It's been about a year and a half since I made the transition from the mainstream daily newspaper world to the alternative-weekly world. I was just honored with an Honorable Mention in Cartooning at the "AltWeekly Awards" last weekend. And that seems to sum up the good news and the bad news at once.
The good news is, my work (for the Ventura County Reporter) was considered good enough to have been a finalist for the competition in a strong field of four that included "Idiot Box" by Portland, Oregon's Matt Bors (entered, oddly enough as being from the Boston Phoenix), "Slowpoke" by Seattle's Jen Sorensen and the cartooning that took First Prize, "Failure" by Karl Stevens (also of the Boston Phoenix).
The bad news is, my Honorable Mention (fourth out of the four) was probably all I could have expected.
Basically, I'm a Boomer generation mainstream editorial cartoonist doing pretty much the same thing I'd been doing for three decades on daily newspapers in Southern California, Seattle and the Bay Area. And that, almost by definition, means that I'm not terribly alternative.
When my last staff job at the daily Ventura County Star was axed the day after Barack Obama's election in Nov. 2008, the VCReporter "” which competes to some extent, at least for ads, with the Star "” was happy to be able to get my cartooning; they considered it a bit of a coup to grab me from their competitor. They canceled their use of "This Modern World" by Tom Tomorrow (a.k.a. Dan Perkins) to make room for me; ironically this was the feature that had dominated the AltWeekly Awards and had the largest number of client newspapers in recent years.
I alternate between drawing Ventura County local material and national material each week, and the editor, Michael Sullivan (that's a female) dubbed my cartoon space "The Critical Line."
So, has anything changed between doing cartoons for the Star and similar ones for the VCReporter? Well, to some extent.
First, I don't run sketches by an editor now; I don't sit in an office near an editor anymore. I email Michael what topic I'm planning to draw on, and then just send the finished work. In a year and a half, nothing has been rejected, although her lackluster reaction to one cartoon (about the upholding of California's Proposition 8, an anti-gay-marriage measure) prompted me to substitute another cartoon on the topic that was stronger. I often ask her for local topic suggestions "” another change for me "” partly because I sometimes strain to find a county topic, but partly because I want to tie into whatever they consider important, from an "altie" perspective.
It's the topic areas that perhaps show a bit more of a shift. The alt-world, or at least the VCReporter, seems to care more strongly than mainstream dailies about the homeless, the laid-off and the others in society who are disadvantaged, as well as having a strong concern over environmental issues. Kevin Uhrich, editor of the alt-weekly Pasadena Weekly, calls the topic areas they focus on "core values," and I try to be more mindful of these as I figure out what I'll draw each week.
Overall, fitting in with these topics has been an easy enough transition for me. For one thing, identifying with the laid-off or those whose jobless benefits are threatened is a piece of cake these days, and my own situation has made me a bit angrier about this issue "” and anger is always good fuel for editorial cartooning.
I've long drawn cartoons about the homeless and disadvantaged. There's even a journalism competition devoted to those who are disadvantaged "” the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards "” and I've had strong entries in that contest for many years (and even came close to winning it a couple times, say contest insiders). So I'm doing more cartoons on those topics these days.
And environmental issues have long been one of my main areas of focus; ask my cartooning colleagues to name someone who does a lot of environmental cartoons, and my name will be among the first to come up. So again, another easy transition.
But as an "altie" cartoonist, I also face challenges. Contributors to alt-weeklies tend to be in their 20s, 30s and 40s, while I'm now in my mid-50s. I'm a peer to the publisher, David Comden, who's a great guy I can chat easily with, but I'm a dinosaur next to the writers who review the club and music scenes.
And the altie cartoonists are a different generation, again tending to be in their 20s, 30s and 40s. They never had a staff editorial cartoonist job on a daily newspaper, and never expect to have one. Their humor and pacing are different; they tend to use multiple panels (often with the narrating figure continuing a dialogue from one frame to the next) and rely more on words than visual metaphor. In my generation, the goal was to have a strong visual image of few or no words that used some kind of visual play or metaphor or surrealistic image to convey the message; the alt-cartoonists seldom go this route, and rarely delve into the use of elephants or donkeys or Uncle Sams, which are the kind of visual currency Boomer-age cartoonists treasure.
Many are fluent in social media, and the online world is their native habitat; I've had to be an adapter. And I have to be careful about my metaphors and historic references; they didn't feel the jaw-dropping impact of the JFK assassination (I was a boy then), the Vietnam War had deep, visceral meanings to Boomers than Gen-Xers may not know, and I'm never sure if someone in their 20s understands the horrifying meaning of a wire coat hanger in reference to backstreet abortions. In this ever-more-fragmenting world of mass media, it's harder to keep pop-culture references relevant; I'd be more inclined to use a Bela Lugosi vampire image than a "Twilight" one, and if a controversial TV series was on a cable channel I don't subscribe to, it's much harder to make use of it in a cartoon.
The cartoons I've been drawing for the past year-and-a-half are strong, as strong as any output over my career, and my artwork has probably never been better. I'm even winning awards for them. But is my work "altie" enough to be really embraced by the alt-weekly world? Based on getting my work picked up by other such papers, perhaps not.
Could I try to switch to a multi-panel narrative type of cartooning? I suppose, but I also want to play to my strengths, which are in the strong visual impacts, analogies and few words of one insightful rectangular package. I'm not sure I could be Matt Bors, and even if I tried I'd likely be an inferior one. The alt-world would let me get away from saying "shit" or "asshole" or worse in my cartoons, but that's not helpful for secondary sales or reprints to mainstream outlets, and I still show my cartoons to my parents or others who might be dismayed to see that in my work.
So, the best I can do is... to try to do the best I can do. I can't help being a Boomer, but I'll try to remain as relevant as I can. I'm still print-oriented, but I can post my stuff in color online as well as the next cartoonist.
And I'll give up my elephants and donkeys when they pry them from my cold, hard Wacom tablet.
Be sure to see the huge archive of my work (organized by topic area) on my web site at http://www.greenberg-art.com