Paranoia in Printing?

November 29th, 2008 | Posted in General

The new book above by former New York Times Op-Ed art director of 13 years Jerelle Kraus promises to be an interesting look into the thought process, decision making and insider information of the approval (or rejection) of illustration in the Times’ Op-Ed pages. The book’s description states that within you will find:

Episodic essays accompanied by illustrations re-create the battles between art directors and editors that have raged since the Times created the world’s first op-ed page in 1970. The works of famous Times illustrators like Brad Holland and Roland Topor, are enriched by Kraus’s presentation of the controversies associated with their publication or rejection.

In a recent article about the book in the New York Post, the author was quoted as saying:

editors were convinced that illustrators always were trying to put something over on them, sneaking in hidden sexual or political statements.

The article goes on to say caricatures were a subject of particular scrutiny by the editors:

For years, there was a puzzling prohibition on caricatures of famous people, and even the most explosive opinion would be accompanied by a watered-down picture. If the pen was mightier than the sword, editors believed that art was more brutal than the pen.

Very interesting. The Post article contains several samples of rejected illustrations, including caricatures from the likes of Robert Grossman, David Levine, Ward Sutton and Andy Warhol. Many of the rejected images seem to be thought to too closely resemble sexual imagery.

That may seem paranoid, and much of it likely was, but there are plenty of stories of how editors and art directors have been burned and embarrassed by illustrators doing something sneaky like hiding sexual symbols, political agenda, subliminal messages and the like into their artwork, so it’s hard to blame editors for being a little gun shy. Still, most of the rejections I’ve seen that this book cites are ridiculous in the extreme.

One of the more famous “urban legends” of subliminal illustration shenanigans was the story that has circulated for years that one of the spires in the underwater castle depicted in background of the poster for “The Little Mermaid” was in fact a phallus deliberately drawn by a disgruntled Disney artist who was about to be fired (see close up, right). The issue reached national attention thanks to an article in Entertainment Weekly in the mid 90’s, and plenty of rumor and innuendo followed.

The story of the image being done on purpose by an angry soon-to-be ex Disney artist has been reported as false by several sources, including being debunked on, the rumor examining website. According to snopes, which cites several reliable sources, “The plain truth is that the resemblance between the castle spire and a penis was purely accidental, and it was drawn by an artist who was neither disgruntled nor about to be dismissed.” The artist in question was a freelancer who did a lot of promotional art for the film including greeting cards, Happy Meal Boxes, etc. and who claims that is was purely an accidental resemblance. The entire design of the undersea objects are phallic, so I suppose it could have just happened. I have to admit that even at four in the morning, as the artist claims was the time he was working on it, I would be hard pressed not to notice that the above element looked and awful lot like a penis. Hence the persistent rumors.

That one may have been accidental, but there are some that are not. I got into a little hot water once in high school when, as the school paper’s editorial cartoonist, I inserted a subliminal message in the background of a cartoon that went unnoticed by the editors. Only after publication did someone point out to school administration that the letters on the books in the background of a school library scene spelled out a derogatory comment about a kid in school I didn’t get along too well with. That got me tossed off the newspaper staff, and taught me a valuable lesson about abusing trust. Later I was let back on the school paper and one of my cartoons was nominated for a state award… more importantly I’d learned my lesson.

I happen to know that certain artists who have worked for MAD garner(ed) special attention from the editorial staff, who had to pour over the backgrounds of their illustrations to make sure something didn’t get slipped by them. That is sad, IMO. As an illustrator it should go without saying that you are being trusted not to pull that kind of crap and try to sneak in some little inside joke or personal statement that isn’t what your client intends to convey. I can use the poor but still valid excuse that I was a dumb kid of 14 when I drew that cartoon that got me kicked off the school paper. As a professional today I would never think to do that sort of thing. The closest I get is putting the faces of people I know into the work I do, but that is a different animal… I have to draw SOMEBODY as a secondary character in these illustrations… it may as well be a familiar face.

Getting back to the book, it looks like an interesting stocking stuffer for the illustrator who has it all.


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New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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