Jack Ohman

When a cartoonists’ convention turns serious

After being elected president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists last year, I faced the usual task: organize the convention and don’t screw up. After all, my predecessors had managed to keep the group afloat, and I had no reason to think it wouldn’t be a typical year.

Then in January, cartoonists at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris were slaughtered.

Suddenly, I was faced with a completely new world. Instead of a nice, quiet convention in nice, quiet Columbus, Ohio, I had lots of concerns – like would any of us be murdered en masse. After the shootings at the ridiculous Pam Geller-instigated Muhammad cartoon show in Garland, Texas, I was even more concerned.

So instead of a hotel lobby and convention site filled with happy editorial cartoonists (not an oxymoron), there were lobbies filled with bomb squads, bomb-sniffing dogs, a SWAT team on a nearby roof, sheriff’s deputies, and uniformed and plain-clothed Columbus police officers.

I was the only president of a cartoonist group who required Secret Service protection, although the Secret Service was probably the only agency not represented.

The Department of Homeland Security, formerly a cartoon subject, became my wingman as I asked for occasional updates. They hadn’t picked up any terrorist chatter, so that was a relief.

Editorial cartooning in the United States faces many challenges, but the threat of violence usually isn’t one of them. Some newspapers are cutting staff. Two or three cartoonists’ positions were lost in the past year, but one was saved at Newsday, and one was created at the New Orleans Advocate.

Some cartoonists are very secure in their jobs, or so it seems. Others at the convention expressed the usual fears, particularly cartoonists of a certain age. Others had created interesting freelance markets for themselves, but were constantly worried about dental plans and saving for retirement.

This profession is being dragged into the future whether we want to go or not. Seeing black-and-white cartoons online seems almost antiquarian; I now think way more about how my work is going to present online, be it on a tablet or a mobile phone.

When I joined the AAEC in 1987 at the peak of American political cartooning, there were always job openings. Editors were recruiting, and syndicates all had representatives cruising the convention bar in Washington, D.C., looking for Mr. Goodline. This year, no one.

The D.C. convention was my first, and we had about 300 attendees, and there were 225 full-time staff editorial cartoonists in the United States. Now there are fewer than 50.

California had at least 10 full-time staff cartoonists: three in San Francisco, three in Los Angeles, one in Long Beach, one in Sacramento, one in San Diego, and several more scattered around at smaller papers.

Now it’s me, Steve Breen in San Diego and David Horsey in Los Angeles. There are other wonderful cartoonists working in California: Tom Meyer, a terrific artist formerly of the San Francisco Chronicle, comes to mind. But our numbers are few. In Texas, there is one: Nick Anderson at the Houston Chronicle.

One. In all of Texas.

Political cartooning is a precious thing in our society. It stretches the tensile strength of the First Amendment, affects public policy and gives us all a break from depressing stuff, like Donald Trump’s pink fiberglass coiffure or Hillary Clinton’s need to plan her spontaneity.

As for me, I leave the presidency in November, and I am happy to go back to planning my presidential library. You’re invited to the grand opening.

Just step through the metal detector and show a photo I.D.

  Comments