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Editorial Cartoonists Strive to Preserve Their Threatened Art

July 5, 2007 at 6:45 PM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: For a traditional bastion of journalistic humor, it’s no laughing matter. As financial pressures continue to plague the newspaper industry, one feature most affected has been the editorial cartoon, as full-time positions have dwindled, and more of the action moves online.

The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists is holding its annual meeting this week in Washington, and we invited one prominent member to join us. Walt Handelsman won this year’s Pulitzer Prize in his field, for cartoons on a wide range of subjects, including Iraq. In this one, a reporter in Baghdad says, “When asked if this is sectarian violence or a full-blown civil war, many Iraqis were unable to answer.”

And the frustrations of modern life. Here, a man going through airport screening is left wearing nothing but his boarding pass. The caption reads, “After seven hours of wading through heightened airport security, Larry faced one final challenge.”

This was Walt Handelsman’s second Pulitzer. He draws for Newsday in New York, and his work is nationally syndicated to more than 200 other newspapers.

Welcome to you.

WALTER HANDELSMAN, Editorial Cartoonist: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: First, explain the problems. In what ways is cost-cutting affecting your profession?

WALTER HANDELSMAN: Well, 20 years ago, there were 200 editorial cartoonists in America. There were a lot more daily newspapers. And over the last 20 years, as the daily newspapers have begun to shrink and as cable news has become more popular, and now with the advent of the Internet, more and more newspapers have decided they have no need for an editorial cartoonist.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what is lost? I mean, you are one of the prominent ones. You’re seeing red all over the place. Is the local emphasis?

WALTER HANDELSMAN: Well, I think what is lost is that the readers that open up their newspapers don’t see a familiar style of cartooning every day. They also lose out, as you said, on the local cartooning, which is very important to all of us.

For instance, I live on Long Island. I draw a lot of cartoons about Long Island, about New York City, as well as national and international stuff. So as soon as you begin using only syndicated editorial cartoons, your readers lose that. And readers, by far, love editorial cartoons; that’s a proven fact.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s well-known.

WALTER HANDELSMAN: That’s well-known. And, you know, there’s just a lot of cost-cutting in newspaper right now. And so one of the things that I guess publishers and editors, I think in many cases reluctantly think they can do without is an editorial cartoonist, because they can buy a syndicated package.

Trying out online animation

JEFFREY BROWN: The Pulitzer that were given this year was the first, I understand, for submissions that include animation, and that means that you, like others in your field, have gone online.

WALTER HANDELSMAN: That's true. I decided at the end of 2006 that I thought it would be very important to begin doing animated editorial cartoons. Obviously, everything is trending towards the Internet, and I went to my publisher and had a meeting with him, and he was very open to the idea. I said, "I think I'm going to try and learn animation."

I had never tried it before. I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours at home trying to figure out how to make stuff move and eventually had a few "eureka" moments. And the next thing I knew, I had created a few animated editorial cartoons, which then blossomed into a whole series of animated editorial cartoons.

JEFFREY BROWN: So now it's a regular feature?

WALTER HANDELSMAN: It's a regular feature.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let's look at one recent one. This is part of a recent campaign season animation, and it's called "Political Reality Show." Let's look at part of it.

WALTER HANDELSMAN, As Narrator: You've seen these reality stars fight their way to the top. Now they go head-to-head in the most incredible reality show of all, "So You Want to be America's Next Top Contender to Survive the Amazing Race For President?" With Obama from "The Apprentice: Los Angeles."

WALTER HANDELSMAN, As Barack Obama: What I lacked in experience, I made up during the charisma challenge.

WALTER HANDELSMAN, As Narrator: John from "Survivor: Vietnam."

WALTER HANDELSMAN, As John McCain: I was beaten, brutalized and tormented, but I'm going to run again anyway.

WALTER HANDELSMAN, As Narrator: Hillary and Bill from "Trading Spouses."

JODIE HANDELSMAN, As Hillary Clinton: I want to finish what Bill started.

WALTER HANDELSMAN, As Bill Clinton: I just like the name of the show.

WALTER HANDELSMAN, As Narrator: Mitt and John, from "America's Next Top Model."

WALTER HANDELSMAN, As John Edwards: You know, there are two Americas, and I'm counting on the female half to vote for me.

WALTER HANDELSMAN, As Mitt Romney: Two words, ladies: shirtless speeches.

