Making a Statement
A Tribute to Tribute Cartoons

Pay No Tribute

It's probably no surprise that at Cartoon Movement we talk a lot about editorial cartoons. Although the editors agree on the importance of cartoons, they have different outlooks on what he role of a cartoon should be, and what constitutes a good cartoon. The death of Steve Jobs renewed the discussion, and sparked the idea to use the occasion to write opposing columns about the role of tribute cartoons. Matt Bors is up first; the opposing column by Tjeerd Royaards will follow on Monday.

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.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


Tjeerd Royaards has quite a mountain to climb on Monday to show the upside of obit cartoons. Great job Matt.Not just in talking about the easy and expected manner in which cartoonists mark the passing of "Great Men", but in reminding us why we were put on this earth in the first place, to hold a light up to the issues of the day...before we wither and die and go straight to Hell.

Kane Lynch

"Maybe he is an unassailable genius after all. Chinese factories owners certainly appreciated him."


Mike Peterson

There are moments that do call for commentary -- Bill Mauldin's classic cartoon on the death of JFK, for example, marked a moment in which the world changes. But that's really part of the problem -- when you draw weepers for every death of every celebrity, how DO you make any kind of meaningful statement at a historic moment like that?

Jen Sorensen

Very well-written piece, Matt. I have done exactly one obit cartoon, for Molly Ivins. It was one of the hardest cartoons I ever tried to write. Avoiding cliches and sappiness is a real challenge.

David Cohen

Very good, Matt. I, too, try to avoid obituary cartoons, mainly because I know that everyone else will be doing one, and that it will be almost impossible to say anything new. As well as the fact that, as you will never find a written obituary that is critical or points out the dead person's less than exemplary behavior,
a critical obituary cartoon is an oxymoron. The kids will just have to get to practice on their own!

Zach Mayer

Ted Rall's obit cartoon was pretty critical of Jobs:

Matt Bors

You're right Zach. In a weird twist, Rall drew it as a pre-obit a few weeks ago, then it eerily came true. Nonetheless, it's the only critical comic I've seen.

Susie Cagle

What if obit cartoons were more like actual obits? They're often the most interesting reads in the paper, certainly more like profiles or biographies than tributes. I guess that would require the space of a comic rather than a one panel cartoon, but I think it's an important distinction -- it's not that drawing about dead people is all bad.

Don McIntosh

I love my Mac as much as the next guy, but Jobs' workers rights legacy was left out in all the eulogies. Here's a good summary from several months ago.
Having read it, I winced when I saw an inspirational Steve Jobs quote on the sign of an Occupy Portland marcher last week.

Matt Bors

An interesting point, Susie. I think an illustrated or comic obituary could be great if done right. I don't know if anyone has ever done something like that. But it's the editorial cartoon approach that is horrible 95% of the time.

true religion outlet

Brown said he and his coaches are game-planning as they normally would for their game against OU this weekend, but are paying special attention to Sooners LB Travis Lewis and the rest of the standout OU linebacking corps.


Matt, I don't really agree.

> 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.

I don't think that editorial cartoons must strive for anything other than what the cartoonist wants. Pearly Gates cartoons are less about a religious perspective of the afterlife and more about a cartoon device, of which there are many. For as long as I can remember, cartoons employ stereotypes.

And so what?

I don't buy the rather purist argument that it's not about popular appeal; of course it's about popular appeal.

Editorial cartoonists are commercial artists. If the cartoonist isn't interested in commercial appeal, then why does he draw for a commercial operation that is driven by commercial success? Why doesn't he simply draw for himself?

Another point is the newspaper's target audience. The cartoonist might be drawing for a less business-intellectualised readership and a more tabloid-esque readership; the kind who don't care about "being different" (which is a philosophical farce, anyway).

That said, there is nothing wrong in trying to be "different". But, simply navigate the internet and see what Steve Jobs cartoons are being shared and "liked" by millions around the world. They like Pearly Gates cartoons, whether we like them or not.

Of course, there isn't anything wrong in NOT drawing them, either (stereotypical devices or not). It's a personal choice.

Conversely, a (commercial) cartoonist COULD take himself too seriously. But where's the fun in that? (And the salary helps, too.)

Alexander Hoffman

I agree and disagree. I hate the pearly gates cartoons. I'm an apathetic agnostic, so I hate the imagery of heaven in cartoons. I'm not offended by it, but I think it's old hat and unoriginal. I also have zero connection to St. Peter as I'm a jew and a very unobservant one at that. Honestly 95% of what I know about it is from Weird Al's "Everything You Know Is Wrong."

I think an obituary cartoon can serve a purpose in that a cartoon can say quite a lot about a person without any words at all. That said, they shouldn't be expected for everyone and I agree with Matt that they tend to never convey a message.

In terms of being critical, I think this is why you should or shouldn't do an obituary cartoon. If it's someone you respect, you should want to draw one, simply because you're expressing how you feel about that figure. If you hate them so much, then draw a cartoon critical of them. Middle of the road stuff simply because it's in the news tends to be boring and obituary cartoons of this kind lower the value of an obituary cartoon in the first place.

Speaking of cliches, I also think it's better to not always go for the obvious gag or symbol when doing obituary cartoons. Leslie Nielsen's death in particular was met with 90% "And don't call me Shirley" gags. Sometimes it's better to think outside the box a little more. In the past I've done two obituary cartoons which actually had little focus on the person passing and more on someone else's response to it. When Coretta Scott King died, I did an obit cartoon with Jimmy Carter butting in attacking Bush, because during her funeral Carter used the event to attack George W. Bush's government wiretapping, which I found to be in bad taste.

I still think obituary cartoons have their place, but when they flood newspapers and the internet and all look the same, the meaning behind them diminishes.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)