by Matt Bors
Someday you will die.
It's impossible to predict when and where, but, if you happen to be a well-known figure, it won't be hard to predict with startling precision what the world's editorial cartoonists will work up for your obituary cartoon. You will no doubt be found at the Pearly Gates uttering a variation of your most famous phrase, drawn tastefully with the dates of your birth and death underneath, or gone entirely, represented by an item closely associated with you--a product, a logo, a cartoon character--inexplicably shedding a single tear.
The illustrated tribute to the dead celebrity remains alive and well, especially with artists who have to pick the kids up early from soccer practice.
In over 800 editorial cartoons I have only noted the death of someone twice, one of whom I respected and the other I loathed. So I rarely venture into this territory, finding it almost completely unnecessary. For many cartoonists it has become an easy out for a work day. For me, there are are simply so many other things I'd rather cartoon about than marking the death of some poor schlub.
It's not the paying tribute to important figures that I object to so much as the sheer predictability of almost every one. The cliches are as certain as death and taxes and almost as infuriating. And their relevancy and power has diminished along with shifting attitudes about humor and reverence.
We live in the age of instant reaction--and instant mockery. The celebrity death cycle now shifts from shock to fond remembrance to snark before the body gets cold. Illustrations still have the power to bottle any one of those sentiments for preservation, but a tribute that adds nothing to the conversation is as disposable as a tossed-off Tweet. Within thirty minutes of finding out about the death of Steve Jobs, I predicted he would be depicted arriving at the Pearly Gates of heaven telling St. Peter "There's an app for that" as he flipped through his book of whatever that book is.
That cartoon did materialize multiple times and Jobs was depicted at the Pearly Gates or in heaven (the "iCloud") in no less than twenty cartoons. Jobs was a Buddhist, but don't let that get in the way of a bad idea. There's something about marking the passing of an innovator with an interchangeable cliche that really speaks to the current vitality of the field.
The imposition of a literal heaven by editorial cartoonists (a generally godless bunch) upon anyone of any religion is often defended as a simple tradition: the way we tell jokes 'round here. Perhaps Pearly Gates cartoons are a bit like the traditions of human sacrifice and bloodletting--best left to historians who specialize in cataloging Things That Seemed To Make Sense At The Time.
The single tear drop is another trope that will puzzle future generations of tasteful humans. Meant to elicit a deep loss, the Apple logos crying for Steve Jobs only reminded me I need to get my MacBook to a Genius Bar before the crack in the screen gets any bigger. The most famous single tear ever teared was featured in the American anti-litter Public Service Announcement, "The Crying Indian," where a Native American was shown with a single tear tracing down his face. Litter made him sad. It quickly became one of the most widely parodied and ridiculed ads in American history. The somber teardrop rolling solo down a sullen face sort of did a switcheroo after that and became more an ironic thing used by hip youngsters. The year was 1971.
I often hear that tribute cartoons are some of the most popular cartoons out there, which I think is similar to the argument Michael Bay used while pitching his third movie based on toy robots.
Editorial cartoons must strive for much more than popularity--they must address the issues of the day, not just mark the passing the time with illustrations of news events. They must confront the public with the thing that isn't being said. They must prove they are still relevant. While the maudlin tributes and cheap jokes poured in on Steve Jobs, The Onion carried the torch for satire with the article "Apple User Acting Like His Dad Just Died." It could have been about my peers.
Cartoonists are supposed hold a public figure's life up to the light and scrutinize them, not draw them heading towards the light while glorifying them. Yet not a single cartoon critical of Jobs emerged. Maybe he is an unassailable genius after all. Chinese factory owners certainly appreciated him.
Editorial cartoons work best when they are dishing out biting humor. (A Buddhist CEO, say, who might be reincarnated as an iPhone factory worker.) They can do somber, or powerful, or sad, but the situation has to be right, the execution all that more perfect for it not to collapse under the weight of its own seriousness. The automatic churning out of tribute cartoons for even the most minor celebrities is born more of laziness than respect for the dead.
In a world with so many outrageous things to be made fun of, I can't find it in me to stop and pay tribute publicly in a cartoon. Not when I'm racing towards my next target for satire while eyeing the one after that. So many deserving topics. So little time.
Someday I will die.
Read the opposing column 'A Tribute to Tribute Cartoons' by Tjeerd Royaards here.