Are Cartoonists People?

Here’s a rant that been fermenting in the back of my head for awhile, and I’m finally getting it out.

Editorial cartoonists are supposed to be able to summarize world events and distill them into a single image that makes a salient point, maybe even provoking a laugh. So howcum it is when some celebrity dies, their tribute cartoons are almost universally lame! Lame like Tiny Tim. “I’m talking ‘Night Court’ in its fifth season lame!”

When Katharine Hepburn passed on, most of the editorial cartoonists once again centered their “tribute” around a weak gag involving the recently deceased meeting St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. If you go to Daryl Cagle’s cartoonist roundup on, you can see them. About half have St. Peter announcing “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner!”

For this they give out Pulitzer Prizes.

Coming up second in the pool of possible ways to remember someone who’s been in the public eye for generations, is St. Peter fuming about Kate’s determination to wear pants in heaven. You remember, how she scandalized all of fifteen people in polite society by insisting on wearing a pantsuit only SEVENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO! It’s like Garrison Keillor once said, No matter how famous or successful you are in life, back in your home town you’ll always be the kid who dropped an easy pass and cost cost his team the homecoming football game. And how many writers have you seen reference him and Eric Cartman at the same time? Dig through that archive for the Mister Rogers tributes, and you’ll see pretty much the same thing. (And too bad Barry White had to die less than a week afterward. No icon for the Icon of Love [I know Buddy Hackett died the same day as Kate, but I don’t think anyone outside of the entertainment trades was planning a tribute. Sorry, Buddy])

So what’s the deal? Why are these guys so hard up for a nice thing to say about someone that they’ll go back to a cliché from Grandpa’s Sunday School lessons?

Maybe they are. It seems editorial cartooning is still stuck in the world of cliché: lying politicians growing Pinocchio noses, Jimmy Carter the peanut farmer or Gerry Ford the clumsy oaf (just see how many cartoonists use those crutches when either of those two gentlemen passes on). Eighty years after the comic strips stopped having characters react to a joke by “flopping” off-panel, editorial cartoonists will still feature “feelthy” Frenchmen in berets and striped shirts, or Congressmen with their skinny ties and wide-brimmed black hats. I guess if you want to make a point quickly, you need to use imagery that’s been with our culture ever since Thomas Nast first drew donkeys and elephants to represent the political parties.

Still, it was kind of disappointing that when browsing the archive of Kate Hepburn cartoons, only one of the cartoonists featured just drew an affectionate portrait. I’d think if an entertainer or artists really meant something in your life or worldview, that’s the best thing you could do.

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