Political drawings not immune to newsroom changes

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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

When you page through the new University of Iowa Press book on Brian Duffy’s Iowa caucus cartoons, you just might be looking at an endangered species.

The collection of editorial cartoons drawn by Duffy, former longtime cartoonist with The Des Moines Register and current contributor to the Des Moines alternative weekly Cityview, was published in January, in part to coincide with the 2016 Iowa caucuses, but also to highlight the editorial format. Titled Duffy’s Iowa Caucus Cartoons: Watch ’Em Run, the book features 152 cartoons dating back to the 1976 caucuses.

Cover of UI Press book on caucus cartoons
Cover of 2016 book of caucus cartoons published by the University of Iowa Press. Image courtesy of the UI Press.

Catherine Cocks, editorial director at UI Press, says the project was selected to be part of the academic publisher’s Iowa and the Midwest Experience series.

“We thought it would capture the history of Iowa in a great, accessible way. The caucuses are a distinctly Iowa event, and it seemed like a good way to showcase the state.”

Plus, she adds, it’s an art form that both she and series editor Bill Friedricks appreciate.

Many of the cartoons in the book were first published in the Register, which had been running such cartoons on the front page since the early 1900s. When the newspaper elected in 2009 to discontinue that tradition, Duffy’s job was eliminated. Though he now offers his work through statewide and national syndicates, he worries that his profession is on the decline.

“Editorial cartoonists? We’re dying. I don’t know if it can ever come back. We’re just not seeing young cartoonists,” he says. “I think it’s a great loss because a picture really is worth a thousand words.”

For much of his newspaper career—he moved from Chicago to Iowa in 1983 to take the Register gig—Duffy awoke most days feeling as if it were Christmas.

“It was like in the movie Groundhog Day. Every morning I would get up and say, ‘What’s going to happen today? What’s fresh and new?’” he explains. “’I never thought, ‘Oh, gosh, I have to draw five or six of these a week.’”

He says he still has the same approach to his work now. For inspiration, he visits online news websites, both local and national.

For more than 100 years, The Des Moines Register had a strong tradition of featuring a daily editorial cartoon on the front page, and much of that artwork is maintained by UI Libraries as part of the Iowa Digital Library. The collections include:

Work by Brian Duffy

Some 11,000 drawings by the late J.N. “Ding” Darling, a longtime Register cartoonist and two-time Pulitzer winner

Work by Darling’s assistant, Harold “Tom” Carlisle, a 1926 UI graduate who filled in for Darling at the Register and served several years as the newspaper’s primary cartoonist

The papers of Frank Miller, the Pulitzer-winning cartoonist who preceded Duffy at the Register

For more information about these collections, visit this Iowa Digital Library site.

“If something catches my eye—it might be one image or word—I research it as much as I can and distill it down. It really feels like a light bulb moment, since it illuminates something in my mind that generally ends up being the cartoon,” he says. “When I have the majority of the idea in my head, I do a rough sketch. The process can take anywhere from 10 minutes to four or five hours.”

Every topic must be in a cartoonist’s purview, he insists.

“Cartoonists have to be jacks-of-all-trades,” he says. “They must focus on all areas—not just, say, on the environment—and anything people are talking about or is important. Even though cartoons are funny, cartoonists still have to know everything a columnist knows to be able to explain the subject matter and synthesize it easily in a drawing.”

That, in itself, has become more challenging, Duffy says.

“Years ago, everyone in Iowa read The Des Moines Register and saw the same stories. The problem now is that the media is so fractured. We no longer have a readership or viewership that sees the same info,” Duffy says. “An editorial cartoon has to be read quickly and understood within seconds, but now I find I have to add more words and context to make sure people understand it. The news is everywhere and it’s nowhere.”

Duffy also notes he thinks today’s cartoons tend to be less controversial, less pointed. He recalls the late Paul Conrad, an Iowa native and 1950 University of Iowa graduate who won three Pulitzers while cartooning at The Denver Post and the Los Angeles Times.

“He was your typical curmudgeonly cartoonist of a different era. He said whatever he wanted and it got published,” he says. “We’ve kind of de-fanged ourselves. Editors don’t want to rock the boat. As consumers, we don’t want to hear another side, and that’s why we have Fox News and MSNBC.”

Good cartoons, Duffy says, say something—not just to elicit laughs, but something dictated by the emotion of a subject—and say it quickly. And they must be drawn well. David Yepsen, who spent 34 years as the Register’s chief political writer and columnist, says they also offer valuable perspective on the news.

Yepsen, a 1972 University of Iowa graduate who now is director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University–Carbondale, says he enjoyed having editorial cartoons printed next to his columns—and having a staff cartoonist in the next cubicle.

“I think the cartoons brought readers to my column. There was a nice synergy there, and it was also nice to have someone in the newsroom to bounce ideas off of,” he says. “Editorial cartoons have an impact. If you can capture something that strikes a universal truth or insight, that brings something to the debate, and I saw that covering the Iowa Legislature. If a particularly poignant cartoon was in the paper that morning, they’d be talking about it at the Capitol. A lot of political cartoons end up on refrigerators.”

Don McLeese, associate professor in the UI School of Journalism and Mass Communication, acknowledges that times are tough for editorial cartoonists—and anyone working in a newsroom, where cuts constantly loom—but he doesn’t think they’ll be extinct any time soon.

“Cartoons are as much a part of the culture at, say, The New Yorker, as they always were. Most newspapers still have some sort of cartoons, but they are getting them from a wire service. At least here in Des Moines, we see Duffy’s work in Cityview.”

For those who desire a fix of Duffy’s cartoons, the book is available through booksellers or the UI Press website, and the cartoonist maintains a website. Also, from mid-February through the summer, the Old Capitol Museum hosts “Drawing on Politics,” an exhibition featuring some of his work.