It’s jazz-festival week in Toronto. The sounds of Peter Appleyard’s vibraphone drift across Queen Street from the big white tent with chandeliers in City Hall Square. It’s a kind of camouflage, or sound screen, for another cultural event happening at the Sheraton: the cartoonists’ convention.

Not just any cartoonists. Someone asked if a guy profiled in a recent New Yorker is coming. He draws a strip on black Americans who feel let down when they meet some white folks and realize all Caucasians aren’t as funny as Seinfeld and his pals. Uh-uh. These are editorial cartoonists.

Editorial cartoons are weird (Seinfeld might say). They’re always there, so you hardly notice how oddly they fit, alongside pompous, wordy editorials, the august masthead, or the frequently self-important letters. You get print, words, ideas, opinions – and drawings! In fact, when you see an editorial page with no cartoon, like The New York Times, it doesn’t even look as if something’s missing.

There’s a built-in potential for conflict between the editors of a paper and their cartoonist, since he (or, rarely, she) is supposed to be not just an illustrator but an opinionated artist. The closer cartoons come to miming an editorial line, the less interesting they tend to be. The best cartoons are probably those that outrage not just a paper’s readers but its editors. Unfortunately, they are also the ones we never see. All cartoonists have a store of drawings that were killed, which they drag out like fishing stories. Editors can try to avoid the conflict in the traditional way: by hiring someone they know agrees with them. Or they can live with a little contradiction, and get better cartoons.

There’s a medieval model for the role of editorial cartoonist: court jester. The jester, or “fool,” was expected to needle the monarch. His role as entertainer, clown or madman protected him and let him tell the king the truth, at least in theory, when no one else could afford to speak it. I grant it’s a flawed analogy: cartoonists may be hecklers, but they rarely turn it on their own employers. Yet as newspapers everywhere turn into small appendages in huge corporate empires, while corporations come to, as a book title has it, Rule the World, it would be neat if the editorial jesters took their licence for ridicule and used it on their masters as well as the usual political suspects. Don’t hold your breath.

There aren’t just Canadians at the convention. In fact, the name of the group is the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. There’s an ongoing debate about which country’s cartoonists are better. My own view is that Americans can be awfully funny but have always been weak in the sub-category of political satire in which cartoons fall.

What about Mark Twain? you say. Exactly. His late attempts at satire, savaging U.S. imperialism, were overwhelmed by his rage. Having been raised with extravagant myths of their country’s idealistic beneficence, Americans often erupt with a furious sense of betrayal when they discover its failings, and lose the detachment necessary for satire. Their cartoonists may be an exception – think of Pat Oliphant or Tom Toles – perhaps because it takes more discipline to express anger in one carefully drawn image than in a torrent of language.

Canadians, at any rate, have a touch with satire. We hear a lot about our success in TV (SCTV, Saturday Night Live, This Hour Has 22 Minutes), but cartooning predates that. A generation ago, Duncan Macpherson of The Toronto Star was the towering figure. In my own generation, it’s been Aislin, or Terry Mosher, of the Montreal Gazette. I confess he and I have been friends for more than 30 years, but no one should apply that against his contribution to our culture. (Cartoonists like to do a lot of joshing.) In my opinion, their work is as world-class as anything Canada produced.

What about left and right among cartoonists? Do they tend one way or another? Well, I won’t deny right-wingers can be funny. I saw William F. Buckley Jr. obliterate a sanctimonious David Lewis with mockery. And Mark Steyn of the National Post may not crack me up, but he sure makes me titter.

Yet editorial cartooning is mainly about politics, which means it’s about power, and cartoonists tend to identify with the little guy – like Duncan Macpherson’s poor soul with a shabby suit but a perpetual hopefulness. Maybe that’s because it’s less educated readers who most appreciate a feature in the paper that’s serious but doesn’t depend on a lot of complex language.

Or maybe it’s because cartoonists can’t afford to be snobs – unlike editorial writers – since they inhabit such a low-rent media area themselves. They don’t rely on words, the technology they use is primitive and predates print, there’s nothing “IT” about them, their drawings aren’t even animated. It’s less a matter of left or right, than of Upstairs, Downstairs. Cartoonists are so common, when you think of it that way.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.