hand, to sell their wares and post the photos of the events. Mark Anderson is a machine.

    http://www.andertoons.com/

    You are kidding about comic strips aren’t you? We don’t have Garth anymore, or even The Perishers, both of which were designed to be the British equivalent of US comic strips, Angus Og has long gone, and what we have left you can count on two hands. I have newspapers from the US here that have 40 comic strips in them everyday, and I know quite a few people who whilst they don’t make the $31 million a year that Schulz still makes, they are doing very nicely thank you. I mean, even at a mid-size paper rate of $21 a week you can get buy on 50% of the cut from 2,000 sales a day (that’s $21,000 a day). Plus, there is the small matter of that comic strip miliue helping to create individual talents like Larson and Watterson and currently Scott Adams, Darby Conley and Stephan Pastis. How does our “quant” British drawing model thrive as much as the US version exactly?

    Yes, there are some cartoonists in the UK who have a foot in other genres of cartooning, but not as many as there used to be, and I think that is largely down to the fact that many of the markets that once allowed our cartoonist to try out their comic strip ideas, and full page colour cartoons, and comic pages, and serials and stories, are just no longer there. This is where, I think, the “disconnect” that John spoke of above comes in, and, personally, I believe it leads to, amongst other things, a lack of confidence in one’s own abilities.

    You look around out there and tell me one UK market that can offer say, an ex-Beano cartoonist the sort of freedom he needs to keep his eye in, if the Beano are no longer hiring. Over time, he will do as I do, and that is just draw things to fit the British market. Once you get involved in that sort of work real life has a way of taking over, and bills need to be paid and pretty soon you don’t have any time to come up with the next new comic strip or the next new graphic novel – you are too busy coming up with another contemporary news-based cartoon.

    This pattern of creating the work to fit the mode of production has the effect of de-skilling the cartoonist and, I think, curbing the imagination – unless you are very, very, strong and very, very determined. Couple that with an unfamiliarity with comic strips because we live in a culture where the papers to not carry 40 comic strips a day and you can see why our cartoonists find it difficult to “think” themselves into the role of syndicated comic strip artist, and then add to that the fact that we do not have anything like MOCCA, or the Joe Kubert School, or any other training ground for cartoonists and I think you can see just how important a training ground like 200AD was to an entire generation of British illustrators and writers who now ply their trade in the US – or least sell their work to US comic book publishers.

    So, my plan in the next post, you’ll see it is clearly flagged above, is to attempt to point out possible markets in new media that the current and the future crop of cartoonists might be able to adapt to. A post I might add, I will not be able to write at this rate, Matt. So, in conclusion, there really would not be any point in writing one single word of that post, if I believed the people I am writing the post for were “hopeless”, now would there?

  10. Diana says:

    Hi Rod, I am not a cartoonist as I am not good at drawing, but I love to read stories and cartoon characters sketched always pull my interest. I am not sure if people with good drawing skills would choose it as a career. As per the latest survey of oxbridge students this was not in the list of popular careers. I wished I was good at arts and could sketch out pictures so well. The above images in the blog looks great and makes it really attractive 🙂