AAEC Speakers Take Dead Aim at Obit Cartoons

By: Dave Astor

Some readers live for them. Some contain ideas that have been done to death. They’re obituary cartoons, and the bad and the good ones — including recent tributes to George Carlin and Tim Russert — were autopsied during a Thursday session at the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC) convention.

One panelist, Mike Thompson of the Detroit Free Press and Copley News Service, offered a “12-step recovery program” to avoid weak obit cartoons.

He said don’t draw Pearly Gates scenes “unless there’s a twist,” don’t draw a tear coming out of something (like the cartoonists who drew a crying NBC peacock for Russert), don’t place just-deceased celebrities in heaven just because they’re celebrities, and don’t do a celebrity obit cartoon unless the person merits one (that leaves out Anna Nicole Smith, he noted by way of example).

Thompson also said it’s OK to put politics into an obit cartoon, and that you can be negative about people who passed away. “You can’t offend them; they’re dead,” he observed wryly.

But often the most cliched obit cartoon is wildly popular among readers, noted another panelist, Joel Pett of the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader and New York Times Syndicate-marketed CartoonArts International.

Much of the time, said Pett, he gets mail saying things like “we hate you” and “you don’t deserve to live.” Then he does a sentimental obit cartoon, and for a day the comments are “we love you” and “you’re a genius” — as was the case when Pett drew an image of Barbaro the horse in the sky.

“You can’t get enough beating of a dead horse in Kentucky,” was his deadpan explanation.

Panel moderator and “Minimum Security” cartoonist Stephanie McMillan cited a cliched George Carlin obit cartoon she saw that showed the comedian — famous for his seven words that couldn’t be said — at the Pearly Gates with Saint Peter stating: “You can’t say those words here, either.”

Thompson, who gave an elaborate computer-generated presentation, spoofed the overuse of Saint Peter by showing a sketch of Saint Peter entering heaven — but there was no one there to greet him at the Pearly Gates.

The Free Press cartoonist also displayed a sketch of John Denver at the gates of hell, wondering why he ended up there. The reason? He had sung “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” while alive.

Obit cartoons praised for their originality during the session included one by Jim Borgman (Cincinnati Enquirer/Universal Press Syndicate) showing the ashes of a dead Nazi scattered into the sea as fish swam away in disgust, and another by Matt Davies (The Journal News, White Plains, N.Y./Tribune Media Services) marking the first anniversary of 9/11 with a tribute to a neighbor he knew who had died in the World Trade Center.

Also praised was a cartoon by Steve Sack (Minneapolis Star Tribune/Creators Syndicate) picturing Enron’s corrupt Ken Lay swiping death’s wallet as death took him on the boat trip to hell, a drawing by Bruce Plante of the Tulsa (Okla.) World showing Don Knotts locking himself into heaven (as he’d lock himself in jail in “The Andy Griffith Show”), and a cartoon by John Cole of The Scranton (Pa.) Times-Tribune showing seamstress/civil-rights icon Rosa Parks sewing black and white pieces of cloth together (Many other cartoonists did a cliched scene of Parks riding a bus to heaven.)

And one more cartoon praised was a drawing by Ben Sargent (Austin American-Statesman/Universal) showing the grave of Creators columnist Molly Ivins with the word “Farewell” on it. Sargent, playing on the name of one of the columnist’s books, had someone near the grave say: “Molly Ivins can’t say that, can she?”

Possible future obit cartoons? Among those shown was a sketch by Mike Keefe (Denver Post/Cagle Cartoons) of Dick Cheney telling death “F— you” and one of a Corel Painter software package shedding a tear for Corel user Nick Anderson (Houston Chronicle/Washington Post Writers Group). Anderson is also president of the AAEC.

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