People love the funnies. For many newspaper readers, the comics are the first thing to be scanned in the morning, a morning chuckle just as critical as that first cup of coffee.
Chris Lamb is a funnies man, too, though he’s partial not to Marmaduke and Peanuts, but instead the political cartoons on the editorial page. There, among the op-ed columns, angry letters and pompous editorials, are illustrations that deliver much-needed levity and satire. For Lamb, cartoonists are among the most important commentators in our democracy.
“They’re among the people who care most about their country,” says the communication professor. “Every day they get up and face it and try to fix it, or at least try to tear down what’s wrong.”
When it comes to cartooning, Lamb speaks with more authority than most readers. He is, after all, the author of Drawn to Extremes: The Use and Abuse of Editorial Cartoons, a book that evolved from his dissertation work on editorial cartooning. He is a former judge for the Herblock Prize, an award named for the late American cartoonist Herb Block that recognizes excellence in editorial cartooning.
Most recently, Lamb served as a judge for the Pulitzer Prize in editorial cartooning.
Last February, he viewed some 2,000 cartoons over the course of two and a half days at Columbia University before choosing a winner – Matt Wuerker of Politico. It was an exhausting process, and one wonders if so many cartoons might have caused at least a stress fracture to his funny bone. But Lamb insists that the judging was invigorating, especially when he and his four fellow judges – two of whom are prominent cartoonists themselves – got to debating the merits of a particular cartoon.
For his part, Lamb tended to favor those cartoons that were profound, that “said more with less” and that took a unique approach to a familiar subject.
“I want a political cartoon to grab you by the collar and wake you up and show you an issue in a way you haven’t seen it,” he says. “A lot of cartoonists go with their first instinct. The great ones work it out and find something different. They are better because they work harder.”
Unfortunately, the number of editorial cartoonists in the country is dropping. The decline of the newspaper industry has made it harder and harder for cartoonists to make a living, and relatively few newspapers feel they can afford to have one on staff. Their loss is something we should all lament and regard as a warning, says Lamb, pointing out that editorial cartoonists are some of the staunchest defenders of American ideals.
“There’s nothing more American than questioning authority, and cartoonists do it every day,” says Lamb. “They’re as American as the Bill of Rights and as irreverent as the Boston Tea Party.”
And that’s no joke.