Syndicates: Politics in Prime Time

By: Rob Tornoe

Syndicates: Politics in Prime Time

When it comes to politics, it doesn’t get much better for the nation’s political cartoonists than election season, which is like the playoffs, Super Bowl, and World Series all wrapped into a two-month span of silliness on par with any episode of The Benny Hill Show.

Cartoons are more popular than ever, and as newspapers adjust to the digital world, many editors seem unable to figure out how to best position their cartoonists to take advantage of all the new tools available to them. Editorial cartoons are no longer relegated to a rectangular box on the op-ed page, intended to bring some humor to an otherwise gray mass of text — social media and new technology allow for cartoonists to reach into new areas of potential growth.

One cartoonist always on the frontier of what cartoons can offer is Pulitzer prizewinner Ann Telnaes of The Washington Post. A couple of years ago, Telnaes switched from traditional pen-and-ink cartoons to producing short animated cartoons three times a week for The result has been an impressive flow of traffic and a unique voice that keeps readers coming back.

This election season, Telnaes teamed up with The Cartoonist Group to produce POTUS Pick, an iPhone app that gives users the ability to interact directly with both Obama and Romney, thanks to the 24 original animation sequences Telnaes produced especially for the app.

“This is an app cartoon, not a cartoon app,” said Telnaes, who has been intrigued by how smartphone applications could allow cartoonists to approach their work in new and interesting ways. “In print, users are passive — meaning that editors determine what they see,” Telnaes said. “With apps, the evolution of the relationship between users and cartoons takes a big step forward due to the potential for interactive and non-linear content.”

Another cartoonist who took a big step forward is Matt Bors, a Pulitzer finalist last year whose work is syndicated by Universal Uclick. Frustrated by what he calls “lady-hating legislators” focused on limiting women’s rights when it comes to everything from abortion to contraception, Bors created the Avenging Uterus, a superhero that stands for truth, justice, and women’s reproductive rights.

At first, the Avenging Uterus appeared exclusively in Bors’ traditional cartoons, but the character developed an instant following on Twitter when Bors created an account in her name, leading animator Jeremy Joseph of Headache Films to approach Bors about working together on an animated short.

“A staff cartoonist could do much of the work if they were willing to learn,” said Bors, who has pushed the boundaries of traditional cartooning with graphic journalism reporting from global hot spots such as Afghanistan and Haiti. “It’s definitely a new skill set and even more time consuming than comics.”

Unlike Telnaes, Bors doesn’t have a regular client to produce animated political cartoons for, so for the time being the Avenging Uterus is a loss leader that hopefully will generate buzz for the young cartoonist and bring new readers to his website.

“I don’t know if there’s more value (in animation) than a static comic, per se; it’s just different,” Bors said. “Avenging Uterus is a character who’s an anthropomorphic organ that fights people. If that wasn’t made to be animated, I just don’t know what was.”

Rob Rogers, staff cartoonist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (syndicated by Universal Uclick), covered both political conventions in a unique way this election season. Due to budget cutbacks, Rogers decided to team up with the ToonSeum in Pittsburgh and launched a fundraising campaign on to crowdfund his coverage of both conventions and produce a documentary.

Readers liked the pitch, and Rogers successfully raised more than $5,400 — enough to film, edit, and produce a mini-documentary about the conventions from his unique perspective as a political cartoonist.

The documentary wasn’t the only fun Rogers had while attending the conventions. The left-leaning cartoonist faced off against the more conservative Scott Stantis of the Chicago Tribune (syndicated by Tribune Media Services) in a cartoon draw-off for PBS NewsHour.

Following both conventions, the two cartoonists had PBS film them as they drew their differing thoughts about what they experienced. Despite their strong differences of opinions, the two cartoonists have a friendship and a mutual respect for each other that’s lasted more than 20 years.

“I think when you’re in the same field, maybe it’s James Carville and Mary Matalin, we seem to get along outside of our own political views,” Rogers said.

According to some estimates, as many as 15,000 journalists descended on the conventions. Despite the deluge of coverage, there’s something to be said about a political cartoonist’s ability to cut through the muck.

“As cartoonists and journalists, we’re looking for the humorous angle,” Rogers said. “When we see the delegates getting very excited and wearing those funny hats, it’s much funnier if you can draw that than just report it.”

Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor & Publisher and can be reached at

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