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Cartoonists seek new forms

For more than 200 years, editorial cartoons have enlivened public life in America in newspapers and pamphlets, magazines and political fliers, offering an immediate and often scathing appraisal of the state of the world - a vivid confluence of art, humor and criticism.

Many newspaper readers have made it their first port of call, a place where everything from the foibles of fat-cat mayors to the withering devastation of far-off earthquakes would be dissected and reduced to a single, salient point, provoking laughter, outrage or sadness - and sometimes all three.

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But it's getting harder to find these powerful editorial punches in newspapers these days, as editors, beset by pressure to find ways to reduce costs and boost the bottom line, have been dealing editorial cartoons out of the journalistic mix.

In the last 20 years or so, dozens of editorial cartoonists - some of them widely known winners of prestigious awards - have been fired, retired or urged to take a buyout of their contracts. By some estimates, more than 100 cartoonists' positions have been left unfilled.

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In their place, some newspapers publish syndicated cartoons with no connection to local matters, or they run nothing at all.

Which is not to say that the craft of political cartooning is in a death spiral. On Internet Web sites, in magazines, on television and even in visual podcasts, new forms of sharp-edged political art are springing up across the media landscape.

Kevin Kallaugher, known as KAL to Sun readers, concluded a 17-year run as the paper's editorial cartoonist Friday after accepting a buyout as an alternative to an uncertain future. But Kallaugher has no intention of retiring.

He plans to continue drawing acid-tipped political sketches for The Economist, the London-based newsweekly, and will become an artist in residence at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he will explore three-dimensional animation in the hope, he said, of "creating digital politicians."

"As satire moves from the static image to the moving image, making a caricature come alive will be the next logical step for political cartoonists," he said. "As newspapers become increasingly marginalized, their influence on political debate has diminished. Cartoonists need to go where the action is."

Slate, the Internet news Web site recently purchased from Microsoft by The Washington Post, features a collection of political cartoons and is reportedly considering political animations in the future.

Drew Rougier-Chapman, a lawyer in Washington with a passion for political cartoons, has come up with a concept for a half-hour, weekly television show, called Party Toons, that would include digitally animated editorial cartoons.

"Each week, we'd have one of the editorial cartoonists on the show," Rougier-Chapman said. "Hopefully, there will still be some left by the time we do the show."

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Cartoonists view their steady decline in newspapers as a consequence of misguided and shortsighted business decisions by publishers.

"In the long run, they're going to regret this," Chip Bok, an editorial cartoonist for The Akron Beacon Journal since 1987, said in a phone conversation last week as he worked on a cartoon about Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr. being questioned by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, whom he described as "a bunch of prima donnas."

"The profit margin is better with a minimal product," said Bok, whose syndicated cartoons appear in more than 100 publications. "In stark terms, a staff cartoonist is not essential to putting a newspaper on your front porch every morning."

Unfortunately for the cartoonists, many publishers agree.

In an era of tight budgets, paying for a cartoonist makes less sense to some than spending on other content. Others worry about the response of some readers to the cartoonists' pointed views.

For fans of editorial cartoons, however, the cuts in the ranks of staff artists strike at the heart of newspapers' identities.

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"The best cartoonists reach out from the page, grab you by the shirt collar and try to shake you out of your apathy and your indifference," said Chris Lamb, a media professor at the College of Charleston in South Carolina who wrote a book about the subject, Drawn to Extremes: The Use and Abuse of Editorial Cartoons in the United States (Columbia University Press, 2004).

Lamb, who teaches news and opinion writing, among other disciplines, said that getting rid of staff cartoonists, particularly the most controversial ones, diminishes a newspaper's power to provoke thought and discussion.

"An editorial cartoonist is a sort of Rush Limbaugh with brains, or a Bill O'Reilly with a sense of humor," Lamb said. "Or, to extend the metaphor further, a Sean Hannity with brains and a sense of humor."

For many long-successful cartoonists, being pulled from their newspaper pulpits comes as a shock.

"People are saying that if it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone," The Sun's Kallaugher said in his office, where the walls were replete with his work from The Sun and also for The Economist, to which he has contributed for 28 years, producing about 100 covers as well as other drawings.

Kallaugher, a habitually dapper man who favors elegant waistcoats and vibrant colors - his socks the other day were bright orange - said he first tasted the joys of caricature at 10, when he drew his music teacher, a nun with a severe outlook on life, as a freak with "slits for eyes, a button nose and a mouth the size of a battleship." He passed the drawing around his class and was an instant hit.

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"The acclamation for a 10-year-old was deeply satisfying," he recalled. "But the nun found the drawing, took me downstairs and made me take a bite out of a bar of soap. She said to me, 'Don't you ever draw another cartoon like that again!' I've been doing it ever since."

Kallaugher pointed out that his departure from The Sun "has nothing to do with the quality of my work."

"It was made clear to me that there was a great deal of uncertainty about the position of editorial cartoonist at the paper," he said. "When I saw what was happening to cartoonists at other Tribune papers, I had to take that threat seriously."

Indeed, only two of the Tribune chain's papers still have editorial cartoonists. A corporate spokesman says the decline reflects decisions by local editors.

Clay Bennett, the Pulitzer-winning resident cartoonist at The Christian Science Monitor and president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, says eliminating sharp-penned cartoonists deprives newspapers of an important advantage.

"Controversy used to help newspaper sales," he said. "Now they avoid it like poison. They've all rushed to the mushy middle."

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nick.madigan@baltsun.com


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