Joel Pett: The cartoon seen 'round the world

Will garage murals be the next hot medium to challenge print?

Herald-Leader CartoonistMarch 18, 2012 

I've drawn slightly upwards of 7,000 editorial cartoons in my career. Most of them have a one-day shelf life, are glanced at and discarded in the daily detritus. A few may become subjects of minor controversy. Others might get reprinted in other papers, news magazines, textbooks; find their way onto refrigerator or office doors, or occasionally get shown on television or ranted about on radio.

And, of course, many now have an Internet afterlife.

But few have had as much staying power as the accompanying cartoon, which first appeared in USA Today in December of 2009, on the Monday before the Copenhagen climate change conference.

Timing and location are everything.

People see USA Today in airports and hotels, and that's where the conference participants were. Apparently it struck a nerve, and became something of a pass-around favorite at the summit. In the two years since, it's had a crazy existence like nothing else I've ever done. I've had requests from all corners of the globe for signed copies, permission to reprint it in publications, post it on blogs, even blow it up onto protest signs.

A French company had it translated and used it as a holiday card. Australian activists placed large copies along a well-traveled highway. My friend, the brilliant comedian, juggler and Bill of Rights promoter, Chris Bliss, used it in one of his TED talks (ted.com/talks/chris_bliss_comedy_is_translation.html).

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson requested a signed copy for her office, and the California EPA chief uses it in her presentations.

Not a week has gone by in the 27 months since its publication that I haven't had a request for some kind of re-use.

Recently I heard from a Canadian blogger who wanted to post it, and he remarked that someone in his town had a replica, get this, painted on their garage. OK, I've had a fortunate career, with its share of highlights. I once had a T-shirt presented to me in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing (in the company of the last two surviving Ching Dynasty eunuchs, no kidding), on which was a hand-drawn copy of one of my cartoons.

The State Department sent me to Douala, Cameroon, and Sofia, Bulgaria, to speak to cartoonists about press freedom. I chased George H. W. Bush from the White House press room with an embarrassing question about the Iran-Contra scandal. The president of Liberia has a framed Pett cartoon in her office. So does George Clooney. Someone once sent me a page-one cartoon clipping from the Katmandu Times.

But a garage mural? Um....no, not really....never even thought about it. Somehow it seems like the highest compliment I've ever received.

The oft-lamented and well-documented decline of the business models for print journalism, books, music and everything affected by digital distribution is well into its second decade, and yes, it's hit cartoonists pretty hard.

But if you leave aside the little detail that it's becoming increasingly difficult to make a living as any kind of creative artist, writer or musician, there's an interesting upside, which is that it's never been easier to garner an enormous global audience.

Nobody really knows how it will play out, but I don't see the rapidly expanding garage-mural movement as much of a threat.

Reach Joel Pett at jpett@herald-leader.com or 231-3443.

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