An editorial cartoon is like nothing else in a newspaper. Editorial cartoonists don't need any special degrees. Unlike reporters and editorial writers, they don't even have to pretend to be "fair." Moderation in what Jules Feiffer called "the art of ill will" is the ultimate vice: boring.
A great political cartoon can do things no news article or editorial can. It can expose hypocrisies and ideological contradictions with the stroke of a pen and the flash of an eye. It can connect seemingly unrelated events to point out a theretofore unnoticed trend. At its best, an editorial cartoon can prompt readers to rethink society's basic assumptions.
But American political cartoonists are an endangered species. The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists estimates that there are fewer than 90 full-time staff cartoonists left in the U.S., down from approximately 280 in 1980. A dozen have lost their jobs in the last year alone. Syndicated cartoonists have seen their income drop by 50 percent or more. Discouraged and broke, young cartoonists are abandoning the field.
Editorial cartoonists face the same enemy as the newspapers where they appear: the more widely their work is disseminated on the Internet, the less they get paid. Particular to graphic journalism, however, is the seeming determination of editors and publishers to render editorial cartooning irrelevant--by promoting hack work over quality.
We Americans live in a golden age of editorial cartooning. Never have has the profession been as ideologically, stylistically or demographically diverse. Never has the art been as daring or ambitious. Never have cartoons been as popular or, thanks to the Internet, as widely read. Yet American editorial cartooning is in danger of disappearing entirely--murdered by editors and publishers at the major magazines and newspapers.