Why do today’s editorial cartoons suck? Susie Cagle knows why


What do you think is missing from the New York Times?



–Jill Abramson for Al Jazeera America

Cartoons aren’t viewed like they used to be. A majority of people fall into the seriously category these days. Editorial cartoons used to be considered a world-class art form, but are now seen as menial, dumbed down pieces of work – and, as Susie Cagle describes it, they kind of are.

Cagle, who is a columnist and cartoonist at Pacific Standard magazine, held a session on Saturday about the decline in quality editorial cartooning, and what journalists can do about it.

What happened to the hard-hitting, informative, life-changing cartoons?

Cagle said cartoons were once used to tell the news (yes, even murders) because it was much more efficient than finding someone to take photographs. The masses were either illiterate or simply didn’t want to read about the issues, and cartoons helped to illustrate a story so everyone can understand. Cagle noted that today’s cartoonists are pumping out work that isn’t living up to its potential (see: mass amounts of crying Lady Liberty cartoons that don’t tell consumers anything).


“Maybe this should die”

What’s the point of cartoons in today’s world? Are they just filling space?

“We’re rewarding sentimental, cutesy crap,” Cagle said. “We’re rewarding having nothing to say because cartoons have to be appealing and applicable to everyone in the country. It’s what sells. It’s the only way you’ll pay your rent.”

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She claims that the cartooning field is essentially a big sell-out now: creators aren’t sparking conversation, they’re just being agreeable. If a cartoon hasn’t made anyone think, doesn’t change any minds and hasn’t sparked outrage, maybe it’s not being done right.

Cagle’s father — who was also an editorial cartoonist — once told her, “If one guy does it, it’s plagiarism. If five guys do it, they’re hacks. If a dozen other guys do it, they’re honoring tradition.”

The lack of quality work puts the field in a loop: no young people pursue the profession because the work isn’t inspiring; it’s a dead end.


“It’s ultimately become a race to the bottom,” she said.

The fact that publications want speedy work also feeds into to the mediocre cartoon machine.

According to Cagle, cartoonists need to understand three things:

1. Cartoons don’t have to be funny.

2. They don’t have to be metaphorical or caricatures.

3. Take advantage of the access cartooning can give you, especially in cases that photographs aren’t allowed. 

There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, maybe.

If you’re an aspiring cartoonist, fear not: “Everyone is failing right now, but there is hope,” Cagle said. “The news grows more visual each day so this should be a golden age for cartooning and redefining what it should be. We have the talent and nothing to lose. Maybe it’s a blessing that it got this broken and bad. It’s a great artform that is languishing and I’d love to start a conversation about what we can do about it.”




P.S.: Here’s a motivational quote from the Q&A session afterwards.

“I was tired of giving my work to bad art directors, so I decided to be one.”

-Jennifer Daniel