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« The Dash On Our Tombstone | Main | Nothing New »

An Interview with Cartoonist Andy Singer

By Angelo Lopez
February 10, 2012

I first discovered the cartoons of Andy Singer after reading Ted Rall's book "Attitude: The New Subversive Political Cartoonists". Since that time I've become a real fan of Singer's unique cartoons, with its artwork that is like no other cartoonist that I know. A freelance artist whose work can be seen in publications like Z Magazine, The Funny Times, The Bay Monthly, and the Eugene Weekly, Andy Singer's comic "No Exit" is a surreal cartoon that offers an incisive critique of the values that underlie our present consumer society. He has two cartoon collections: Attitude Featuring: Andy Singer 'No Exit' published in 2004 by Nantier, Beal and Minoustchine; and CARToons, cowritten with Randy Ghent, published in 2001. Andy Singer holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting and a Bachelor of Arts in art history from Cornell University.

Andy, you have one of the most unique cartoons styles of any cartoonist that I know. What were your big influences? Did your art school days in Cornell influence your cartoons in any way?

Not really. I was a painting major and made these kind of doodle-like abstract paintings. I drew a few cartoons for the school paper and a few illustrations for the city weekly ("The Ithaca Times"). My interest in so-called "fine" art and painting probably influences my tendency towards single panel cartoons and trying to tell stories with a single image. I also started working in copy shops at the end of and immediately after college. Kodak had just come out with the first copiers that were capable of doing nice, solid blacks and generally high-quality printing. Before the mid 1980s copies looked washed out, grey and cheap. Kodak (and later the Xerox 5090s) changed that. So I started drawing in pen and ink because you could photocopy drawings and share them with other people or send them to newspapers.

One of the things that I've noticed about your cartoons is that it rarely attack the foibles of individual politicians, as most political cartoonists do. You'll criticize political parties, corporations, rampant militarism, but not so much personalities. Your cartoons seem to focus a lot more on the ideas and values behind our political and economic system. Even when your cartoons deal with a politician, you focus on the values that the politician represents, rather than criticize that particular politician's personal foibles. What lead you to this more philosophical direction?

I've never had a staff job at a newspaper and was never syndicated by a major newspaper syndicate. So, if I draw a cartoon that refers to a particular political incident or person, I have no way to instantly publish that cartoon while it's still relevant. In the current media cycle, a given incident passes quickly or the person in question quickly fades into the background to be replaced by the next "incident or personality of the media moment." It takes me half a day or more to draw a cartoon and most of my papers are weekly or monthly publications. If I draw something about an incident or person of the media moment, it will be old news by the time it gets published (a week or month later). So I try to do more cartoons about issues or events that look like they're going to be around for a while ...or I try to ask "what is the lesson from this current event and how is it related to past, perhaps similar, events?" That way the cartoon stays relevant for a little longer. This would include broader political, technological, environmental or cultural trends or just observations about day-to-day life.

Your book CARToons, with Randy Ghent, is a wonderful book of cartoons and essays that criticize our automobile culture. I like how your book goes from criticizing how the automobile has damaged our neighborhoods, our environment and our health, and it goes to a broader critique on the whole economic system that supports the automobile culture. In your book, an essay states, "The desire to produce and sell cars to new "undeveloped" markets is one of the major forces driving the international 'free trade' movement. The other major force is industry's desire to escape 'First World' environmental and labor regulations. The Free Traders contend that their motivations are somehow altruistic- that the unregulated, free flow of industrial goods will somehow be inherently good for society. This is a lie. The automotive industry's real motivation is to sell as many cars and make as much profit as possible. Environmental issues, labor conditions, and local quality of life are simply obstacles to the path to profit." It's a strong and insightful passage. How did you come to formulate this critique of the economic system?

You just look at it! No one manufactures anything here anymore because they don't want to pay living wages and be told where they can dump their industrial waste. To be fair, they are responding to all of us, as consumers, who don't want to pay for anything. We choose to buy an airline ticket or a pair of pants because its cheap, not because the airline has unionized, well paid employees. Over time, this undermines airline unions or domestic manufacturers or people who try to produce a good or service in an ethical manner. Look at how Apple got nailed for manufacturing iPhones in sweat shops. Did it stop people from buying Apple computers? What choice do they have? When Apple machines were radically more expensive than other Windows PCs, they didn't sell ...and, as a consumer, I have no alternative because there's no domestic manufacturer of computers, chips and smart phones. "Free trade" was (and is) about circumventing labor and environmental laws. Certainly, protectionist trade tariffs can shield an industry from innovation ...but what about tariffs that were based on basic environmental and labor laws (similar to the current "Fair Trade" certification standards)? I'm in favor of something like this-- countries agree on some basic environmental and wage standards (which could even be pegged to cost of living in a given country or city). If someone cheats, other countries can slap tariffs on those imported goods. The only trade "rules" US industry seems to care about is "Intellectual Property" ...because we don't make any "Physical Property" anymore. It's an absurd race to the bottom.

