By: Dave Astor
Unlike last year — when E&P‘s top four creators all wrote or drew about 9/11 to some extent — the content produced by this year’s winners doesn’t have a lot in common. But they’re all immensely talented people whose work reflects several significant areas of interest to newspaper editors and readers alike.
Jerry Scott entertainingly focuses on teens and tykes in his widely syndicated “Zits” and “Baby Blues” comics, helping America’s dailies attract these age groups — not to mention their parents. “Tell Me About It” writer Carolyn Hax particularly appeals to the young-adult readers many newspapers crave, and is also one of several advice columnists who found larger audiences after Ann Landers’ death. Finally, both editorial cartoonist Tom Toles (successor to another late legend, Herblock) and columnist/economist Paul Krugman put into practice a journalistic maxim that’s not quite dead: “Afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted.”
Analysis that’s on the money
The New York Times/New York Times News Service
The intersection of politics and economics was big news in a year of rising joblessness, corporate scandals, and soaring deficits. “So much of the political landscape is dominated by economic questions,” says Paul Krugman, who was smack in the middle of that intersection as a New York Times Op-Ed writer and prize-winning economist. Now the Princeton University professor is also E&P‘s columnist of the year.
With a clear, nonacademic writing style, Krugman appeals to many people who normally avoid economics like the plague — even if they disagree with his political views. This year, Krugman used his high-profile Times forum and economic knowledge to skewer Bush-administration policies in columns with such titles as “The Bully’s Pulpit” and “Crony Capitalism, USA.” That made him a lightning rod read closely by both liberals and conservatives.
“I get a huge volume of mail,” says Krugman, with the correspondence numbering in the hundreds some days. “It’s more positive than negative, but very strong and very intense on both sides. And there’s hate mail.”
LA Weekly‘s John Powers wrote last week that Krugman is “the president’s most effective establishment critic. … Because he’s a renowned Princeton economist who actually understands markets and finance, nobody has more forcefully exposed Bush’s lies about his tax plan, Social Security, and corporate reform. Naturally, this has made him a b?te noire of the right, subject to frequent intellectual and personal attacks.”
Daniel J. Mitchell, a senior analyst at the Heritage Foundation conservative think tank in Washington, is less admiring of Krugman: “He’s sort of a doctrinaire, left-wing, big-government type. I don’t think he’s terribly effective.”
While Krugman’s economic commentary probably didn’t change many Bush-administration minds, it did help educate the opposition and the public — a process that can sometimes pay dividends down the road. But why didn’t he have more impact on this month’s election results?
“I’d like to make a big difference, but I’m not sure I have much of a chance of doing that,” says Krugman. “The New York Times may be the world’s premier newspaper, but it’s still read by less than 1% of the U.S. population. TV and Rush Limbaugh have much more of an audience.” Then again, he adds, the Times has “one hundred times the audience an academic can expect to reach.”
And Krugman’s column does get wider circulation as part of the package sent to many of the 650 papers that subscribe to the New York Times News Service. The service’s executive editor, Laurence M. Paul, says usage of Krugman’s semiweekly feature has risen this year, but he couldn’t provide exact figures.
Krugman adds that his impact was blunted also because Republicans “were extremely successful at camouflage.” He notes that polls suggest many Americans favor paying more attention to corporate reform and are against tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the wealthy. But Republicans were perceived as similar to Democrats on some key economic issues, says Krugman, while they diverted voters’ attention with preparations for a possible war with Iraq.
The 49-year-old Krugman — who joined the Times in 1999 — has written for both academic and general-interest publications, authored and edited more than 20 books, and received the American Economic Association’s prestigious John Bates Clark Medal in 1991 for his work rethinking international-trade theory. He taught at Yale University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Stanford University before becoming a professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton in 2000.