WALTER HANDELSMAN, As Narrator: And Rudy from "American Idol."

Getting away with more online

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, do you have to change your brain or your thinking a little bit to go from the drawing to animation?

WALTER HANDELSMAN: Absolutely. It was a huge change for me. Editorial cartooning, you're synthesizing all this information into a single point in time.

JEFFREY BROWN: It's really direct, isn't it?

WALTER HANDELSMAN: It's very direct, and you're taking tons of information, and you're saying, in this particular second in time, this is the point you want to make. I realized immediately with animation the game had completely changed. I had to look at much broader issues.

For instance, in that one, I'm looking at a whole campaign, a whole series, a reality show, so you're really writing a little miniature movie rather than commenting on one tiny issue. And it took a lot of time to train my brain. I consider it like drawing a 50-panel editorial cartoon, lots of different points, lots of humor, and on top of that, trying to do the voice impersonations and learning how to draw and make stuff move.

JEFFREY BROWN: That is your voice, for all the animation?

WALTER HANDELSMAN: All except for Hillary, who is my wife, Jodie.

JEFFREY BROWN: The animation, to my eyes, of course, is also -- I guess it's less subtle, is a way of putting it. It's a little bit -- it hits you over the head.

WALTER HANDELSMAN: Well, I've also found -- and I'm still trying to drive myself towards this -- that you can get away with a lot more on the Internet. And you can be more crass, more crude, and not only can you be, but people expect that. When you look at stuff on the Internet, I mean, if you look at YouTube, if you look at all the wide variety of stuff that's offered out there, it's way over-the-top compared to what you'd get in a daily newspaper.

JEFFREY BROWN: For better or worse, you say that's what people expect.

WALTER HANDELSMAN: For better or worse, right, right.

JEFFREY BROWN: What makes a cartoon work for you, whether it's animation or a drawing? What does it have to have to work?

WALTER HANDELSMAN: One thing. I've always said a cartoon has to have one thing: impact. And by that, it could be the impact of a very, very funny punch line or a very dark drawing, one of the ones that you showed about Iraq.

So you really don't want it to be bland. If the readers open up the cartoon, and they're, "It's boring," then you've lost the game that day. Luckily, you have 290 other times during the year to do a better job. But I think cartoons should have an impact, and I tend to do cartoons with a lot of humor in them. That's just my approach.

A demonstration

JEFFREY BROWN: One of your favorite subjects has been President Bush for the last six-plus years. You brought a pen and paper.

WALTER HANDELSMAN: I did.

JEFFREY BROWN: Want to do a little drawing for us?

WALTER HANDELSMAN: Sure, sure. OK, well, when you're drawing George Bush, generally it's best to start with a nose. And he's got these flared nostrils here, so it looks a little bit like that. And then he's got a long lower lip, so I like to put it in like this, and it kind of goes up and down like that, and we'll throw his teeth in, a little bit like that.

Then we put the little George Bush eyes in, and he's got the patented George Bush eyebrows, the same eyebrows that his dad had that ran in the family. Here are the cheekbones. Throw that in. And he's got the little chin. Put that in there, another cheekbone.

Now, when you draw a caricature of a politician, they all have sort of a signature feature. With Ronald Reagan, it was the bouffant hair. And with Bill Clinton, it was his chin, among other things. With George Bush, it's the ears. So we throw those in last, a little shading in there.

And as I said, with my animations, I have trained myself to do some impersonations. So in this particular case, just throw his jacket in, give him a little miniature body. Make sure we can see that, the bottom of his jacket in.

Now, of course, I don't draw this quickly at work. If I drew this quickly at work, my boss would say, "Why are we paying you to do this? You've been at work for 15 minutes."

JEFFREY BROWN: Paid by the hour here.

WALTER HANDELSMAN: Paid by the hour.

JEFFREY BROWN: So the George Bush voice for the animation?

WALTER HANDELSMAN: So in this particular cartoon, I would put this little scowl in here, and I'd have him saying, "You know, I mean, Handelsman, I mean, I just don't look like that. I mean, where do I get this from? You know what I'm trying to say?"

JEFFREY BROWN: And now a campaign season started, so you've got a whole cast of contenders that's fodder for the future, right?

WALTER HANDELSMAN: Oh, yes, absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, Walt Handelsman of Newsday, thanks very much.

WALTER HANDELSMAN: Thank you very much.