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Take a peek over Jim Borgman's shoulder

Jim Borgman has been the Enquirer's editorial cartoonist since 1976. Borgman has won every major award in his field, including the 1991 Pulitzer Prize, the National Cartoonists Society's Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year in 1993, and most recently, the Adamson Award in 2005 as International Cartoonist of the Year. His award-winning daily comic strip Zits, co-created with Jerry Scott, chronicles the life of 15-year-old Jeremy Duncan, his family and friends through the glories and challenges of the teenage years. Since debuting in July 1997, Zits has regularly finished #1 in reader comics polls across America and is syndicated in more than 1300 newspapers around the world.

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Friday, January 12, 2007

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:


at 1/12/07, 2:26 PM Anonymous Anonymous said...

good call. i was sort of hoping to see a few pictures of the guys in your cartoons who resemble walt and jeremy... though that one teacher in the cartoon about high schoolers' alertness does resemble jeremy's mom.

at 1/12/07, 2:36 PM Anonymous ReFlex76 said...

I was wondering why, a while back, it appeared Jeremy's dad had another family on the side!

at 1/12/07, 3:14 PM Anonymous Bearman said...

Interesting topic. I recall thinking after drawing this one...

...that the implication could be interpreted differently and the point possibly missed if the main characters' race was different.

at 1/12/07, 5:17 PM Anonymous Editorial Cartoonist said...

For no reason whatsoever, I drew a black 20-something woman as a main character in one of my editorial cartoons.

My editor handed it back and said, "No way." He explained that the clothes she was wearing, the corn-rolled hair, lips and 'attitude' in the drawing was a stereotype.

I said, "Um, okay. Can we go to lunch today and when we get back, I'll change the character to a white woman?"

I took my editor to a restaurant where one of the waitresses was the lady in my editorial cartoon. I had eaten lunch there one day and sketched her down in my sketchbook.

Funny how editors get jittery when we try to do something 'different.'

Jim is right though, toss a minority in an editorial cartoon and the cartoon becomes a commentary on minorities.

at 1/13/07, 3:39 PM Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't agree that using minority characters automatically turns a cartoon into a commentary on minority issues. It's certainly true in some of the examples you show (like the ones with the gun and the sneakers), but for the most part editorial cartoonists draw the generic "straight white couple commenting on issues" out of short-sightedness, not sensitivity.

Most cartoonists do it because they see that as the "norm" or "default"--because the vast majority of editorial cartoonists are white and male. And they'll only drag out black people for Hurricane Katrina or Martin Luther King, Jr. day or for specifically race-related stories.

Readers just need a little training. If readers were used to seeing and empathizing with all kinds of characters (just think of multiracial ensemble dramas like Lost, etc.) in editorial cartoons all the time, then they wouldn't automatically assume a cartoon with black characters was about race.

And this goes for sexual orientation too. Perhaps I have an
easier time of it as an editorial cartoonist for alternative papers. But I'll often draw gay or lesbian couples reacting to events that aren't specifically gay-related (for example commenting on real-estate prices or Bush's Iraq policies), and I have yet to receive any complaints from confused readers (just occasionally from homophobic ones). I got a nice letter from one of my newspaper editors saying it was the first time characters like that had appeared in a cartoon that wasn't about gay marriage, and he really
appreciated it.

When you draw characters of a different background, you do run the risk of putting words in people's mouths. But when it comes to commenting on generic news issues, the benefits far outweight the risks, as long as you do your homework. It's not about tokenism, it's about empathy and reflecting the concerns and situations of Americans of all different
backgrounds. Why can't a black, Hispanic or Asian-American couple or an interracial couple comment just as easily on global warming or the economy or education or health care as anyone else?

at 1/14/07, 5:11 PM Anonymous Garrett Williams said...

In the bank comic, I think the banker could be black and not convey any racial message. I think the problem comes mainly when the character falls in the stereotype. But, portray a minority character outside that stereotype, like as a well-off banker rather than someone with money problems(stereotype that goes with various minorities), and it's hardly noticed.

at 1/14/07, 8:58 PM Anonymous Tim Jackson said...

I sometimes find the drawings involving Durfar or any African nation to be borderline stereotypes at times. It goes beyond showing starvation or deprivation. It is also an ongoing study on just how much ink can be used in one cartoon.

I have often said, if the Black, Latino or Asian characters are drawn in the same vein as the "straight, everyman" drawing style, there cannot be an opening for criticism. But if the ethic characters are drawn completely different from the usual style, this is were problems arise.

My situation is the opposite, drawing chiefly for the African American press. Whenever I include a White character, it is perceived as a criticism of All White people, even it what is being pictured is a direct quote from the situation.

Borgman's ethnic ( I never use the "M" word. There's nothing minor about what I am!) people remain in the style he draws all his people. This doesn't bother me.

Tim Jackson

at 1/15/07, 8:33 AM Anonymous Dan said...

To be judged "by the content of their character and not the color of their skin..."