Krugman says continuing as a professor not only helps give him the knowledge that goes into his column but also makes it easier for him psychologically to take strong Op-Ed stands. “In a sense, I’m moonlighting as a columnist,” Krugman says. “I’m probably willing to say unpopular things more than people for whom journalism is their solo career.”
Houston Chronicle “Outlook” Editor David Langworthy agrees, saying that Krugman may sometimes beat up too much on Bush but at least doesn’t beat around the bush. “He has a strong point of view, which is a good thing for a columnist,” observes Langworthy, adding: “With the economy very much in the news these days, it’s perfect for us to run his column occasionally.”
The Heritage Foundation’s Mitchell says it’s ironic that Krugman, whom he described as a columnist with “anti-corporate values,” accepted $50,000 to serve on an Enron Corp. advisory board in 1999. In a column last January, Krugman wrote that he resigned from the board as soon as he agreed to join the Times, that he disclosed the past connection the first time he wrote about Enron, and that he criticized Enron in ways that the corruption-plagued company hardly wanted to hear. Krugman added in the piece that the Enron scandal was chiefly an embarrassment to conservatives, but “if they can get a little bit of Enron dirt on everyone — the Clinton administration, environmentalists, liberal columnists — the stain on people and ideas they [conservatives] support will be less noticeable.”
What does the White House think of Krugman? A Bush-administration spokesman returning an E&P call said: “He’s not someone I would really comment on, but good luck with your story.”
Krugman’s columns for the Times can be found at http://www.nytimes.com/pages/opinion/columns/.
Visit Krugman’s personal Web page at http://www.wws.princeton.edu/~pkrugman/.
And the Unofficial Krugman archive is http://www.pkarchive.org/.
Capital gains a creative satirist
The Washington Post/Universal Press Syndicate
As Tom Toles moved to The Washington Post from The Buffalo (N.Y.) News this summer, he didn’t pack his desk lamp but hoped his “creative apparatus” would make the trip. “Creativity is this fragile bubble,” says the editorial cartoonist. “You wonder if it’s going to transport.”
After a four-month learning curve Toles describes as “still steep but no longer vertical,” the new Post staffer feels his creativity arrived in the nation’s capital intact. That means bitingly humorous commentary and quirky drawing, which — combined with being chosen to succeed the legendary Herbert Block — makes Toles E&P‘s editorial cartoonist of the year.
Toles says replacing Herblock at the Post after 29 years on Buffalo dailies was exciting but scary. “My first day here was one of absolute terror,” recalls the 1990 Pulitzer Prize winner. “I could hardly function. But it’s been getting better.” He adds: “I’m sitting in virtually the exact same spot Herblock sat in for decades. In a way, I’m the beneficiary of the space and interest he created.”
But there are obvious adjustments beyond missing longtime friends, adapting to hot and humid summer weather, and (happily) taking the Metro rather than his car to work. For instance, Toles was used to having an outsider’s perspective on Washington. “Now I’m in the belly of the beast,” he says. “It can be distorting, but it does give you a close-up view.”
Toles — whose work goes to more than 200 papers via Universal Press Syndicate — also has a new region as the subject of one local cartoon a week. (The other five are on national or international topics.) And he’s drawing attention from some prominent people. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan recently asked for the original of a Toles cartoon, and Ralph Nader phoned to suggest some ideas.
Toles didn’t use any Nader tips — all his ideas are his own — but he says his work has probably been “slightly to the left” of the Post‘s editorial-page positions. And his back may stiffen more after this month’s Republican election gains. “A cartoonist tends to exist in opposition,” Toles says. When one side gets stronger, “there’s a tendency to move the other way. I don’t see a rightward drift in my cartoons for a while!”
Toles, 51, also will continue to do some cartoons in his renowned multipanel style. “I find them more interesting,” he says. “You don’t always make as much of an instant impression, but multipanel cartoons enable you to approach a subject with more subtlety.”
What has been the readers’ response since Toles came to Washington? “Unfortunately, reaction has been frighteningly positive,” Toles replies wryly. “It makes me wonder. One caller did threaten to break my nose, so that was good!”
