Voices in the Wilderness

Joel Pett is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist of the Lexington Herald-Leader. His work also appears in USA Today.

Cartoonists work as lone wolves, but we’re also pack animals. Like Op-Ed columnists, TV’s blow-dried blowhards and trash-talk radio, we find the temptation to sink our teeth into Topic A almost irresistible. And why not? If everyone’s talking about it, it must be important. Doesn’t even depend on the definition of “it.” By pack-pundit standards, the Laci Peterson case is more important than all the other abused, neglected or missing young women in the world.

We cartoonists join the pack for a lot of reasons. Sometimes we’re just lazy or apathetic, but more often it’s a matter of perceived urgency. And there’s a definite perception that editors and readers prefer Topic A.

Everyone wants to hold an audience. But the problem with newspapers playing to the common denominator is that we can never be more timely than the 24-hour media machine.

We can, however, be more incisive, interesting, thoughtful and provocative. So when cartoonists stray from the flock, it’s worth a look. Almost nothing was drawn on recent news coverage of the disenfranchisement of Florida felons or of the Sept. 11 commission’s report on the importance of ideas in the war on terror or of allegations of Democrats’ undemocratic stifling of their antiwar faction or of insurance-industry war profiteering. To me, that makes these pictures worth a thousand “orange alert” gags.


It’s worth noting that three of these four cartoonists are freelancers. No nipping, controlling, sheepdog editors nosing them back to the pack.