The current issue of the New Statesman leads off with a characteristically elegant and thorough feature by its deputy editor, Helen Lewis, on the fate of the political cartoon. In short, she fears for its future. The most poignant element, however, is a sidebar headed ‘Cartoons in the New Statesman‘. After reviewing the magazine’s magnificent record in the area – Low! Vicky! First professional publication of Matt! – it winds around to the fact that a recent redesign eliminated the regular editorial cartoon: ‘This was brought up by several of the cartoonists I interviewed.’ Lewis then asks readers whether they miss it, and would like it back.
Speaking as a New Statesman reader (and also a lapsed subscriber), I do, and I would. But there’s something in addition that might help the ecosystem of cartooning even more, and make me even happier: more one-off gags, or ‘pocket cartoons’. The NS used to publish a fair number. That’s how it came to have the honour of discovering Matt. Now it has one a week, by the admittedly wonderful Grizelda (we publish her, too).
Gag cartoons have a wider range than set-piece editorial ones. They can be as politically powerful as the biggies (sometimes more so, because they’re simpler), but they also encompass social satire and plain silliness. When you publish lots, they’re a great place to try out talent – The Spectator has a biggish pool of regulars, but we have between 12 and 20 cartoon slots a week, which means there’s always a chance for new faces. And although it’s still a long way from being a gender-balanced trade, the gag-cartoon form seems to be a bit more hospitable to women: Denise Dorrance and Sally Artz jump to mind, in addition to Griz.
Finding good gags isn’t easy, of course. We at The Spectator have the advantage of the irreplaceable Michael Heath, who is not only a matchless cartoonist but also a fantastic editor of cartoonists, with a rigorous sense of what’s funny and an encyclopedic knowledge of what’s been done before.
And finding space for them can seem tricky at first. Gag cartoons used to be what filled the gaps when a magazine was pasted up at the printer’s – in that way, they are the weekly equivalent of single-paragraph news stories – but these days the holes have to be made, and they have a way of disappearing when the design changes. After our most recent redesign, it took me months of patient hole-digging to get our cartoon count back up to where it had been before. (I’m The Spectator‘s chief sub, which means I’m responsible for much of the week-to-week page layout.)
But if the NS were to abandon its use of meaningless 1950s-Daily–Mirror-style crossheads, and to print a couple fewer dull single-column photographs, it could easily fit half a dozen a week. That’s before we start encroaching on artistic white space, or cutting text.
One of Lewis’s major concerns about the future of the cartoon is about how it will survive divorced from printed context. Here, gag cartoons are surprisingly successful: ours are more consistently and enthusiastically shared on social media than more or less anything else we produce. And although I don’t have metrics, the Telegraph’s Matt seems to do pretty well on Twitter.
Good jokes will always find an appreciative audience. The need is for publications, print or digital, prepared to pay for them. Over to you, Helen Lewis.