For a steady look at nearly 100 cartoons that were so hard-hitting that editors refused to publish them we have David Wallis’ new book, Killed Cartoons: Casualties from the War on Free Expression (280 6x8-inch pages in paperback; W.W. Norton, $15.95). This compilation is a sequel to Wallis’ other tome on a related subject, Killed: Great Journalism Too Hot to Print, an anthology of quashed magazine and newspaper articles and reports. For those addicted to Rancid Raves, there’s probably little in Wallis’ introduction to Cartoons that you haven’t read here about the sad plight of editorial cartooning in this country, but Wallis summarizes the issues succinctly and engagingly. And he adds to the lore.

Attesting to the power of cartoons, he cites a July 5, 1968 memo from FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover that considers using cartoons to “ridicule the New Left.” Hoover elaborated: “Ridicule is one of the most potent weapons which we can use.” Editors clearly know that, and because they know it, they kill political cartoons that they believe are too incendiary for publication, for one reason or another. “Reasonable motives sometimes inspire editors to kill,” Wallis writes, “but too often...they suppress compelling illustrations, editorial cartoons, and political comics out of fear -- fear of angering advertisers, the publisher’s golf partners, the publisher’s wife, the local dogcatcher, or the President of the United States, blacks, Asians, Hispanics, homophobes, gays, pro-choice advocates and anti-abortion protesters alike, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and midwestern grannies -- especially midwestern grannies.”

Wallis finds particularly reprehensible “silencing editorial cartoonists -- historically a progressive voice in the press -- at a time when the mainstream media bends over backward -- or just bends over -- to appease conservatives,” a practice he sees as an abdication of journalistic responsibility. The current anxious impulse to present both sides of every issue yields some strange results, Wallis observes. In a section of the book on cartoons about abortion, he notes The New York Times, officially a pro-choice newspaper, works so hard at being “balanced” on the issue that it never runs pro-choice pieces on its Op-Ed page, reserving it as a platform exclusively for pro-life advocates. Moreover, according to the Progressive, which Wallis quotes, “83 percent of the [pro-life] pieces were written by men.” Editorial cartoons, which can’t say “on the other hand,” are the inevitable casualty in this battle for balance, which, sad to say, often turns into a struggle to avoid offending -- anyone, and everyone, thereby saying nothing.

Wallis quotes political cartooning giant Pat Oliphant: “The death of true controversy in this country, or the unwillingness of the cartoonist’s forum of expression, the newspaper, to be involved in anything that may cause controversy, has grievously devalued the currency of the cartoon as a vital, once-indispensable editorial weapon. The contents of this book give valuable illustration of this sad fact -- that freedom of speech is, little by little, being eroded away and nobody is either aware of it, or cares.”

The slow expiring of the political cartoon as a fixture on newspaper editorial pages may not, in and of itself, accelerate the nation’s slide away from democracy into oligarchy. The freedom of expression that is choked off by squelching editorial cartoons hasn’t the same dire consequences as suppressing reportage on public issues, the focus of Wallis’ earlier volume. But, as editioonist Doug Marlette so vividly has said (quoted by Wallis herein), “cartoonists are the canaries in the coal mine” of journalism. Appeasing vocal protesters by avoiding offending them will have repercussions. “It’s the reason we don’t negotiate with terrorists,” Marlette said. “You encourage the forces of aggression. [Extremists say], ‘Oh, we want to intimidate newspapers; we can just create a big ruckus. We shut down their servers'” with a flood of e-mail. Self-censorship is tantamount to acquiescing to mob rule, he believes. The press doesn’t need Constitutional protection to sell advertising or to confirm popular beliefs. “You need protection to express unpopular opinions. And our ability to engage in vigorous debate and to tolerate robust intellectual discourse and all the attendant controversies is a measure of the health of our society.” Timid editors’ gradual conversion of editorial cartoons into gag cartoons is a symptom of the growing malaise.

Wallis collected this exhibit of the rejected and the outrageous through dint of personal perusal, I assume, and by formal blanket solicitation of cartoonists. One, Wallis reports, declined to join the parade because he feared he would be fired: publication of one of his killed cartoons would effectively criticize his editor, who would retaliate in the most time-honored of ways.

In addition to the vivid imagery of the cartoons themselves, Wallis supplies anecdotes and assorted data about the cartoonists and how the exhibited cartoons got spiked, mostly gleaned through interviews. And this information is as insightful as the pictures. He quotes Dennis Renault, the now retired Sacramento Bee editoonist, about the primary objective of the political cartoon: “You are generally preaching to the choir. I don’t find that disconcerting or onerous at all. I don’t think anybody picks up an editorial cartoon and thinks ‘Yeah, I’m going to vote this way.’ What I think happens is the troops hear that mortar shell...landing on the enemy. It bucks up the troops more than anything else.”

Garry Trudeau, Wallis reports, once circulated among editors a questionnaire that the cartoonist hoped would give him some guidance about what would be permissible and what wouldn’t. One of the respondents said: “It has nothing to do with subjects; it’s how you execute it.” Wallis continues: “That advice, Trudeau later told Newsweek, ‘opened up a world to me, and I felt if you bring a certain amount of taste and judgment, there’s nothing that can’t be addressed in comic strips.’”

Here are a few of the cartoons Wallis presents; for the stories behind them, you’ll need the book, which I enthusiastically recommend as a lively and enlightening look into the profession of graphic agitation.Unpublished_toons

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com


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