Straight talk for cartoonists from Daryl Cagle

Editorial cartoonists seem to be going the way of buggy-whip makers; the past few years have brought a litany of layoffs and, at least from the outside, it looks like staff cartoonists are becoming a thing of the past.

Cartoonist Daryl Cagle posted some surprisingly frank advice for editorial cartoonists on his blog this week. Depending on how you look at it, this is shrewd business advice or an enticement to dumb down and sell out.

Some of this is good nuts-and-bolts advice for freelancers: Think of what your editors want (not what you want to draw), plan ahead for holiday and seasonal cartoons, sell your archived cartoons on a per-use basis, and avoid local papers — there's no money in that market. Learn to draw — words alone can't carry a cartoon.

But it is also rather disturbing. Let's return to that first point, about pleasing editors:

Editors like funny cartoons about topics that readers are most interested in – rather than poignant cartoons about today’s most important issues. To see what readers are interested in, look at the Today Show web site, or the magazines at the supermarket checkout aisle. To make editors happy, and to get reprinted more, cartoonists should draw more celebrities than politicians; we should have opinions about diet and exercise as well as the Middle East.

Cagle also advises cartoonists to stay on one side or the other of the political aisle. While most people hold a mix of views, he says, editors tend to be either liberal or conservative, and they like their cartoonists to be the same.

Conservative editors are the most intolerant of deviations from their set of views and will reject the idea of ever printing a cartoon by a cartoonist who crosses the red line only once. Since editors insist on labeling cartoonists, be moderate at your own peril.

Some of this isn't easy to hear, but Cagle's underlying point is an important one for freelancers to understand: You are selling a product, and editors are your customers, so give them what they want.

On the other hand, it is also depressing for readers. Do editors really hew to such a bland, uniform line? I'd say Cagle's advice is probably sound for the mass market, but there will always be a more specialized market for explicitly political cartoons — The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal. It's just that editorial cartoonists will have to regard that as a niche, not the mainstream of cartooning.

Another recent Cagle post, on cartoonists outside the U.S., gives a glimpse of a fascinating alternative — cartoons that aim to be more universal than topical, although readers found the examples he provided rather hard to interpret.

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