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Political Cartoonists Worried About Future

The pen may be mightier than the sword, and editorial cartoonists have skewered many a politician with one. But with the newspaper industry shrinking, it is getting harder to make a living doing it.

Some of the best cartoonists from around the United States gathered in the nation's capital recently for the annual meeting of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists.

In the 1990s, there were several-hundred staff cartoonists working at American newspapers. "Now it's down to somewhere closer to 60," said Jimmy Margulies, who draws for The Record of northern New Jersey.

He says what's being lost is a form of commentary that is more blunt and to the point than editorials. "This is more like pinning someone down, and in its simplicity bringing out some essential truths that are not directly stated in other forms of opinion writing," Margulies said.

But Chip Bok, who used to work for the Akron Beacon Journal and now has his own website Bokbluster was optimistic.

"Times are tough for the old idea of cartoonists, but all kinds of other things have opened up," he said. "And editorial cartoons, all cartoons, are more popular than ever. You see them all over the Internet. The problem now is figuring out how to get paid."

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Despite their worries, cartoonists are having a field day making fun of the candidates in the U.S. presidential election. "I love drawing Obama," said Bok. "He's got the ears," the cartoonist added, drawing a pair each nearly as large as the presidents head, "and an incredibly skinny neck and body."

Bok noted that Romney is often drawn as a robot, a commentary on the candidate's difficulties in connecting with ordinary Americans as well as a parody of his square-ish facial features. "He's got kind of a heavy brow and bushy eyebrows and the big chin," Bok said, wistfully recalling the fun he had with the chin of former President Bill Clinton.

Matt Wuerker of says often the best presidential ticket to caricature is the one he did not vote for. "Eight years of George Bush and [Dick] Cheney, it was hog heaven! It was tough on the world, but for cartoonists, it was great."

Wuerker invited a VOA reporter and cameraman to Politico to watch him drawing a cartoon, an exaggeratedly square-jawed version of Romney as the notoriously out-of-touch French queen, Marie Antoinette "That 47 percent? Let them eat cake," the Romney character says in the cartoon. It was a reference to the real Romney's secretly videotaped remarks, telling wealthy donors that he wouldn't try to win the votes of that percentage of Americans, who he said depend on government aid.

Wuerker uses india ink and vivid water colors and follows the style of 19th century cartoonists Thomas Nast and Joseph Keppler. "It's a little contrarian on my part," he said. "There are a lot of cartoonists who are enamored with digital tools. You can draw on Cintiq tablets, even iPads, and color things in with Photoshop. But there's a smoothness, and a uniformity about that kind of stuff that make all those cartoons look the same."

Wuerker believes cartoonists will survive the crisis, and he jokingly borrows what he describes as a Romney metaphor. "Cartoonists are basically opportunistic parasites," Wuerker said. "We've survived on the backs of newspapers for a couple centuries, and it worked really, really well. But the old dog is dying, and so we have to jump onto something new."