An international cartoonists' conference shows off the artists' wit and predictive power

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Marco Werman: Grim news isn’t just a problem for the travel industry -- political cartoonists too, struggle to find the right angle on, say, Ebola or ISIS. The World’s cartoon editor Carol Hills has been asking cartoonists about that. Right now, she’s in San Francisco at the annual convention of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists.


Carol Hills: I try to come here every year to this conference, and each year, a number of cartoonists from different countries from around The World show up. And so this year we have one from Pakistan, another woman from India, several from Cuba, which is very exciting, and I just ran into them in the lobby and they are thrilled to be here. They just got here last night and they’re running into Cuban colleagues who immigrated to the US years ago that they haven’t seen in years. So, it’s kind of exciting and the idea is for international cartoonists to mix it up with American cartoonists and kind of share and care.


Werman: Well, certainly a lot of fodder for both the American and the foreign cartoonists there. I mean, just Ebola and ISIS, two words at this point, that are kind of brands for horror. How are these cartoonists capturing these topics?


Hills: Well, I focus really on international cartoonists and some are quite bold, very up close and personal in ways that I almost am reluctant to even post, even if they’re great cartoons. There’s a great one of an ISIS recruiting desk and a young man comes up saying “I know Flash, computer programming and I know beheading.” They’re effective, yet I almost don’t want to post them because it just feels just so -- the whole thing is just so unbelievable. But many cartoonists are taking it straight on, same with Ebola. Ebola -- a lot of HAZMAT suits. You know, somebody watching the news in their living room, wearing a HAZMAT suit, worried about Ebola. So, there’s a lot of that. Again, there’s a sense of “You know, my job is to call through and post,” but then sometimes I think “Am I just adding to fear?” It’s just kind of a funny situation, but most of them are taking it head on, both of these topics.


Werman: So, hard for some of these cartoonists to deal with ISIS, with Ebola, but some cartoonists that you’re meeting obviously have a hard time just being a cartoonist, based on where they live, right?


Hills: Absolutely. These Cuban cartoonists I just ran into, they’re just so excited to be here. They can cartoon about everything when in Cuba except politics. They can’t caricature their leaders. Their cartoons are more about social issues, and they’re very upfront about it. Nobody is pretending that they can cartoon about things that they really can’t. But there’s a Pakistani cartoonist, Sabir Nazar, I’ve profiled him for the show before, he’s somebody who is a great political cartoonist, but increasingly he can’t get his work published in Pakistan. That’s the case for a lot of these people working in repressive regimes. The role of a political cartoonist is really that of a court jester. You’re there to be able to poke fun at leadership and try to articulate things that your readers or viewers are thinking, and the more repressive the regime, the less you can do that.


Werman: Having covered this for awhile Carol, what have you learned about political cartoons as an editorial form, where you’re not writing for the op-ed page, you are the court jester, as you say.


Hills: What I’ve noticed -- I’ve stumbled into this whole beat by accident, back when we all had to join the digital age. But what I’ve found in following cartoons is that they often are really an oracle for major news stories that develop. I remember after the Egyptian revolution in 2011, the day after, I was talking to an Egyptian political cartoonist and he said “You know, I’m really worried about the Islamists. There’s something that’s not right here.” Then months later, the whole Islamist counterrevolution and those stanchions between secular Egyptians and Islamists really came to the fore. That happened also in Ukraine. I was seeing rumblings about a tension in eastern Ukraine among Russian separatists months and months before these became front page stories. So, that’s why I’ve come to pay very close attention to political cartoons from around the world because they seem to lead me down the path of things that turn into major news stories.


Werman: Well, if those cartoonists are oracles, that makes them especially kind of suspect of these regimes, don’t they?


Hills: Absolutely. I have to mention the Syrian cartoonist, Ali Ferzat, who was famously beaten up by Syrian authorities a number of years ago. I was just about to do a profile of him before he was beaten up, and when I investigated how he cartooned under both Assad regimes, it turned out he used really symbols to illustrate the Assad regime, and his symbol was a chair. It was when he abandoned the symbol of the chair and started drawing Bashar al-ASsad, that’s when he got into trouble.


Werman: The World’s Carol Hills in San Francisco, great speaking with you, as always.


Hills: Thanks Marco.


Werman: Tomorrow, Carol will talk with me about an Indian cartoonist, a woman who’s taking on gender and sexual assault in her cartoons, and some in India, not surprisingly, are not too pleased. Follow Carol Hills on Twitter. She’s @GlobalCartoons.