Strip Tease

Thoughts on the New York Post cartoon controversy from cartoonists and their editors around the country

Offensive? Misunderstood? Benign? To make sense of Sean Delonas’s hotly debated cartoon in Wednesday’s New York Post, we spoke with some editorial cartoonists and their editors about the resultant controversy.

Bob Mankoff, cartoon editor, The New Yorker:

My best guess, from being a cartoonist and knowing cartoonists, and knowing how they think and work, is that the intention of the cartoonist was not to play off of the invidious cartoon characterizations of African-Americans in the past, but to use the recent news event, in which a chimpanzee was shot, as a topical reference with which to criticize the stimulus bill.

That’s a standard formula for this kind of thing; find one topical event and combine it with another, however flimsily to make your point. But I can understand how the image would be misinterpreted and evoke a past both shameful and, it is hoped, truly past. There is in cartoon humor, by its very nature, a degree of ambiguity that can lead to misinterpretation, and sometimes even covers of well-known magazines suffer the same fate.

I think it’s for the cartoonist to do what the cartoonist does, which is not worry too much about political correctness, and then for the editor to do what the editor does, which is to worry too much about it.

Richard Burr, associate editor, editorial page, Detroit News:

This is so inside baseball that I didn’t get it the minute I looked at it. It’s a little bizarre. It’s nice to give cartoonist editorial license, but I think this exceeds the taste boundary.

It’s not obvious to me that it’s racist. One of the major critiques of the stimulus bill is that Obama let it get away from him, and let Pelosi and Reid take control. Whether our president is white or black, this cartoon would be beyond the pale. The violent image is what stops you first, before you start thinking about who wrote the stimulus bill.

Henry Payne, editorial cartoonist, Detroit News:

I think the reaction was silly. I think the fact that Al Sharpton was leading the protest tells you something a lot.

Sean Delonas is a pretty provocative cartoonist. It’s nice to have guys like who want to push the envelope a little. Still, I don’t know if it’s one of his best, but on the other hand, I didn’t see anything offensive.

Most cartoonists are very sensitive that chimps were used in the past as a used as a derogatory symbol for blacks, just as Jews were drawn with big noses, and you try to avoid them at all costs. Any responsible journalist is sensitive to these stereotypes and we try to avoid them, not only because they’re insensitive, but because they muddy any point we’re trying to make.

Jonathan Todd, former freelance cartoonist, Shreveport Times:

I think it’s saying, we don’t like the stimulus bill; it’s just like a monkey wrote it. I’m African-American, and I can totally see how people are going to take this the wrong way, but as a cartoonist, I think no racial intention was made.

You have to think about how people could misunderstand this, and I can see how people how can misconstrue it. Editorial cartoonists are against censorship of any kind; this one, I think, shows bad judgment.

Mike Luckovich, editorial cartoonist, Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

We cartoonists, when we’re trying to make our points, we look for things that people can relate to. For example, for the cartoon on Groundhog Day, I had a couple of guys looking at a dead groundhog, and one says, “He saw his 401k.” So, you take something in the culture that people are aware of, and then you tie something else to it.

In this case, if he’d stepped back from it, he would have thought, “I can’t do that.”

I think he really screwed up, but not for a racist reason. It’s in bad taste to take an ape that injured a woman. The symbolism is too heavy, it’s not funny. Also, African-Americans have been, in racist ways, compared to apes through out our history. If that had occurred to them, they would’ve pulled it.

It’s happened to me before. About once every five years, according to my editor, I draw something and people react very negatively. In those cases, the symbolism that I’ve chosen overwhelms the message I’m trying to make. I’m not trying to let the guy off the hook, but he just didn’t do a good enough job looking at the big picture, so that a small mistake turned into a big one.

You still have to show sensitivity because of the African-American experience with racism. You can’t ignore that, even though we’re making strides. With Obama, we see him as a human being, we don’t see him as black or white.

Nick Anderson, editorial cartoonist, Houston Chronicle:

I thought it was a pretty clumsy metaphor. Anyone with the slightest awareness of the history of race in this country should have realized that this is an inflammatory image. Cartoonists often make a reference to seemingly unrelated events to draw a parallel.

People have used cartoons throughout history with pernicious reasons; Nazis used inflammatory images of Jews in order to dehumanize them.

It would help if everyone took a deep breath and tried to calm down. You can say it was insensitive or ignorant, but I think a lot of the outrage is manufactured. It would be better if we can get into a deeper conversation about race, and why we are sensitive about it. But as a cartoonist, I don’t want to be sensitive when I draw. Instead, I think you should be aware of how images could be interpreted.

Gary Varvel, editorial cartoonist, The Indianapolis Star:

I knew what the guy was trying to say, and I don’t remember thinking “racist” at all. He was taking a news event and tying the ludicrous stimulus bill to it, and he was making fun of Congress who drafted this bill.

This happens a lot with editorial cartoons. People want to read into it what they want to see. He was trying to poke fun at Congress for making this thing, and he used a news angle to criticize them.

With political correctness, everyone’s hypersensitive. There are some things you can criticize openly, and some things you can’t. Images like a sombrero, sometimes that’s an offensive image, but people can wear cowboy hats.

But, because most editorial cartoonists are white men, it’s a difficult situation.

As a cartoonist, you don’t like to be limited. I try to be sensitive to the point. If I had this said about me, is it fair? Sometimes we can do an unfair cartoon, because we’re pushing the envelope.

There was a generation of people who lived before me who made slurs about African-Americans. Maybe in the next generation we’ll go beyond those things.

Emily Flake, freelance cartoonist:

I thought it was a really bad cartoon on a lot of levels, because there’s not really a joke there. Unless you really over-explain that you didn’t think that stimulus bill was very good, and it just so happened that there was a monkey attacked someone. The statement that the reference to the monkey was not supposed to be racist is really disingenuous. Everybody knows that there’s a racist trope of referring to black people as monkeys, and if you’re saying that you didn’t know that, then you’re so full of shit. It was insulting to their readers and to cartoonists.

This is in a daily newspaper. This isn’t HBO and it’s not Sarah Silverman. Jokes that play with race and lampoon race don’t really have a place in the daily family. My heart goes out to anyone who is getting a drubbing on the Internet, but at the same time, he could have thought about it a little bit better about this.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.