Work in Progress: Don't talk about this cartoon

USDA's Christopherson

You know how to ruin a cartoon? Describe it aloud to someone who hasn't seen it. A cartoon is a combination of image and text, and a good cartoon is typically a less-than-ten-second interaction. The reader fills the spaces the cartoon leaves -- what voice and inflections any dialogue provides, what piece of imagery to focus on, whether the character's big nose signifies a lesser intelligence, etc. The temporary permanence (until the paper is thrown out, the website changed or the graffiti erased) of the cartoon allows a reader to revisit it, looking at the image from a different angle or reading the caption with a different inflection. By describing the cartoon, these variables all lock into the teller's interpretation, and a variety of possibilities becomes one.


I suppose this means that I'm arguing for never talking about cartoons, and only surreptitiously exchanging them like contraband in a gulag. But I mean it to describe my fears in blogging about the cartoon creation process.


This week's cartoon was to accompany the editorial on recent events at USDA -- specifically, an exodus of personnel from the CIO/CFO organization and CIO/CFO Charles Christopherson's efforts to deal with this. At the time I was working on the cartoon, there still seemed to be a lot of questions concerning the cause of the departures, with no clear reason standing out. In my discussion with Chris D. (FCW editor in chief and the FCW Insider blogger) we touched on a couple of editorial angles:



  • Christopherson has been described as a "strong" leader, but what does that mean if nobody is around to lead or follow?

  • With a change of administrations looming, agencies will be filled more and more with "acting" appointments, which means that day-to-day operations will continue, but no big changes or decisions will be made.


I tried, and rejected, a cartoon sketch on the first point. The caption "on the plus side" is a personal cliche for me. In many cartoon concepts, I come up with a cartoon with that caption, or a version of it ("on the other hand," "the good news is," "on the bright side," etc.). It is usually an early concept, and one I try to move on. At the risk of giving away trade secrets, if you ever see my final cartoon with an "on the plus side" caption, it means I think it is a really good cartoon, or I'm having a really bad day. 


You decide. Here is the sketch.



I also tried my obligatory caricature of Mr. Christopherson, in case the drawing of his face would help spring some ideas -- such as resignation notes sticking out of his ears or something. While I did not find any appropriate ideas, I did find him to have great features for a caricature -- full head of hair and a strong nose.


In looking for a negative angle -- remember, positive editorial cartoons are usually soft -- I didn't feel I had enough information to lay any blame at Christopherson's feet, although I did find it surprising that someone who had made it to that position was -- at least according to the print record I researched -- a relatively unknown quantity. In reading through the articles that did exist, one line caught my eye. Someone who was asked about the people who had left the agency mentioned that these people "were the face of USDA to industry," which led to the final image:


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