Q&A/Minority Generic Characters
This comment was posted yesterday and it provokes an issue I have been concerned with for years:
I have a question concerning drawing generic people in political cartoons. The character in this particular cartoon resembles the Jeremy character in your Zits cartoon strip. I've noticed the males in other political cartoons you've recently drawn resemble the dad in your cartoon strip. One editor said she wouldn't accept political cartoons from me unless the characters represented minorities. She said the majority of white male cartoonists tend to draw characters that are white and male. I applaud you for having the hispanic and african-american friends of Jeremy in the Zits strip. I've noticed that my recent cartoon submissions have been dominated by white, male characters. I'd be interested in reading the thoughts of other cartoonists concerning this subject of drawing minority characters in political cartoons.
There are a couple of questions here, and maybe sometime I can write about why characters tend to unintentionally cross over from comic strip to editorial cartoons and vice versa. (The short answer is because that's how I draw people.)
The other part of the question interests me more. I have tried for a long time to represent a diverse cast in my editorial cartoons because that's how I see life in our rich and textured society. But racial images are so charged in our times that it is harder than you'd think to represent a casually diverse world in cartoons. Maybe others who have worked at it can add to this discussion.
Certainly the easiest opportunity to use generic minority characters is in an ensemble cartoon whose whole point is to symbolize a wide range of people.
I have managed at times to use generic minority characters in cartoons whose subject had nothing to do with their racial identity. They stand simply as spokesmen for the human race like white characters do all the time in cartoons. In my experience it is a rare occasion when minority characters can speak a punch line without skewing it as a statement about their ethnicity.
Here are a few successful examples:
But turning the main generic character in most cartoons into a minority character threatens to change the reading of the intended statement, no matter how good the cartoonist's intentions. For example, this cartoon about handgun control
suddenly has racial implications if I make the characters African-American
This cartoon was simply about the ridiculous prices otherwise sane people were paying for gym shoes:
Portraying the characters as minorities, even innocently drawn and devoid of offensive stereotyping, gives the cartoon a racist reading and readers would have appropriately run me out of town.
Frankly, even doing this exercise for discussion purposes feels awkward, but I am trying to make the point that portraying a racially and ethnically diverse cast in editorial cartoons must be done with great sensitivity lest the point the cartoon is trying to make gets twisted by the baggage our culture brings to it. The same can be said for depicting women or any other minority as punchline deliverers.
At this point in history, in our American culture, White male cartoon characters stand for Everyman, whereas minority cartoon characters stand for Every Minorityman. I look forward to the day when we move on, as our children largely have, to a colorblind world. Maybe the next generation of cartoonists will show us how to do it.
Here are other randomly chosen cartoons from my archive depicting generic characters talking about non-racial, gender-neutral issues. Imagine the character as an ethnic minority or as a woman, and see how the reading of the cartoon changes: