They have taken on every president since Kennedy and getting on their bad side could have serious consequences.
With blazing quick wit and withering cynicism, four of the most decorated cartoonists in American journalism Montgomery Fellow Jules Feiffer, Edward Koren, Edward Sorel and Jeff Danzinger discussed the past and future of illustrated political and social commentary in a Montgomery Fellow panel on Wednesday afternoon in Filene Auditorium.
The four cartoonists, all based in New York City, began by displaying favorite examples of their work, running the gamut from early drawings, featuring Feiffer and Sorel’s illustrations from the Village Voice, to syndicated newspaper political cartoons and cover illustrations for The New Yorker.
Later, the panel engaged in a question-and-answer session about their work.
At one point an audience member referred to the panel as men “of a certain age.”
“What the hell do you mean by that?” Feiffer joked, but the panelists acknowledged that the environment was changing for the older generation of political cartoonists.
They agreed that changes in the newspaper industry pointing particularly the closing of several major newspapers and the increasing distaste for edgy content are making it nearly impossible for political cartoonists to make a living.
The Internet and technology, likewise, have affected the way younger cartoonists approach their craft.
“The next generation works on the Internet … they work very quickly,” Danzinger said. “I wish them luck, because it’s very difficult to collect some money.”
The Internet is a double-edged sword for illustrators, Danzinger said, but it has been beneficial in that it has increased cartoonists’ latitude in producing and distributing content.
While political cartooning might appear to be dying, Feiffer said, it could well go the way of theater, which was revived by a forward-thinking group of writers in the 1960s.
Feiffer also noted, however, that it is difficult for the older generation of cartoonists to predict the ways in which future cartoonists will find success.
“How the hell would we know?” he said. “There’s a lot new coming along that we won’t know about until we’re dead.”
The panel discussed the use of computers in cartooning, particularly the advent of electronic drawing tablets now popular in animation. Koren said he found it difficult to imagine cartooning using “a rodent,” referring to a computer mouse, while Sorel noted that part of the joy of cartooning was the physical act of drawing.
“The other day, I did my first drawing with a stylus on a computer, and I found it absolutely fascinating,” Feiffer said. “And in about five or 10 years, I might draw another one.”
The cartoonists also noted their unusual relationship with the political system, notably how they interact with the presidents they often criticize.
Feiffer described how, during the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, he criticized Johnson’s “misadventure” in the Vietnam.
“Week after week, I would pound Johnson, and pound Johnson,” Feiffer said. “One cartoon was especially vicious. I got a telephone call from the Johnson library asking me to donate the original. I thought, They know how to get to you.'”
Koren noted that President Ronald Reagan also reveled in the criticism cartoonists leveled at him, proudly displaying them in the West Wing of the White House.
“And they were all excoriating,” Koren said. “But he was so proud of them. Why is it that happens?”
Because cartoonists want to criticize politicians, not entertain them, this often makes the cartoonist “feel so inadequate,” Feiffer said.
Cartoonists tend not to think that they have contributed much of significance to the political process, but they are able to provide a forum for people who are usually unrepresented.
At one point, Sorel brought up one of his favorite examples of Feiffer’s work, a cartoon from the Richard Nixon era. Feiffer said that in the cartoon, he showed a boy growing up as he watched Presidents John F. Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon on television reading parts of the same speech about the Vietnam War. As the boy grows up, his striped shirt is replaced by an army uniform, then, in the last panel, by an American flag that drapes over his own coffin.
“The war seemed endless, and as we know since Vietnam, we have been in endless wars, they’ve just had different names,” Feiffer said. “It’s a permanent war state we’re in.”