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Don't tell political cartoonist Matt Wuerker that he works in a dying business or that the traditional print form of lampooning is an endangered species.
"There is a shorter and shorter attention span in readership," said the president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. "Nothing addresses that strange problem more than a good political cartoon. The old saw that a picture is worth a thousand words speaks to the unique power of cartoons to communicate complex ideas...It takes less time to get a cartoon than to read 140 characters [on Twitter]."
Wuerker and more than 80 of the nation's top cartoonists will be in Salt Lake City this week for the association's annual convention. Those participating include Pulitzer Prize winners such as Wuerker from Politico, Steve Benson from The Arizona Republic and Patrick Oliphant from Universal Uclick Syndicate. The Salt Lake Tribune's Pat Bagley also will be at the event that includes workshops, a cartoonist "death match" at The Tavernacle Bar and a Cartoons and Cocktails benefit and auction.
Several free workshops open to the public will examine issues such as the use of cartoons to satirize religion, a look at Thomas Nast, who is regarded as the father of modern political cartoons, and how political cartoons often kick-start controversy. (See schedule.)
"We are a strange bunch," said Wuerker. "We represent the full political spectrum with troglodytes on the right and bleeding hearts on the left. But what trumps political differences is respect for each other's drawing and keeping an ancient and enduring craft alive."
Benson, a Brigham Young University graduate and grandson of former LDS Church President Ezra Taft Benson, said cartoonists look at the world differently.
"Cartoonists tend to see quirky things," he said. "It's a working combination of being analytical on the current-events side mixed with a deep sense of curiosity about the world in the left side of the brain along with the little kid who never grew up and liked to draw funny pictures in class."
The Arizona Republic cartoonist said his art is about more than drawing. It is about illustrating an opinion on a political, social or current topic.
Though both he and Bagley have retired from the LDS Church, they met at BYU, where they worked as cartoonists for The Daily Universe. Their controversial takes on campus life often caused a stir.
The two published a collection of their Daily Universe cartoons and selected letters to the editor in 1979 in a book called I Am Appalled … (the title, Benson said, refers to the way many BYU students would start their letters to the editor about cartoons that offended them).
For example, Bagley's first cartoon lampooned BYU's fight over federal Title IX policies mandating coed housing. He portrayed National Guardsmen bringing in a young woman as a new roommate in previously all-male housing. Benson said students were not angered by the cartoon's message but the fact that Bagley had placed a poster of bikini-clad Farrah Fawcett on the wall.
"An editorial cartoonist throws the first punch in a bar fight and then sits back and watches everyone fight," said Benson.
Jen Sorensen, a self-syndicated cartoonist whose primary clients are alternative weeklies such as Salt Lake City Weekly, is an example of that. She has found work on Web-oriented sites such as The Daily Kos, NPR.org and Politico. She has also found freelance work in longer-form commissioned comics.
"The print media still forms the foundation for my income, but there are a lot of other little avenues I am pursuing online."
Wuerker said the Internet allows cartoonists to experiment with new forms of the craft, including animation and interactive cartoons.
Benson put how his peers view the new technology in a different way.
"You have those whose job is to educate the cartooning coots, who are still happy with a camel-hair brush and who ask what's this Photoshop stuff," he said. "The swamp might be being drained, but it's still there. It's a smaller pond, but it still has life in it."
Cartoonists in town
The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists meets for its 2013 Convention in Salt Lake City this week. There are several free events the public can attend. All sessions are at the Leonardo, unless noted.
Thursday, June 27
10 a.m. • Cartooning in a Kickstarter Era
11 a.m. • Victor Navasky on The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power
6:30 p.m. • Cartoonist Death Match, Tavernacle Bar
Friday, June 28
9 a.m. • Magical Mystery Tour with Jann Haworth
10 a.m • Fiona Deans Halloran on Thomas Nash: The Father of Modern Cartoons.
11 a.m. • Successful Cartooning in the Digital World.
Saturday, June 39
11:30 a.m. • "Satire and the Sacred: From Muhammad to Mormon Underwear," featuring Pat Bagley, Victor Navasky, Daniel Peterson. At the Salt Lake City Main Library,
6:30 p.m. • Cartoons and Cocktailsat Little American Hotel.Cost $40 per person, $75 per couple ($5 more at the door).Event includes silent and live art auctions that include dozens of original cartoons by Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonists, dancing and cocktails. For information or tickets, phone 717-703-3003 or click here.