Attitude 3: The New
Subversive Online Cartoonists

by Ted Rall, editor
(NBM, 2006)

Since Boss Tweed called for the elimination of "them damn pictures" in the 1870s, political cartoons were an acknowledged force of change in public discourse. More immediate than an essay, cartoons work across barriers of language or education to spread information and forge social alliances. The decades have gone by, and the American public is generally considered to be literate, but cartoons have lost none of their power.

But they have lost a lot of space. In belated compliance with the call to end cartoons, newspapers cut more space from the comics page every year. Editorial cartoons in particular are becoming an endangered species, and every cartoon that inspires real controversy, far from convincing newspapers of their value, inspires papers to cut back farther.

Instead of dying out, political cartoons have flourished online, and Ted Rall has found some of the best of them for Attitude 3: The New Subversive Online Cartoonists.

Most of the cartoons selected have at least some political commentary. It's interesting that with 21 artists not one takes a conservative approach to politics. The parade of Bush/Iraq jokes sometimes grows monotonous, even for reviewers in agreement with the artists. For readers with different political views, the wall of protest political cartoons will be off-putting; for sympathetic readers, it's a bit depressing to reread Iraq on every page. It's always possible to put a new twist on an old joke, but it's harder than usual with so many iterations of the same sentiment compiled in one book.

While many of the cartoons employ fairly traditional techniques in their art, with simplified, exaggerated characters telling a story over a series of panels, some embrace techniques only economically or technologically viable online. It's hard to imagine a newspaper paying to print the brilliant dialogue but static art of Ryan North's "Dinosaur Comics," featuring the same dinosaurs in the same poses in every new strip. Michael Zole's "Death to the Extremist" has even less "marketable" artwork, relying on unchanging panels of two blurry circles. It's hard to imagine Circle 1 becoming a syndicate's breakout character. Eric Millikin's collage comic series "Fetus-X" swings too far in the opposite direction for most papers, with detailed, multi-page illustrations that would fit in better at a modern art museum than most newspaper editorial pages. And Mark Fiore's animated political cartoons simply would have no distribution without online software, barring syndication by a brave and farsighted television network -- they would simply have no distribution.

The interviews are as entertaining as the cartoons. A cartoonist himself, Rall knows all the familiar questions and avoids them, moving the interviews away from "where do you get your ideas" and into the meaning and execution behind those ideas. The interview topics vary as much as the comics themselves, but the issues of artistic community, technical innovation and financial challenges arise for almost every cartoonist.

Attitude 3 is a print anthology, but it's a print anthology that couldn't exist without the innovation and artistic freedom offered by the Internet. The inherent limits of print -- that is, the fact that Attitude 3 has to end -- highlights another attraction of the Internet: instant gratification. Every artist in Attitude 3 has more work online (yes, links are provided), sometimes in quantities that would fill volumes of print material. But Attitude 3 offers deeper understanding of that work, along with a print presentation that often benefits the cartoonists' art. And unlike the online comics, Attitude 3 can be read in the tub. As an introduction to vital, current cartoonists, an exploration of the cartoonist's work, or straight up entertainment, Attitude 3: The New Subversive Online Cartoonists is proof that "them damn pictures" are as powerful as ever.

by Sarah Meador
30 September 2006

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