John Klossner

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Offensensitivity: Are you joking?

Every other week the editor of Federal Computer Week sends me a story or topic that will accompany the cartoon on the back page of FCW (or, as the editor would put it, a story that the cartoon will accompany). I get back to the editor (a) to share sketches for two or three cartoon ideas on the topic, or (b) to discuss any unique angles or subject matter that I am not familiar with. After this discussion, I submit the cartoon sketches.

The editor then gets back to me with feedback: Sometimes he picks one favorite cartoon or, if he likes all of my ideas, tells me to go with my favorite. But sometimes he asks me if everything is all right at home. I then redraw the cartoon for publication and send it in.

We recently had a unique experience with the cartoon process. The topic came from a blog entry concerning recent debates about whether contractors should be included in DOD war zone death notices. Now the problem – which you've probably picked up on, and which the editor and I, being professionals, immediately noted – is, what is funny about death reports? In his note to me, the editor suggested that I avoid using war zone deaths as the central theme or image of the cartoon and instead focus on the universal theme of contractors feeling undervalued.

The editor (Editor1) I usually work with was away when I submitted my ideas on this topic, so he asked me to submit them to another editor (Editor2). I submitted the following sketches to Editor2, cc'ing Editor1.


As it turned out, Editor1 was checking his email that day, and he responded first, saying he liked the "fallen tree" (sketch 2) concept. Editor2 then responded, saying he thought a dead tree was a little too close to actual death, and that he preferred the other idea, which we went with (see below).

I think both ideas would work for illustrating the point, and I have no problems with either editor's response. (Other than noting that this is an example of why, when I work with new clients, I always request to have just one contact person. My experience as a cartoonist/illustrator is that the more people giving feedback means the more interpretations of the idea I'll have to deal with. I have worked with clients who, with multiple chefs responding, have turned a drawing of an airplane into a fallen tree).

In this case, I am more interested in what a reader finds offensive, and how that corresponds with my own sensitivities.

Personally, I felt that the airplane cartoon – with an image of contractors being viewed as baggage – was the one most likely to be deemed offensive. I thought the tree – although, in retrospect, I realize the tree was dead – wouldn't get that response because the image was so far removed from a war or human environ. Also, I though the use of the "tree falls in the forest ..." cliché would distract readers from the grim details of the story and direct their attention to the bigger point.

In drawing cartoons of all shapes, sizes and subject matter since the last century, I have received some – not bags full – of feedback when I have offended readers. A couple experiences come to mind.

Several years ago, I drew a cartoon for another publication commenting on a series of data thefts at the Veterans Affairs. I received an angry e-mail from a reader who was highly offended by the use of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the cartoon. I don't know if this reader represented a larger group or not.


And then there was a cartoon (drawn for another publication) that wasn't particularly offensive at the time, but might be considered so now. The cartoon showed a man standing in the cockpit of an airplane, with the pilot saying to his copilot, "Better do as he says. He has a laptop." The cartoon was drawn during the early years of wireless technology (so long ago that I don't even have a scanned copy in my files, which is just as well, because it wasn't a very good drawing), when there were conflicting messages regarding technology and flight safety. There were many jokes about the "silliness" of worrying about electronic devices on planes. This cartoon actually resold (being a freelancer, I resell my cartoons to other markets) several times before Sept. 11, 2001, at which point it became irrelevant, not very funny and logically wrong.

I’ve never made it a goal to offend as many people as possible with my cartoons. I'm not the frothing-at-the-mouth-type artist who's trying to take ideological prisoners. I try to find and illustrate a unique take or angle on a subject, hopefully in a humorous way, albeit with mixed results. (To be perfectly honest, the reader I most often offend is myself, with either a poor drawing or an obscure – technical term for "nonexistent" – joke.) I understand that the occasional offense is a byproduct and, in these comments section-charged times, insult is found everywhere.

Just ask any editor.


Posted on Jun 09, 2011 at 7:26 PM

Reader Comments

Wed, Jun 15, 2011 SC CA

Your points are well made and well taken. For the record I laughed out loud with the tree cartoon and am still laughing. Thanks, I neded that.

Wed, Jun 15, 2011 Michael Roark California

I chuckle at the cartoons, and I have friends who are professional artists, drawing similar items or for other media. To hear the story of your perspective and your approach on trying to balance a not-always-PC topic with a PC drawing is interesting, and not something that a lot of us think of. There is the saying of behind every joke is a hint of truth, and unfortunately that truth can be offensive to whoever is the target of the point. If I were VA staff in charge of security, I would be offended at the tomb drawing, but rightfully so. I should be offended if I'm not performing my job successfully. Do your job, do it right, or you may end up being drawn as a cartoon, or worse on the front page of the paper. Thanks for sharing your perspective and for trying to find the balance in your creativity.

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