Drawing The Line At McToons / 16 октября 2007 г.

Fearing advocacy groups, U.S. newspapers have softened the satirical edges of their editorial pages. Resistance continues, however, in Canada, says Brian Gable.

Copyright © News Design Associates Inc.

The gang down the hall at the Ford Dealers’ convention is having a heck of a good time. Boisterous chat around the swimming pool, laughter in the halls of this genteel hotel on New Orleans’ Bourbon Street.

In our convention rooms in the self-same Royal Sonesta Hotel, there is gloom. We are attending the annual meeting of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, and time and again, in workshops and in private conversation, the talk is of a profession under siege. It seems selling cars is a lot more fun than creating socially meaningful satire. A primary concern for all the cartoonists, American and Canadian, is that satire is currently perceived to be a weapon of elitist repression rather than a method of social criticism.

In a society busily fragmenting into advocacy groups, it’s not surprising that the “Mr. Citizen” whom cartoonists once spoke for has vanished. The very idea that a single image could today represent all society seems quaint, not to mention implicitly offensive. But the danger is that, in attempting to avoid giving offence, satirists may be reduced to speaking for no one.

Many cartoonists and newspapers have chosen to avoid interest-group confrontation by softening the satirical edge on their editorial pages. The results are mild-mannered gags rendered in a homogenized style known in the trade as “McToon.” Those cartoonists who haven’t muted their message are finding themselves caught up in vicious community disputes. Dennis Renault of The Sacramento Bee was a case in point, when an anti-racism cartoon he drew was itself interpreted as a racist statement

One of the more interesting seminars dealing with the McToon phenomenon is a “cliche-a-thon” conducted by Joel Pett of Lexington, Kentucky, and fellow cartoonist Jack Ohlman of Portland, Oregon. The two clipped 12 months’ worth of stale cartoon metaphors from the editorial pages of U.S. newspapers. They gleefully show the results to a cringing audience: platoons of Energizer bunnies, political Pinnochios, time running out of hour glasses. The show rolls ruthlessly on while the cutting commentary shows no mercy.

The satirists are satirized, and behind these closed doors much of the pleasure comes from the shared understanding that this is how it’s supposed to work. You laugh at what deserves to be laughed at and then strive to make it better.

Twenty-five Canadian cartoonists are participating in the meeting. The Americans tend to regard them with the usual mixture of curiosity and indifference. “How come there’s so many Canadians here this year?” an Orlando cartoonist asks his friends at the opening ceremony. “Must be that NAFTA thing.”

An exhibition of contemporary cartoons hangs in one of the adjoining convention rooms. About 30 Canadian cartoons are grouped together on a single wall, providing a perfect opportunity for comparison with their 200 American counterparts. There are evident differences. Most noticeably, the Canadian work seems to encompass more stylistic variation. Chalk it up to greater regional isolation or more independent press voices. The burgeoning “McToon” phenomenon is not as pervasive in the Canadian drawings.

How is it that Canada, a nation usually associated with politeness and conformity, should continue to produce artists with independent visual and satirical styles? At the same time, how is it that America, whose very essence is wrapped up in the sanctity of the individual, should be wrestling with McToons and the retreat of powerful satire? Culham Rogers, a North Carolina cartoonist and sage, reflects briefly on this conundrum and offers his theory: “Americans want to be individuals; it’s just that we all want to be the same individual.”

Brian Gable is the editorial cartoonist at The Globe and Mail in Toronto.

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