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Making a Caricature of the World
A big hug is better than 1,000 words.

Joseph George Szabo, a Hungarian-born cartoonist now living in Pennsylvania, the United States, found that was the best way to express his feelings after receiving an exceptional gift from He Wei, a veteran Chinese cartoonist and senior editor of Workers Daily, in Beijing on Monday.

The gift was a 1992-issue of Chinese Cartoon magazine featuring Szabo's own works, a review by He on him, and an article also by He introducing the Witty World magazine Szabo founded in 1987 and edited for 12 years.

"It's amazing," said Szabo, who is now President & CEO of the Witty World International Features Syndicate, a global cartoon service. He appeared genuinely surprised that someone in China would be so familiar with work he did many years ago, when he was struggling to keep the magazine alive. The magazine folded in 1999, after Szabo suffered serious health problems.

"That's probably one of the earliest grounds of Sino-US exchanges in the field of cartooning in New China." He told a conference hosted by China Daily at its office forum for Chinese and foreign cartoonists to exchange views on Monday.

The other two visiting foreign cartoonists were Rolf Heimann from Australia and Ana von Rebeur from Argentina. The remaining Chinese cartoonists included Wang Fuyang, Sun Yizeng, Xu Jin, Liu Manhua, Zhang Yaoning and Li Jianhua.

"We hope this conference will be another major impetus to enhance dialogue and co-operation between Chinese and foreign cartoonists, especially in the field of news cartoons," said Zhang Yaoning, an active cartoonist and director of the Art Department of China Daily, who organized the conference.

Living as Cartoonists

"Don't tell anybody you are writing books! My wife always tells me." The amusing quip delivered by Heimann triggered hearty laughter among the cartoonists, who all understood what he meant. "I don't earn enough money through cartooning, so I write some books."

"Generally speaking, cartoonists in China are not raking in the dough either. But it depends on what organizations, professions and locations they are working in," said Wang, director of the Committee of Cartoon Art under the Chinese Artists' Association.

According to Wang, the lives of most Chinese cartoonists are quite stable with no real hiccups when it comes to economic survival, largely because most of the 2,000 cartoonists in China have full-time jobs. Some of the cartoonists work as editors or art directors for newspapers and magazines. Many others, however, are freelance cartoonists coming from other professions. Only a few Chinese cartoonists are full-time freelancers, but they are usually better paid because their work is of a more commercial nature.

"This is the best situation," said Szabo. He explained that of the 2,500 cartoonists in the United States, only about 70 have full-time jobs. Although some leading cartoonists from national newspapers are quite well paid, a majority of freelance cartoonists in the United States are facing considerable financial burdens.

Despite the monetary woes, most cartoonists around the world enjoy their careers in cartooning and are not just interested in money. Szabo said: "My organization once did a survey of world cartoonists on the Internet. It found that they make cartoons 65 per cent for satisfaction in creation and 17 per cent for satisfaction in money. Fame is one of the other factors."

China Daily Cartoons

Sun Yizeng, president of the China Journalistic Caricature Society, said: "It's very interesting that almost all the best cartoonists of China are working for newspapers, both national and local."

He noted that major newspapers such as People's Daily, China Daily and Workers Daily, publish news cartoons each day or publish cartoon supplements two or three times a month. Most of the cartoons are produced by staff cartoonists with the rest coming from freelancers.

"I was impressed that the art department of China Daily has four full-time cartoonists. As far as I know, there is only one publication in the United States that has more than two staff cartoonists," said Szabo. "China Daily publishes wonderful cartoons. They all make sense, are well drafted and have a unique humor. They are always given a prominent area and I can see a wide range of issues covered," he added.

China Daily news cartoons appear every day on its Opinion page and are often quick responses to current affairs in China and the rest of the world. Most of China Daily's staff cartoonists are senior editors, who have won major news cartoon prizes and are quite influential in the Chinese cartoon community.

The newspaper has also launched a news cartoon website (www.newscartoon.com.cn) in conjunction with the China Journalistic Caricature Society. A leading database of contemporary Chinese cartooning, the website has become increasingly popular among Chinese cartoonists and cartoon fans.

"China Daily has grown up to be a national leader in news cartooning," said Liu Manhua, a cartoonist and editor from the China Children News, "not only because news cartoon is given so much weight here, but also because of the newspaper's active role in promoting communication among Chinese cartoonists and especially in serving as a bridge between cartoonists from China and abroad."

Cartoon vs Art

Liu also said news cartoonists in China should place more emphasis on the artistic level of their work, rather than just focusing on content and humor. "News cartoonists need to be encouraged to experiment with more diverse methods and techniques to make their images more impressive and unique," he said.

His words were echoed by Li Jianhua, senior cartoonist at China Daily and one of the few female cartoonists in the country.

"I was trained in fine art in college and would always regard myself more as an artist. But now I find I am more and more obsessed by news cartoons and my position in a leading English newspaper in China has greatly broadened my perspective. This is very helpful in being an artist, cartoonist and journalist," said Li.

But Szabo and Rebeur both said that news cartoons, or political cartoons, are in fact a lesser art. Some Chinese cartoonists also agreed that news cartoons should stress more meaning and function from a journalistic perspective.

The Chinese and foreign cartoonists were also interested to learn they share more similarities than differences on sensitive issues such as censorship. For example, publications in China, the United States, Australia and Argentina are all cautious when publishing news cartoons that may offend their readership or spark discrimination and disputes in race, genre, religion or international politics.

"Another thing that has puzzled me is: Why are there so few women cartoonists in China? In other professions and art forms, there are far more women. Is it because women are often lacking in humor?" asked Li.

Rebeur responded that it is actually a universal problem. "I am afraid it's not that women lack humor. Many women are actually quite humorous, especially when they are with other women."

"Perhaps it's because women tend to be more gentle and feminine while men are more vicious and aggressive," Szabu said.

It is certainly not easy to find an answer to everything so quickly.

But it is certain that more witty and in-depth dialogues will continue between Chinese cartoonists and their international counterparts in the future.

(China Daily February 26, 2003)

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