Online Migration of Political Cartooning

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(snapshot of a "poll cartoon" made by Mike Mikula for CNN.com)

Political cartoonists all seem to have different ideas about how to save their ailing industry. In 2004, Chris Lamb and Doug Marlette called for newspapers to re-assess their editorial priorities and urged peers to reassert the savage wit that defined their craft in the 60s and 70s. More recently, Steve Kelley and Matt Wuerker have advised fellow cartoonists to trade mean-spiritedness for good humor and optimism. The most compelling argument comes from Ilan Danjoux, who argues that the future of political cartoons lies online in "Reconsidering the Decline of the Editorial Cartoon."

Although digital publication is frequently blamed for the destruction of cartoonists' print-based natural habitats, it has also yielded a host of new opportunities. Danjoux points out that online publishing has allowed cartoonists to post comics that have been rejected by newspapers and editors, a strategy that is particularly useful for fledgling artists trying to gain exposure and readership. Furthermore, cartoons published online are available to a potentially limitless readership, instead of being constrained to the geography of newspaper circulation. Most importantly, the political cartoon's migration from print to digital media also introduces a number of new creative possibilities to cartooning and allows artists to interact with readers in novel ways.

Matt Wuerker's optimistic attitude may be the product of his own online cartooning successes. As staff cartoonist for the news site Politico, Wuerker has produced both traditional cartoons and a small arcade of interactive comics that blur the line between political comics and video games. Some of Wuerker's works include an unwinnable version of the classic board game Operation satirizing healthcare reform and a Duck Hunt-style shooting game starring Sarah Palin. Wuerker won the 2010 Herblock award for political cartooning, and he was also shortlisted for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in political cartoons. Wuerker isn't the only one who has found his niche online. The cartoonist who ultimately won the 2010 Pulitzer, Mike Fiore, won specifically for his animated cartoons, and previous Pulitzer winner Ann Telnaes routinely posts animations for The Washington Post.

The newsgames studio recently discussed the craft of cartooning with local political cartoonist Mike Mikula, who was also optimistic about the prospects of online cartooning. Mikula explained that, while cartoonists feel vulnerable given the current state of their industry, they are also aware of the new opportunities emerging in interactive media and eager to try new things. Mikula himself has experimented with a number of different formats, including animated shorts posted on YouTube and a series of interactive poll cartoons for CNN. Mikula did note that cartoonists' optimism for online publishing is tempered by an algid economic situation: "Everybody, on every level of cartooning, makes less money now."

Danjoux concedes, "Making the transition to a digital medium will invariably come with some economic risk." The biggest challenge facing political cartoonists looking to take their business online is the problem of transmuting page views into paychecks. Unlike most web-comic artists, who generally work with a consistent cast of characters and elaborate persistent plot-lines, political cartoons are typically based on real people and highly topical, self-contained news stories. The typical web-comic artist's business model of supplementing advertising revenue with merchandising sales does not easily translate to political cartoonists.

Consequently, finding success with political cartooning online seems to depend on corporate backing as much as a willingness to experiment. While the newspaper industry is in the process of eliminating editorial cartooning positions, many online conglomerates have provided cartoonists with steady work. Wuerker, Mikula, and Telnaes have worked with Politico, CNN and, The Washington Post (respectively) and supplement their work with syndication. All use personal blogs and YouTube animations to expand their readership. There are some cartoonists, like Fiore, who produce their most noteworthy work on their personal sites rather than working with conglomerates, though such cases are rare. Staff cartooning positions are still important to the industry, and, while new opportunities exist online, they are still fairly scarce and highly competitive.

 

There is some concern that the online migration of the political cartoon will dilute the form with interactive novelties as opposed to symbolism. But many cartoonists, like Fiore and Ted Rall, feel that this shift, and the rise of "alternative cartooning," is for the best. They are liberated by the extra space afforded by webpages, allowing for wordier, more complicated looks at politics, and they are eager to move past the more familiar metaphors of editorial cartoons. Whatever the fate of newspapers, it's looking more and more like political cartooning has a bright future online. 

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