By Jason Chatfield
July 13, 2019
The email the Usual Gang of Idiots had been dreading plopped unceremoniously into our inboxes the Wednesday afternoon before Independence Day. It began… “What, us worry? Well…” It only got worse from there.
Since that afternoon, many of the world’s leading cartoonists, actors, politicians and comedians have publicly lamented the demise of the iconic MAD magazine. After a slew of dreadful management blunders over the past decade, publisher, DC Entertainment made the short-sighted decision to cease selling the magazine on newsstands and commission no new content after the next issue. This would ostensibly end the 67-year run the publication had as the most iconic and influential satire magazine in history. In the Age of Offence, the publication that prided itself on offending the rich and powerful has been put out to pasture.
On a personal level, the news hit me very deeply. MAD was the reason I decided to become a cartoonist. My drawing style is a result of a childhood in Perth, spent obsessively reading MAD with a flashlight under my doona. My reference letters for US residency were written by MAD cartoonists and staff. My closest and dearest friends are all MAD cartoonists and writers, and now I, along with all of them, have lost yet another regular publisher of my work. Yecch!
Satire is a tough business these days. I was recently devastated to learn through a lobbyist acquaintance in Washington that our Stable Genius in Chief had caught wind of one of my New Yorker cartoons featuring his tangerine mug… and he “loved it.” There is no more severe a blow to a satirist than learning that your target caught your arrow and gleefully devoured it for lunch.
This age, when satire and humour are needed more than ever, has seen more of these kinds of morbid occurrences -particularly here in the States.
Not one month before MAD made their announcement, the New York Times made the astonishing decision to cease publication of daily editorial cartoons in both its domestic and global editions. A historic decision by the biggest journal of record that has now rattled through the newspaper industry and given other newspaper editors even more excuses to drop cartoonists from their pages.
In a statement, Times editorial page editor, James Bennet said: “For well over a year we have been considering bringing [the Global] edition into line with the domestic paper by ending daily political cartoons and will do so beginning July 1.” The day came, and as promised, there were no more cartoons in the world’s journal of record for the first time since the 1800s.
The disappearance of satire and humourous commentary is a red flag for any ailing democracy. As fellow New Yorker cartoonist, Liza Donnelly said in response to the Times’ decision, “We cannot lose this crucial contribution to the world dialogue.” (She, of course, said it in a cartoon.)
My response, on behalf of the National Cartoonists Society, carried on that sentiment:
‘We find ourselves in a critical time in history when political insight is needed more than ever, yet we see more and more cartoonists vanishing from the pages of our publications. If we are to dull the voices of our most valued critics, satirists, and artists, we stand to lose much more than the ability to debate and converse; We lose our ability to grow as a society. We rob future generations of their opportunity to learn from our mistakes.’
In a disturbing, but sadly now-familiar story, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette cartoonist Rob Rogers was recently fired after a successful 25-year career. Why? For drawing cartoons criticising Trump, of course. A decision made after the newspaper’s publisher, John Robinson Block, had endorsed the President and rejected every anti-Trump cartoon submitted for publication. Rather than be complicit in the endorsement, Rob’s editorial page editor, — his last champion to the management — took a buyout and left the paper. Last month, a similar thing happened to Canadian cartoonist, Michael DeAdder. He will not be the last.
In a divided political climate in which comedians and satirists are being taken to task for their jokes, sometimes losing their careers and livelihoods for one misconstrued word, it is hard not to feel the overwhelming weight of this gravitational shift in the industry. I must note that I’m not referencing the #MeToo movement or comics like Louis CK. That is a separate story.
What does the future hold for we endangered court jesters? It’s hard to say. We all thought this tsunami of censorship would have receded by now, but it only appears to be inexorably ploughing further inland. At this point, all we can do is sling barbs as we sprint to higher ground.
Jason Chatfield is the President of the National Cartoonists Society, appears regularly in the New Yorker and until recently, MAD Magazine.
A shortened version of this article first appeared in print in Fairfax/Australian Community Media nationally on 13th July 2019.