How far have we fallen from the Dream?

at 1/16/07, 1:35 PM Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Borgman has politely demonstrated the issue that all considerate "majority"-type people who work in the public eye must face each day: be over-sensitive and "politically correct", or risk being fired, publicly shamed, and run out of town. It's a shame that so many minorities have such thin skin. Now, before everyone starts screaming at me, I know that some "majorities" also have thin skin, and that some minorities have thick skin... But, you don't see Irish people writing to papers and screaming how they're stereotyped as stubborn alcoholics. You also don't see Italians writing in to complain about the short-temper or mob/mafia stereotypes.

It is interesting to note that Mikhaela doesn't completely agree with Mr. Borgman... but I believe this is because she writes for an "alternative paper" - whose readers are more open-minded and not quick to jump to conclusions and paint everyone as a racist, classist, elitist, homophob, etc., etc.

Personally, I think the whole "PC" movement is a good idea gone wrong. People do need to be more considerate, but sometimes being overly-sensitive is just as awkward & painful, and I think it makes society take steps backward, rather than forward.

at 1/18/07, 9:33 AM Anonymous John Platt said...

Very interesting discussion and examples. Thanks!

at 1/18/07, 12:14 PM Anonymous josh said...

I think that Dr. Seuss had the right idea. Draw imagined creatures, and let the reader attach cultural meaning.

I'm not even sure if he assigned a gender to all of his characters.

There are ways to get out of the mental rut that is trying to avoid ugly stereotypes. His was a particularly creative one.

at 1/18/07, 1:26 PM Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The same can be said for depicting women or any other minority as punchline deliverers."

(A) Women aren't a minority. Even if this sentence is just awkwardly worded, it sure sounds like you're saying that they are.

(B) Women are too often lumped in with minorities when we talk about opressed groups (hence my reaction). This has the effect of understating the plight of women in society, because since they are actually a MAJORITY, the inequality they face is proportionally much greater than that of minority groups--particularly as women as a group encompass all minority groups. If we're going to end gender inequality, and it's LONG overdue, then the problem must be addressed independently.

(C) Great article otherwise. Cheers.

at 1/18/07, 8:04 PM Blogger Vaniver said...

"I think that Dr. Seuss had the right idea. Draw imagined creatures, and let the reader attach cultural meaning.

I'm not even sure if he assigned a gender to all of his characters."
Have you seen the cartoons Dr. Seuss did for the U.S. Govt. during WWII? A catalog of them is here:

The ones about the Japanese are far from kind, which is hardly surprising, given that we were kind of at war with them.

at 1/18/07, 11:16 PM Anonymous Cindermain said...

>>>White male cartoon characters only currently stand for Everyman in most editorial cartoons because too many of the white men who make up the majority of editorial cartoonists think that “white guy” is the norm or default.

I disagree. The problem does not lie with the cartoonists themselves, but rather with the society that they lampoon and how they have to deal with that society as professional editorial cartoonists.

For example; let’s say a cartoonist submits a cartoon for publication, let’s use the gun control piece with the African-American children posted in Jim’s blog. Now let’s assume the artist saw no problems with it, no negative implications are meant by him/her, and so s/he sends it out.

Best Case Scenario: The cartoon most likely won’t see the light of day. Most newspaper editors with any lick of sense would reject it on general principle to avoid the possible Worst Case Scenario.

Worst Case Scenario: The cartoon is run, various readers/groups/organizations/officials react negatively to what is perceived as a racial stereotype, lawsuits are filed (and believe me, that happens a LOT more than you think), and the paper loses readership.

Is that overreacting? Probably. But that’s the viewpoint many newspaper editors ultimately have to take when dealing with editorial cartoons in a national forum. How might the public react to this? How will this affect the paper? Cartoons convey information much faster than any article can. They’re playing it safe.

Since many editors take this stance, who can blame a cartoonist for also taking that stance? They need to make a living! Selling to your audience just makes sense. There’s also a possibility that the cartoonist may be stuck with a negative public image due to the backlash that can limit his/her ability to sell to various markets severely diminishing their income.

You say you don’t agree that using black characters automatically turns a cartoon into a commentary on race. Many editors see it differently based on past experience. So who’s right?

Usually the person signing the checks.

>>>Readers just need a little training. If readers were used to seeing and empathizing with all kinds of characters in editorial cartoons all the time, then they wouldn’t automatically assume a cartoon with black characters was about race.

Possibly. As the Beatles said; “We all want to change the world.” Then again, they also said; “We'd all love to see the plan.” Who’s going to be training readers, and how? And what time frame? It wouldn’t be overnight, and would likely take years to accomplish. The training would have to be done slowly...preferably by adding ‘minority’ characters in a manner that they would be seen as part of the general public and not just as stereotypes. It would also have to be in a national forum, so it would have to appease the needs of newspaper editors as well.

So far, Jim Borgman has been doing just that. He should be praised for so successfully utilizing 'minority' characters in his comics. He’s training the public right now simply by doing his job.

at 9/12/07, 9:18 AM Blogger BigT108 said...

I never thought that the race of a cartoon made so much difference in the meaning. The cartoon about the equity loan for refinancing shoes is totally different if the characters are changed to black or minority as well as the cartoon about the gun. Its scary that we all want equality but we all still see a difference from something so small..a different color pencil or crayon. Until people as a whole can get past this color barrier or stop allowing the difference consume us, it doesn't matter if cartoons are more generic if the people reading the comics dont change, nothing will.

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