With your critique of the automobile culture, it comes as no surprise that you're a big advocate of bicycling groups like the St. Paul Bicycling Coalition and of public transportation advocates like the International Association of Public Transportation. Would you tell us more about your interest in these areas?

Cars and the highways they travel on are the number one users of energy, the number one polluters, the number one contributers to greenhouse gases and the number one destroyers of the planet. So I support anything that reduces automobile use or highway building. I volunteer in my city doing bicycle and transit advocacy and I refuse to own a car.

What person or writer has been a big influence on your political philosophy?

Robert Caro "The Power Broker" was a big influence on how I see politics, particularly transportation politics. It's a biography of a guy named Robert Moses who created the first highway agencies (in New York in 1918) and ran them until 1970. Caro uses Moses to talk about how guys like Moses (and FDR) changed the way politics and graft get done. We went from Tammany Hall, community based graft to agency based graft and it's an important and interesting story to understand if you want to understand how politics really works today. Another writer would be Ivan Illich who (among other things) did a little essay on transportation called "Energy and Equity" that looks at the issue of what is the "optimal" level of technology or specialization, beyond which a society becomes inefficient and undemocratic.

How did you get started in doing cartoons? Are there any cartoonists that you especially like and have been influenced by?

I stumbled into it. I was trying to get illustration jobs and people kept saying to me "We don't like your illustrations so much, maybe you should draw cartoons." The Daily Californian used to have elections for cartoonists and columnists. So I applied, got elected, discovered I liked it and have been doing it ever since. My favorite cartoonists are Saul Steinberg, Ralph Steadman, B Kliban, Mark Stamaty, Roz Chast, Tom Toles, Matt Wuerker, Ken Avidor, Dan Perkins (Tom Tomorrow), Bill Watterson, Seth Tobocman, Eric Drooker ...and a few muralists like Diego Rivera, Maynard Dixon and Thomas Hart Benton who were good at telling stories or showing social relationships in their mural art.

As a cartoonist whose work have some of the best insights into the flaws of this economic system, I was wondering what your thoughts are on the recent Occupy Wall Street protests. Have you participated in any of the protests?

I like it but I wish it had a more cohesive demands and a little more structure and leadership. I haven't participated but I've participated in plenty of other protests.

In recent years, newspapers and magazines have declined markedly in readership as large numbers of people have begun going to the internet to get their news. Many cartoonists have struggled as the avenues for their cartoons have lessened in number. How has the struggles of the print media affected you as a cartoonist? What future do you see for political cartoonists?

Print media was able to sell ads for larger amounts of money than websites. On websites, advertisers can demand rates based not just on page views but on "clicks" or even actual purchases. So, the rates they're willing to pay have declined dramatically. As a result, websites haven't figured out a way to pay (living wages) for real journalism or real content. It takes money for a paper to pay someone to cover a story in some overseas country or to spend weeks pouring through court room or financial documents trying to research a story ...and, in the same way that we don't want to pay for goods or services that are produced in an ethical manner, we don't want to pay for journalism. So people tend to go where it's free. At some point someone will figure out a viable business model but they haven't done it yet.

So cartooning is going the way of journalism. As papers close, or downsize, one of the first people they lay off is their cartoonist. So there are fewer paying places to publish cartoons, particularly political cartoons. Also, fewer people read anymore. Because of YouTube and the ease with which we can create, share and view video, the moving image is supplanting the static image. I'm not sure what the future is for political cartoons (even moving ones) but, unless someone comes up with a better business model for journalism it's not good. I have to do a lot more commissioned illustration these days to survive. I make hardly any money from the cartoons I still draw and publish. I can only justify them financially in that they serve as "ads" for my illustration services.

Ted Rall's Attitude interview mentions that you make masks. Are you still making masks? With your painting degree, have you occassionally gone back to painting? Do you have any artistic outlets beside cartooning?

I still make other random "art" objects (paintings, sculpture) an sometimes elaborate cards and letters.

