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