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This Young Creator is a "Big Yuk" Hater
Ted Rall avoids gags in his offbeat editorial cartoons, which combine
deadpan humor and hard-hitting satire
by David Astor
TED RALL COULD be a character in one of his editorial cartoons.
His drawings often show young adults who are unemployed or under-
employed victims of the sputtering U.S. economy.
Meanwhile, Rall can't find a full-time editorial cartooning job in the recession-wracked
newspaper industry, even though he has been syndicated by Chronicle Features since 1991 and
had a collection of his work published by St. Martin's Press in 1992.
"I think I would have had a staff editorial cartooning job at my age if it was 10 years
ago," he said. Rall, 30, did start contributing a weekly local cartoon to the Asbury
Park (N.J.) Press in September, but he doesn't know whether this free-lance gig will turn
into a full-time position.
Of course, even a daily needing an editorial cartoonist might not hire one with a style
as stark and with content as cutting as Rall's. But his syndicated work is appealing
enough to more than 20 newspaper clients, including the Press, Atlanta Constitution,
Baltimore Sun, Des Moines Register, Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Daily News, Tampa
Tribune and Toronto Star.
"He brings a certain skepticism and irreverence to many issues," said Joe Copeland,
editorial page editor at the Everett, Wash., Herald, another Rall client. "His cartoons
generally have some special spark in terms of insight."
Chronicle editor/general manager Stuart Dodds added, "When Ted is on, he really is a very powerful
cartoonist," Dodds also observed that Rall "has an original style with heavier lines and a bolder
look than most."
Rall achieves this look with a pain-staking "scratchboard" technique more common to illustration
than cartooning. Many of his drawings take at least four hours to do. "When readers open the
editorial page, I want to grab their attention," he said, adding that a "light, feathery style"
would be inappropriate for commenting on what he sees as "the decline of America."
The national problems on which Rall comments include splintering families, drug abuse, pollution,
political scandals and corporations that care more about profits than people.
"He covers a wider range of topics than most of the editorial cartoonists we see," Copeland said.
Copeland did mention that he thinks Rall sometimes "carries it too far" in such areas as bashing the
wealthy. He said one recent cartoon seemed to imply that a wealthy person had deserved to die because
he had received millions in salary while laying off thousands of employees.
But Rall said editorial cartoonists should not hesitate to take on the ,rich and powerful," including
big business. "The whole corporate system is completely corrupt," he said. "I could see nationalizing
corporations. It has been proven that laissez-faire capitalism does not work. You need controls."
At the same time, the cartoonist takes positions that are not shared by all liberals. "I don't think that
being irresponsible is cool" he remarked. "I really have no patience with couples who can't wait until
their children leave home before getting divorced. And I don't have any use for people who claim to
be victims if they're not trying. If they're trying and still not getting anywhere, I'll fight for them."
The cartoonist added that he believes that President Clinton is no liberal. "I voted for Clinton," Rall said,
"but I think he turned into the fourth term of Ronald Reagan. He's a sellout."
Rall said one example of Clinton selling out was the way that he "threw all of his best efforts into
getting NAFTA passed." The North American Free Trade Agreement was supported by big business and many
Republicans and opposed by organized labor and many Democrats.
But Rall doesn't comment on Clinton and other politicians as much as the average editorial
cartoonist; he finds that approach too predictable. Instead, he often makes his points by
showing relationships among various groups, including bosses and employees, rich and poor,
blacks and whites, parents and children, and women and men.
Many of the people in Rall's cartoons are "twentysomethings" who face not only a difficult job market
but a huge national debt, fear of AIDS, patronizing behavior from Baby Boomers and more.
Whatever the subject, Rall usually explores it in several panels. He noted that this allows him to
provide a great deal of information, set up situations and mix serious commentary with deadpan and biting humor.
"You can't go very far with a single frame," he said.
Rall also is using a multipanel format in a darkly humorous comic strip that he is developing for Lew
Little Enterprises. "Spiro" features a family of divorcing parents and their three "twentysomething"
kids, all of whom are struggling financially and emotionally. The title character is a toucan who serves
as sort of a one-bird Greek chorus.
With his comic, editorial cartoons, free-lance illustrations and full-time job as a Columbia University
office manager, Rall works 100-hour weeks. The New Yorker spends some of this time seeking cartoon ideas
by watching numerous news programs and reading many magazines and newspapers, including papers from France.
The Columbia history graduate, who is fluent in French, said French papers often have more accurate
information about the United States than U.S. dailies do. For example, Rall noted, French papers
include the number of Americans who have given up looking for work when publishing U.S. unemployment statistics.
He also strives to stay current with mass culture's various manifestations, whether he likes them or not.
This means keeping up with horror author Stephen King, radio shock-jock Howard Stern, the Guns N' Roses
hard-rock group and so on.
Rall, who does free-lance music writing, enjoys listening to the defunct Clash punk rock group and more
current bands such as the Breeders, L7 and Nirvana.
It was hardly nirvana when Rall had to deal with a crooked syndication agent/attorney four years ago.
The cartoonist was one of many creators hurt by Arnold Schwartzman, who falsely told Rall that Creators
Syndicate and then United Feature Syndicate were interested in signing him (E&P, March 10, 1990, p. 32).
Rall noted that Schwartzman cost him more than a year of marketing his work and some of his trust in people
although he emphasized that he is pleased with Dodds and Chronicle.
He did add wryly that he learned a great deal about syndicate contracts from the fake ones
that Schwartzman showed him.
Rall signed with Schwartzman partly because Mike Peters, another of the attorney's clients, recommended
him highly. As it turned out, Schwartzman treated his famous clients better than his aspiring ones.
Peters, whose editorial cartoons and "Mother Goose & Grimm" comic are syndicated by Tribune Media Services,
was a hero of Rall when he was growing up in Dayton.
Among the cartoonists whom Rall admires most these days are Wayne Stayskal of the Tampa Tribune and TMS and
Signe Wilkinson of the Philadelphia Daily News and Cartoonists & Writers Syndicate.
Rall believes that many other mainstream editorial cartoonists are more interested in "illustrating the
news" or producing laughs than trying to make readers think.
"I hate gag editorial cartoons," he said. "They're so cheap and easy. It's rare that there's an issue so
trivial that it should be made into a gag. I don't mind irony or other forms of humor, but the 'big yuk'
is the worst."
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