Bruce Plante, president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, is a fan. “I can’t stand his work,” jokes the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Times Free Press staffer. “He’s so good, he shows me how I could have done better. He informs, and makes his points very clearly and humorously. His writing is absolutely the best.”
But Jack Shafer, editor at large for Slate.com, says Toles “doesn’t seem to have found his groove yet” at the Post. “I do like the abusive way he draws GWB, though,” he adds, referring to President Bush.
What about the aforementioned desk lamp that didn’t make the Buffalo-to-Washington journey? Toles, of course, is known for drawing a self-caricature in the lower-right corner of his cartoons (found this week on our cover). This tiny talking Toles sits at a drawing table with a lamp still modeled on the one he had in Buffalo.
“It’s not identical to the one I currently have,” says Toles. “I’m puzzling over whether I should change it!”
You can view Toles’ work by visiting http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/opinion/.
Cartoonist’s pen is double-barreled
King Features Syndicate
When E&P told Jerry Scott he’d been named our comic cartoonist of the year, he immediately did some naming himself: Jim Borgman and Rick Kirkman. “I’m lucky to have great partners. Both strips are completely collaborative efforts,” says the “Zits” and “Baby Blues” writer. Borgman draws the former and Kirkman the latter — with the artists also helping with the writing and Scott helping with the drawing.
Something else Scott is drawing — awards. He won his profession’s Oscar, the National Cartoonists Society’s annual Reuben Award as top cartoonist, in May. Four months later, he received the Swedish Academy of Comic Art’s Adamson Statuette as best international comic artist for “Baby Blues.” Then came Portugal’s Amadora Comics Festival prize for best book collection (“Zits”). This Halloween, Scott and daughter Abbey, 9, even won two pumpkin-carving trophies from their neighborhood association. “For the largest and funniest pumpkins,” reports Scott, 47, a Malibu, Calif., resident whose comics are distributed by King Features Syndicate of New York.
And “Zits” this year passed the 1,000-newspaper mark — a rarified level occupied by fewer than 20 of the more than 200 comics with major syndicates. The 1997-launched “Zits” reached that four-figure total in the short span of half a decade. “It was such a great year,” says Scott. “And this [the E&P honor] is the capper.”
But 2002 wasn’t just about awards and milestones. There were also interesting content developments. A third baby was born in “Baby Blues,” making the humorously harried MacPherson family busier than ever. Wren came into the comic world Oct. 26 — exactly a year after the real-life birth of Scott’s second daughter, Cady.
“We needed to inject more chaos in the strip,” explains Scott. “Things were starting to calm down with Zoe in second grade and Hammie in kindergarten. We realized, gee, there’s no longer a baby in ‘Baby Blues.'”
Zoe and Hammie had been aging, albeit slower than in real time, since “Baby Blues” started in 1990. The comic, originally signed by Creators Syndicate, now runs in more than 800 newspapers.
“Zits” content also continues to evolve. The main focus is still on 15-year-old Jeremy Duncan as he deals with angst, boredom, clueless parents, and more. But the humor strip took some interesting side roads this year — including a budding relationship between D’ijon, an African-American girl, and Pierce, a white kid with so much metal attached to his body that Scott places him in a “Perforated-American” demographic. Scott says he was pleased to receive very little negative reaction to the interracial pairing.
“Zits” has also pushed the envelope by using words, such as “sucks,” not often seen in family-oriented comics sections. Scott did note that the comic isn’t doing this as much as before because “we’ve already plowed that ground” and he understands the parameters of general-circulation funny pages.
Scott’s “Zits” partner, Borgman, has earned wide honors himself as a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for The Cincinnati Enquirer, while Kirkman is an award-winning artist based in Arizona. Both creators — who are known for their expert and lively drawing — work with Scott via phone, fax, and e-mail.
