It is a cruel irony of print journalism that even as newspapers become ever more graphics-crazy, editorial cartooning is getting the squeeze. By 2003, notes Chris Lamb, the number of full-time daily newspaper cartoonists was at a thirty-year low, pinched by corporate profit demands and publishers' fears of offending subscribers. Newspapers want visual elements that engage readers; cartoonists, Lamb argues, are suffering for doing that too well.
In this knowledgeable study, Lamb alternates between the state of American cartooning todayˇcowed by the mandatory unity after September 11 but lately beginning to find its voice againˇand the genre's historical cycles of relevance and insignificance. For Lamb, the best editorial cartoons are brawling, passionateˇand usually liberal. While he contextualizes conservatives like Shoe's Jeff MacNelly and Mallard Fillmore's Bruce Tinsley within the history of cartooning, Lamb observes that "cartoonists tend to be more progressiveˇand therefore more liberalˇthan the rest of us because they are interested in reforming society and not maintaining the status quo." He might add (but doesn't) that they also tend to be more libertarian because their livelihood depends upon being free to offend. To be fair, Lamb offers a critique of political correctness on the Left; but he also writes, "one . . . can hardly take issue with an editor who will not publish an editorial cartoon that is patently racist or sexist." Sure, but one can take great issue with what is "patent," and the statement begs for a more unsparing look at that question.
For a book about funny pictures, Drawn to Extremes is awfully dry and earnest. At times it reads like a 200-page Editor and Publisher article, lengthily justifying J-school homilies (censorship bad, publishers craven, watchdogs good). More interesting are Lamb's discussions of why it is that this "progressive" genre employs so few women and minorities. He rightly critiques the inoffensive yuks of many newspaper cartoonists (Bush has big ears! Clinton loves the ladies!), but spends little time on harder-hitting alternative-paper cartoonistsˇwith the exception of Ted Rall, a cartoonist for the Universal Press Syndicate whom Lamb interviews and cites at lengthˇand Internet artists like David Rees of Get Your War On.
Lamb's research, however, pays off in his enlightening history of cartooning, loaded with entertaining incidents beyond the well-known Thomas NastşBoss Tweed wars. In 1903, for example, a Pennsylvania state legislator introduced a bill that would have made it illegal to draw a person "in the form or likeness of beast, bird, fish, insect, or other unhuman animal." So the Philadelphia North American ran a front-page cartoon depicting the representative as a potato. Proclaimed the accompanying editorial: "What chances of caricature lie in the tomato, the string bean, the cucumber, the onion and the leek cannot be guessed." As Lamb makes depressingly clear, it's tough to be an editorial cartoonist today. But as long as there are hypocrites and buffoons, pen-pushing mockers will always find places to sprout up.