Friday, June 27, 2008

Obituaries and other disasters

The death of George Carlin has stirred up conversation on the topic of obituary cartoons, on Daryl Cagle's blog, at the Daily Cartoonist, at the convention of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists and at rec.arts.comic.strips, as well as some other places.

Obituary cartoons seem to bring out the worst in cartoonists -- cheap, maudlin dreck that they ought to be ashamed of, but which readers seem to love. How bad does it get? How bad can it get? When Jim Henson died, someone drew weeping Muppets. Can it get worse than that? Of course it can, and has, and probably will again.

But obituary cartoons don't have to stink. Consider this entry by Thomas Nast, upon the death of James Garfield. (Click on any of these cartoons to see larger versions.)

In order to appreciate this cartoon, you have to first recognize the setting: Garfield had lingered for nearly three months after being shot, and the country was on death watch. In those days before CNN, the world didn't come to a screeching halt. For one thing, Washington was out there someplace -- while the Civil War had begun the process of creating national awareness, people still identified primarily with their own backyards because they didn't have a lot of access to other places. But the news came once a day, and once a day, the President was still dying, until the day came when he was dead.

The other factor is that Nast's symbol here is Columbia, the tall, powerful warrior goddess who is normally seen armed, in helmet with shield, protecting the nation. Here, she is a woman, unarmed and consumed with grief. Compare this with John Tenniel's cartoon on the same topic, in which the goddess remains powerful and the message is far more unfocused and sentimental.

In Tenniel's cartoon, some undefined woman, presumably the American citizenry, is sad and must be comforted by Columbia. In Nast's, the mighty goddess herself has been brought to her knees.

Nearly 75 years later, cartoonists got another shot at the same topic, and the most famous cartoon to emerge became one of the most famous cartoons in the genre. Bill Mauldin had wrapped up work for the week in Chicago and gone to a press luncheon of some sort. But before the speaker could start, an announcement was made of the events in Dallas and that roomful of journalists cleared out. In the days before cell phones and the like, the level of chaos must have been high, but Mauldin got hold of an editor and asked if he could get something in. The answer was yes, but hurry. This cartoon was drawn and inked in a fury of inspiration and the Sun-Times, a tabloid, splashed it across the back of the Extra, where sports would have gone in a regular edition.

When the bundles were dropped off at the newsstands, the newsies took one look at the cartoon and flipped the bundles, selling them off the cartoon on the back rather than the headlines on the front. The paper disappeared.

What vaults Mauldin's cartoon above the average weeper is the triple he managed to bang out -- He's got a murdered president mourning another murdered president. And, given Lincoln's reputation for compassion, he has a murdered man mourning another murdered man. But he could have shown Lincoln, stovepipe hat in his hand, standing in a graveyard. By using the statue from the Lincoln Memorial, he invokes the American people mourning their president.

Jackie Kennedy asked for the original, which is now in the Kennedy Library.

You can't demand that cartoonists be inspired at this level; you can't demand that cartoonists come up to the level of Nast and Mauldin anyway. It's like going to a production of "Hamlet" and saying, well, Olivier did it better. However, both cartoons give readers that emotional catharsis they want without being cheap and obvious. It's not too much to ask cartoonists to go beyond, "Gosh, we sure are sad!"

What is it fair to ask for?

When the Columbia exploded, there were any number of cartoonists who depicted "Seven New Stars in Heaven." But here's an example that shows the peril of trying to be sensitive without really thinking things through.

The Pearly Gates are a decidedly Christian symbol, and much of the criticism of the George Carlin cartoons has been based on the militant atheism he made central to his act, and the sense that it is inappropriate to show him in a Christian afterlife situation -- though several cartoonists used the opportunity to have God criticizing his use of profanity, which seems odd in light of how often cartoonists defend the First Amendment.

In this case, the cartoonist uses the Christian symbol of the Pearly Gates, but apparently realized that one of the astronauts was Jewish, so depicted one of those "Seven New Stars" as a Mogen David. This would be sensitive if (a) it didn't tend to single the guy out as "not one of us" and (b) if Jews believed in a conscious afterlife at all similar to the Christian version.

And one of the astronauts on the Columbia was Hindu. Now whatcha gonna draw, bud? A cow? Once the cartoonist recognized the religious disconnect, he needed to abandon the cliche and find something else.

Meanwhile, David Horsey, more often praised for his draftsmanship than for his insight, knocked this one out of the park. Drawing in Seattle, the issue of heat tiles and mechanical failure was no abstraction for his readers, and this cartoon bypasses the weeping and gets down to the nitty-gritty. (Note: I am not sure how soon after the Columbia disaster this cartoon appeared, and it may not be entirely fair to compare it to those done on tight deadline in the wake of the crash. But it's still a good contrast between mawkish sentiment and making a coherent point.)

When the World Trade Center fell, more than 30 professional cartoonists came up with nothing better than the Statue of Liberty weeping. I haven't bothered to post an example because they were all interchangable and pointless. Nobody needed to be told that America was sad. There had to be a better way, and Clay Bennett nailed it. Unlike Mauldin's seamless marriage of President, man and national symbol, this blend requires some manipulation, but the graphics work so well that the artificiality is deliberate without being jarring or unnatural. This cartoon simply works.

Meanwhile, across the sea, Peter Schrank came up with this obvious but excellent cartoon. Drawing on the familiar classic makes the reference accessible to most readers, and the substitution of Wall Street for the bridge works graphically. By drawing the globe as the screaming man, Schrank reflects the universal horror of that moment, a time -- however subsequently squandered -- when the world stood beside the United States in its revulsion for the events of September 11.

I think when you see how well cartoons can respond to death, loss and disaster, it makes the cheap weepers and Pearly Gates cliches that much more insulting to the reader and depressing for fans of the genre.


Sherwood Harrington said...

Speaking of knocking one out of the park, this post should be required reading in any number of types of college courses, all the way from journalism to critical thinking.

Bravo, sir.

Cindy said...

Great post, Mike. The examples are very well-chosen and well-described.

The "screaming world" cartoon works even better (in my opinion) if you consider what Munch wrote about his famous painting "The Scream". He intended it to represent an experience in his own life when it felt like Nature itself was screaming in horror and the scream passed through him. Substitute "humanity" for "Nature" and you've got my emotional memories of the day of the attack, at least.

Norm Feuti said...

Well thought out post, Mike. Nicely done.

Hot and Cold said...

The newspaper where I live has paid its editorial cartoonist (to fire himself. Despite the New Yorker cover controversy (I believe it to be based on placement, not content), I expect it to buy cartoons from other sources to save money.