“Thank God for electricity,” quips Scott, an Indiana native. Brian Walker, author of the just-published The Comics: Since 1945, says it’s a little early to judge Scott’s place in the pantheon of post-World War II creators. But he calls “Zits” and “Baby Blues” two of the three best strips (along with Patrick McDonnell’s “Mutts”) to start in the 1990s. “They’re entertaining,” says Walker. “They’re contemporary and traditional at the same time. Both comics are very visual, and Jerry has a lot to do with that.”
Walker adds that collaborations as successful as “Zits” and “Baby Blues” are rare in comics history. “It takes a very special blend of personalities,” he says.
Other popular two-person efforts include “The Wizard of Id” by Johnny Hart and Brant Parker and “Hi & Lois” by Mort Walker and the late Dik Browne — a strip Brian Walker now helps write. Of course, many comics ostensibly by one person have anywhere from one to many assistants working behind the scenes.
Scott himself worked on two comics (“Gumdrop” and “Nancy”) created by others before baby and teen characters brought him middle-age stardom.
To see “Baby Blues,” visit http://babyblues.com/main.asp.
To see “Zits,” visit http://www.kingfeatures.com/features/comics/zits/about.htm.
‘Tell’: Overture of edgy advice
The Washington Post/Washington Post Writers Group
After column colossus Ann Landers died five months ago, two major things happened in the advice-feature world. Several syndicated scribes found themselves with more newspapers, and the advice category skewed toward a somewhat younger readership. No one reflected both these trends more than Carolyn Hax.
The “Tell Me About It” writer’s list of papers more than doubled this year, to 200 from 97, a stunning achievement during an economic slowdown. “Dear Abby” writer Jeanne Phillips also gained 100 papers (to 1,300 from 1,200) and the “Annie’s Mailbox” team of former Landers assistants Kathy Mitchell and Marcy Sugar found many clients, too. But Hax, 35, registered her gains with a column offering tough-love advice with attitude for those 18 to 40 – a demographic many general-interest dailies are eager to reach.
“She’s funny, witty, and doesn’t pull any punches,” says Susan Hegger, assistant managing editor for features at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “We were looking for a column that appeals to a somewhat younger readership. In general, advice columns can be pretty insipid.”
Indeed, it was after reading a “really vanilla” advice column in 1997 that Hax — then a 30-year-old Washington Post staffer – jokingly suggested that she write her own feature. The “offer” was taken seriously, and “Tell Me About It” started in the Post and entered syndication less than a year later with the Washington Post Writers Group.
Her readers? “People who are accustomed to getting something that isn’t watered down to please a mass audience,” says Hax. “If I don’t like what you’re doing, I’m going to say it” — though often in a deadpan way. At the same time, Hax is willing to acknowledge her own mistakes and be honest with readers about her own life.
For instance, she told readers — during one of her weekly online chats late last year — that she and her then-husband, cartoonist Nick Galifianakis, were getting divorced. Has being single rather than married affected her column this year?
“The more life experiences I get, the more I can bring to the column,” she replies. “That’s the only effect that matters.”
Hax says the divorce was amicable. Indeed, Galifianakis continues to illustrate “Tell Me About It” — which, after Landers’ death, increased in frequency to three from two times a week.
Hax, whose feature does have readers younger than 18 and older than 40, is still a Post staffer but now works as a full-time columnist out of Connecticut. “I could be on the moon if I could get a [network] connection and some oxygen,” quips the Harvard University graduate.
Hax joined the Post in 1992, working as a copy editor and news editor before launching “Tell Me About It.” Last year, Hyperion published Hax’s first book, Tell Me About It: Lying, Sulking, Getting Fat … and 56 Other Things Not to Do While Looking for Love.
And the columnist continues do online chats. “It’s extremely valuable to hear what people are thinking,” Hax says. “And column-writing can be a lonely business, staring at a screen all day.”
To read Hax’s columns, visit http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/style/columns/tellmeaboutit/