American political cartoonist Daryl Cagle talks about balancing passion with sensitivity

It came as a surprise to Indian cartoonists that their American counterparts are literally paid a penny for a laugh. “Editors are cheap. They subscribe to syndication for $15 a week. It works out to a dime per cartoon.”

Cagle, an editorial cartoonist for nbcnews.com is on a whirlwind tour of India organised by the US State Department speaking to students, artists and journalists about cartooning. Speaking to cartoonists in the capital yesterday, Cagle spoke about the changing trends in news cartooning.

There are about 70 regular cartoonists employed with publications in the US and 70-odd freelancers, said Cagle. “The space for editorial cartooning has decreased, as have newspaper circulation and revenue. Online polls on news portals suggest that cartoons of celebrities get the most hits. A cartoon on Janet Jackson’s boob slip is far more popular than something on Syria.”

Cagle, who runs a cartoon syndicate which has around 900 subscribers explained that American editors are partial towards cartoons that look like those of Jeffrey MacNelly, the three-time Pulitzer winning cartoonist. “I know a great cartoonist called Randall Enos who draws for my syndicate. Enos’ style is the linocut which looks very different from MacNelly. But editors are so used to MacNelly (who died in 2000) that they’ll only pick up stuff that looks like his work.”

But he added, that cartoons for a glocal audience are most likely to get picked up, especially for pay per use by a wide clientele. “Since there is a big pool to pick from, papers in the US do not compete with each other for exclusive cartoons.”

Most cartoonists at the recent chat at the American Center said that not only was the financial situation of Indian cartoonists bad, but they have to also face threats and even prosecution if their work offends communal sentiments or portrays state symbols or the judiciary in poor light.

Cagle has been publicising the case of Kanpur cartoonist Aseem Trivedi who faces charges of insulting national symbols for publishing a series of cartoons against corruption. His cartoons portray the Sarnath capital as a pack of bloodthirsty hounds, the parliament as a toilet and the imminent gang rape of Mother India. Cagle has himself drawn the US Capitol building as a toilet.

“Usually protests against cartoons in the US do not happen naturally. It’s usually an organised group that arranges it. I can understand sensitivities on religion but the State cannot be taboo for cartoonists,” he said.

A visit to Cagle’s website or blog, is like a breath of fresh air to an Indian reader, as he takes on senior politicians and pokes fun at national institutions – holding them to account in a way that Indian publications cannot.

“In the US, public figures cannot sue you for cartoons. We have ethical guidelines at the NBC. Like, we cannot receive gifts from characters we draw, we cannot contribute to political campaigns and we certainly cannot give wrong information. You cannot draw private individuals, like an ex-wife. But the government does not tell us what is offensive,” he explained.

“Cartoons are part of reasonable democratic debate. It’s sad to have the question put at you on whether your cartoon could create a riot. That’s just not a reasonable thing to do,” he added.

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