I remember seeing on your facebook page photos of you attending Obama's inaugural in Washington D.C. How was that? What has been your impression of Obama's term of office so far?

The Funny Times sent me to the inauguration on the cheap (to do a comic about it). It was very inspiring and incredible-- over a million people getting together, packed in like sardines, pushed around by park police, having to walk (in some cases) for miles. Yet everyone was peaceful and happy. I didn't see one fight or anyone shouting at anyone else. Everyone was incredibly kind to each other and that, alone, was amazing. Think about it-- for every million people you expect fights, thefts, murders, etc. Most rock concerts or other big events you go to you see stuff like that. So there was this incredible human kindness, optimism, love and happiness that 8 years of Bush/Cheney was ending and that we'd finally elected a black man as president. That was powerful. At the concert the day before, it was so moving to see folks like Pete Seeger, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Herbie Hancock or others who lived through McCarthyism, racism and all sorts of other shit and (in some cases) fought for human equality ...and they lived to see the day, on this one issue, that America actually chose to do the right thing. So I really enjoyed it.

As far as Obama's first term, I didn't have high expectations for him as president so I'm not that disappointed. I figured he'd be like Clinton-- moderately liberal, capable of some good stuff but also lame compromises. I think he's done a decent job. He's managed to wind down two wars (in Afghanistan and Iraq), pull off a successful humanitarian military intervention in Libya that, like Clinton's in Kosovo, was fairly unpopular domestically. He expanded access to healthcare (if his law isn't repealed or overturned by the courts) and has instituted some modest financial and social reforms ...all in the middle of an incredible economic downturn. He's been very good for public transportation and a lot of the stimulus dollars went to LRT and commuter rail projects rather than highways, and fair to middling on the environment. On the down side, he didn't close GITMO, end the "rendition" program (a.k.a. "outsourced torture"), get a "public option" or "national healthcare" and didn't tackle climate change in any meaningful way ...and he's kissing Israel's ass (after early signs that he might deal with the palestinian conflict more evenhandedly). But he's faced congressional opposition at every turn, sometimes from his own party, and Israel has a strangle-hold on US media and politics. So I'm planning to vote for him in November. What am I gonna vote for, "Mitt Romney?!? Newt?!?" Our politics are some sad, sorry crap but they're all we got. You either try to change them internally or externally (or both) or you just check out and try to ignore the whole mess ...which, appropriately, leads to your last question--

One last question. I read in your website that you are an Oakland A's fan. What do you think of the team recently? How do you think they'll do this season?

I hate the owner Lew Wolff. He's not even from Oakland and is hell bent on moving the team to San Jose or San Leandro or some other city that will kiss his ass, build him a new stadium and make him richer than he already is. In the process, he's going to destroy the team and its few loyal fans. Until he gets his stadium, he's not putting any money into the team, so they traded away Gio Gonzales, Andrew Bailey and several of their best players. They let Josh Willingham go to Minnesota and have signed much less impressive free agents to replace him. So I think they're gonna suck. ...But maybe the baseball gods will smile on me and we'll have an incredible season! Maybe Dallas Braden, Brett Anderson and Tyson Ross will come back at 100%, and some of their rookies (Allen and Carter) will start hitting great! Miracles happen! (Can you tell I'm deluded?)

Here are more interviews that I did for Everyday Citizen

An Interview With Author Robert Balmanno

An Interview With Cartoonist J.P. Jasper

An Interview With Cartoonist David Cohen

A youtube video of the League of American Bicyclists

A youtube video of the Rails-To-Trails Conservancy, a group that works with communities to convert abandoned railroad lines into public pathways for nonautomotive transportation

A youtube video of the Transportation Alternatives, a New York City advocacy group for cyclists, pedestrians, and sensible transportation

A youtube video of the The Congress for the New Urbanism, promoting walkable, mixed-use neighborhood development, sustainable communities and healthier living conditions.

A youtube video of Bikes Not Bombs, which promotes bicycle technology as a concrete alternative to war and environmental destruction.

Comments (1)

Ken Poland Author Profile Page:

A picture is worth a thousand words. Cartoonists who can illustrate with pen and ink, sometimes say more than the rest of the editorial page, put together. And like advertizing experts, they can get more attention with hyperbole and exageration. The cartoon is usually the first thing that catches my eye, when I open the paper. Comic strips sometimes cover issues better than front page journalism and editorial propaganda. It takes artistic skill to get the viewer to identify with the situation or event.

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