From Benjamin Franklin to contemporary editorial cartoonists like Chan Lowe, opinion cartoons in America date back hundreds of years.
Lowe's award-winning, nationally syndicated work has appeared in the New York Times and numerous other publications. In recent years, as editorial cartoonists' positions have been cut from newspaper budgets across the country, some, like Lowe, have maintained their cartooning as one of several arrows in a journalistic quiver. Lowe now puts pen to paper at The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, but his career began some 40 years ago at a small Oklahoma newspaper. Then, drafting an editorial cartoon was largely done by hand. Today, Lowe uses a mix of old-school techniques — pen, ink and paper — and 21st-century tools like Photoshop.
"I'm a dinosaur. But I have to admit that this is a wonderful development, being able to use computer apps to color your work," Lowe said in his office while mousing over a recently created cartoon.
As newspapers across the country have closed or downsized, editorial cartoonists have been among the positions cut.
Of the 250 to 275 editorial cartoonists working in America today, it's likely fewer than 50 of those people hold full-time staff positions, and many have responsibilities beyond cartooning, according to the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC). That's a vast change from the 1980s when about 200 papers had a staff cartoonist, said JP Trostle, the AAEC's digital editor.
After 35 years as an editorial cartoonist with the Florida Sun-Sentinel, Lowe's job was eliminated in 2015.
But Lowe, a Williams College graduate, eventually took it as an opportunity to return to Berkshire County, a place said he was always fond of. In a sense, it's a return to his roots. He created his first editorial cartoon for his alma mater's paper some 40 years ago.
"My wife and I are both very happy that we managed to escape Florida without being horizontal when it happened, because a lot of people never get out unless they check out," Lowe said. "And I am back here now, and I am very happy about it."
Now, as The Berkshire Eagle's Deputy Editorial Page Editor, Lowe's workload includes writing editorials and creating opinion cartoons. He said switching between writing and drawing is a welcome challenge.
"It exercises different muscles in your head," Lowe said. "There's far less nuance with cartoons, where you go for the punch. You go for the kick in the head. With editorials sometimes, you want to back into a topic and get people to see it your way through persuasion. "
Still, Lowe said he isn't necessarily interested in convincing readers to agree with him.
"I am asking them to question the point of view that they have," he said. "Is it based on reason, is it based on logical arguments? Is it based on up bringing?"
Lowe said he's always gratified when an editorial cartoon provokes a response from readers. But he said there is a misconception that cartoons need to be funny, which is not the case.
"I particularly enjoy drawing cartoons that expose the situation for readers. You can do a lot of explaining in a cartoon that helps clarify an issue for folks," he said.
Whatever the issue, Lowe's likely to find a way to make his point known, whether through written editorials or the cartoons he draws.