Starting a career in political cartooning is a tricky business. In the case of award-winning scribbler Chip Bok, his first full-time position, at Florida's long-defunct Clearwater Sun, came after a six-year hunt. It also ended in dismissal after a short six months, when a new editor who wanted only local cartoons took over. "It didn't take long before I had offended just about everybody in town and probably most of the advertisers," recalls Bok.
He recovered. His new book, Bok! The 9.11 Crisis in Political Cartoons (University of Akron Press), brings together nearly a year of his cartoons from the Akron Beacon Journal, where he's been on staff since 1987. The 50-year-old Bok is also syndicated, bringing his 'toons to rags such as the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, and Reason Online (reason.com/boktoc.shtml).
Yet if it weren't for Mad and a certain presidential scandal, Bok might never have found his calling. "Alfred E. Neuman and Richard Nixon launched a lot of editorial cartoonists," he says, "including me." Assistant Editor Sara Rimensnyder spoke to Bok by telephone in November.
Q: 9/11 was a difficult event for humorists. What have been the particular challenges for political cartoonists?
A: Editorial cartooning is a negative art form: criticizing, satirizing, making fun of authority. In the case of 9/11, I didn't want to do that. It didn't seem like the moment to criticize the commander in chief –to see how close I could get his eyeballs together, how bushy I could make the eyebrows. That just didn't seem to fit. And though there were plenty of heroes to memorialize, it's hard to do positive cartoons. I'm more into tearing things down.
Q: So you eventually returned to your usual, scathing self?
A: What broke the mental logjam was White House spokesman Ari Fleischer's reaction to Bill Maher's comment that suicide bombers were brave, not the cowards Bush had called them. Fleischer said, "People better watch what they say." Gee whiz, I thought. President Bush has a 90 percent approval rating, and they can't even tolerate a slightly critical statement on a late-night show called Politically Incorrect.
Q: Are political cartoonists still under pressure to be patriotic?
A: Not now. For a month or two there, yes. And that just renders cartoonists impotent. There's a place for flag waving, but we're not the guys to do it. You see these weeping Statue of Liberty cartoons, or Uncle Sam rolling up his sleeves. The time when that inspired people is long past. People look to political cartoons for some healthy skepticism about authority.