It's a measure of the state of journalism today that editorial cartoons are getting safer.
"Arguably, cartoonists are the most incendiary of journalists," says David Wallis, editor of the book Killed Cartoons: Casualties From the War on Free Expression (W.W. Norton). "They have to be opinionated, harsh, a smack to the reader's face."
But newspapers, the traditional home of editorial cartoonists, have become decidedly less feisty of late, according to Wallis. In his book, he chronicles the fate of some 100 different editorial cartoons and illustrations that were killed by editors, even though the artist was on the paper's payroll or had been commissioned to do the work. "When we start to suppress our visual artists, we'd better watch out, because the people who work with words are arguably next in the firing line," Wallis says.
The book kicks off with Paul Conrad's drawing of an elephant mounting a donkey, captioned "Congressional Bipartisanship," killed by the Los Angeles Times in 1999. Introducing the comic, Wallis writes, "His editor called it 'thigh-slapping fun' in an interview with a local alternative weekly but spiked it anyway."
Although the bulk of the cartoons in Wallis's book are from the past 15 years, that's not to say that killing editorial cartoons is anything new. Wallis also includes artwork by Herb Block killed in 1952 and by David Low killed in 1937. But newspapers have backed away from local editorial cartoonists in general.
One of the killed cartoons that Wallis includes in the book is a farewell cartoon penned by Kirk Anderson in 2003. Anderson was laid off from his position as local editorial cartoonist by Knight Ridder's St. Paul Pioneer Press despite the newspaper chain's reported $296 million net profit that year. The cartoon shows the cartoonist sitting on the curb with his art supplies spilling out of boxes next to him, with a thought bubble that reads, "Okay, NOW it's a recession."
According to the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, the number of full-time editorial cartoonists employed by newspapers in the United States has dropped from 275 in 1957 to 84 today.
Since the book was published earlier this year, Wallis notes, two other long-serving veteran cartoonists were let go from papers in Colorado Springs and Orange County. Newspapers have backed away from local cartoonists in favor of "vanilla syndicated cartoons," Wallis says.
Of course, that is a little ironic coming from Wallis, who runs a syndication service called FeatureWell.com. But that position is part of what got Wallis involved in digging up material that was too hot to print. Before Killed Comics, Wallis edited a book, published in 2004, called Killed Journalism. He would get "jaw-dropping stories" from writers looking to get work out that they couldn't publish in their own papers. "I couldn't understand why they had been killed," Wallis says.
Initially he thought that he would include illustrations in that first book, but then he realized there was too much to choose from and it had to be a book by itself.
Wallis says that aside from the cartoons he was able to get from the book, there were also a number of cartoonists who declined to contribute their work. One was a well-known cartoonist who took Disney to task with a cartoon only to have it killed by a magazine because Disney's lawyers got wind of it and the company threatened to pull its ads.
"There's a lot of nervousness from the cartoonists themselves about their state in the journalistic world right now," Wallis says.
The state of cartoonists is in some way a leading indicator of the state of independent journalism in America. "We've lost a great deal of our independent newspapers in the last three decades," Wallis says. "They've either gone out of business or been swallowed up by corporate chains."
And that has led editors and publishers to pay more attention to Wall Street than to the Constitutionally protected public service that newspapers are supposed to provide. "Controversy is something to be avoided in the mind of the bean counters," Wallis says.
Wallis himself is of the opposite view. "I come from the school that we need more cartoonists," he says. He thinks they will attract a new crop of younger readers to newspapers, the "same people who are buying graphic novels in record numbers."
In conjunction with Banned Books Week, Wallis will be appearing at Food For Thought Books in Amherst on Wednesday, Oct. 3, at 7 p.m. He will be displaying about 30 cartoons from the book and talking about the book as well.