"We've bred this generation of Eddie Haskells, parent-pleasers, suck-ups, careerists that's hurting cartooning as well as newsrooms. Š The irony is, readers are falling away, and newspapers can't figure it out as they reward blandness, homogenize the product, dull it down and drain all the humanness out of it."
Newspapers have a lot of competition these days, and have had since radio and television preceded the Internet on the scene. But we have no more serious threat than our own, fatal craving for respectability. Especially when it swells into pomposity. Or a fearful neutrality, as if we were afraid of taking sides. Doug Marlette didn't have any problem along those lines; he was willing to offend all sides.
Here's trusting that Doug Marlette isn't resting in peace at all, but still giving the haters hell.
The loss of Doug Marlette has got me wondering, not for the first time, about what makes a great political cartoonist and why so few of them are still around.
A political cartoon ought to offer more than a quick laugh, a daily punch line, a sketched version of a Jay Leno or David Letterman monologue. A great political cartoon, like a great editorial, ought to appeal to people's own standards yet elevate those standards. Not an easy trick.
A great cartoon should spring from a common set of values, a shared culture, the way Marlette's work sprang from his Southernness, yet not be afraid of questioning that culture.
Among my own favorite practitioners of the trade would be classic cartoonists like D.R. Fitzpatrick of the old St. Louis Post-Dispatch, George Fisher of the old Arkansas Gazette, and, my favorite of favorites, Bill Mauldin of Stars and, in civilian life, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and then the Chicago Sun-Times. Because he wasn't only a comic. He didn't just make people laugh but moved them to sigh, think, agree or disagree, mutter angrily or shout Amen, Hallelujah and Selah! He had a point of view. He had something to say, not just entertain us with.
I would've included Herblock on my list of greats if he'd stopped drawing a decade or two earlier than he did. He wound up just repeating the icons he'd made part of the American mind: Richard Nixon with 5 o'clock shadow climbing out of a sewer, The Bomb looming over all. A great artist grows; he doesn't just keep repeating his earlier work, however powerful.
There are still some cartoonists who may prove to be in Bill Mauldin's major league. The name Michael Ramirez comes to mind. Naturally the Los Angeles Times dropped him as it entered its mediocre phase, and his base is now Investor's Business Daily. But his kind of talent, and gumption, is rare.
Too many of today's political cartoonists spread themselves too thin. Talent may be limitless but not time or energy, which needs to be focused if it is to give us something more than a quick laugh. Or maybe even a view of the human condition.