Cartoonist Matt Bors announced last week that he’ll no longer be creating and publishing weekly political cartoons—18 years and over 1,600 cartoons after the former Portlander and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist first started making them.
Bors is very much staying in the comics business: He’ll continue to run groundbreaking graphic journalism magazine The Nib, plans to focus on fiction and other comic genres, and will also begin consulting on a comics app. But his announcement still marks the end of an era: Before alt-weeklies began their long decline in the late aughts, Bors’ lefty comic strip ran in about 25 publications, including the Mercury. Some of his comics have taken on a life of their own on social media, rising to the level of of meme-dom, such as the "Mister Gotcha” cartoon from 2016 which skewers a certain popular conservative reactionary response to anyone who dares hope for progress.
The Mercury recently spoke with Bors about his decision to end his weekly political cartoons, and the future of comics in a post-print era.
MERCURY: In your announcement post, you wrote about why you’ve decided to quit political cartooning. I’d like to ask you the inverse question to that: What kept you going as a weekly cartoonist for 18 years, through some seriously grim times in American politics?
BORS: I was motivated from the beginning to say something political about what was going on—originally, that was the Iraq war, and that turned into other things over the years. I had grown tired of it at various points in time, because following the news and social media constantly can be pretty draining. But I was pretty successful and fairly good at it, so it became automatic for me to do it every week.
I had a lot more clients back in the day, too. A lot more papers ran me in the early 2000s, and it’s been kind of a steady decline. In the last 10 years, I’ve probably had more success in my career in a way—certainly more visibility online and all that—but fewer paying outlets where my stuff was running.
The Nib has become a huge part of my career and work life. I’m running The Nib almost full-time—that needs my attention, and I love publishing it. I came to realize that political cartoons were less and less fun for me over the years. As Trump left office, and now we’re coming out of the pandemic, I decided that stepping away from it—it wouldn’t be a big loss of money anymore, and I could walk away from this and do some of the other types of comics that I’ve always wanted to do.
When did the number of publications running your work start to decrease?
I never made a ton of money from my weekly comic, not enough that you would consider it a full-time living on that alone. But in the time of print comics, I was running in the Village Voice and a lot of other alt-weeklies: Boston Phoenix, Cleveland Free Times, a ton of stuff like that. And one by one, they all started to fall off. Especially in 2008, the year of the crash, a lot of alt-weeklies cut back tremendously.
The last regular print client I had was the Portland Mercury. So then they went bi-weekly, and I realized there was no longer a paper that printed me every week anymore. And then they stopped printing entirely, and I lost that client. That one sucked, because Portland was where I lived—I lived there for 14 years [until moving to Canada recently.]
There are still places online that run me—I’ve run on Daily Kos for at least 10 years now—but it’s not a lot.
As print publications start to drop, it seems like people are still trying to figure out how to run successful online-only outlets, especially smaller niche ones. What has that meant for comics creators?
For comics, there hasn’t been much of a replacement at all. A lot of people are making money through Patreon and things like that, which is great, but there’s not a lot of support from publications the way there used to be. A lot of the big and small [online] outlets never really picked up comics at all.
That’s one of the reasons I made The Nib…. Specifically political cartoons, if you look at it as an industry, it’s pretty bleak. There’s not really any new jobs, or even many freelance gigs anymore.
As you mentioned, you started making political cartoons in the George W. Bush years, during the start of the Iraq war. That was a pretty awful time for American political discourse—but do you think our political discourse has actually gotten worse?
Yeah. Obviously, a lot of it has to do with social media now. Back when I started, people would still write you angry emails.
I think anyone who spends a lot of time online, especially if they have a big public profile, will tell you that social media is really intense and batshit these days. It just really gets exhausting—that’s not the reason I quit, but it’s an added bonus that I don’t have to have my head in it everyday.
As far as political discourse goes, a lot of the stuff I make fun of is on the right. These people are just completely detached from reality with Q-Anon shit, so it feels a little bit like spinning your wheels to draw cartoons about it constantly. Not that I think a political cartoon by itself is going to change anything, but there’s only so many ways you can make fun of this stuff. There’s only so many times you can go at the same issues.
I follow you on Twitter, and I noticed in the last few weeks you’ve been posting old cartoons of yours that relate to the current moment, like the anti-vaxxer one from 2015. Have you been going through a lot of your past work now that you’re retiring the weekly cartoon?
I was looking through some of my old work, knowing I was going to quit. I’m now looking at stuff that’s 10 years old that I haven’t seen in that long, and I have the distance to look at it with fresh eyes and maybe appreciate the work. The work isn’t really for me—it’s to be read by other people—and when you obsess over stuff at the drawing table, you’re not really able to assess whether it’s good or not.
Looking back at stuff, I’m happy with comics I’ve done, and some of them hold up and are applicable to what’s going on now. And then some things, it’s about what some politician said some week in 2008, and no one cares. No one cared a week later, really.
You mentioned in your announcement post that you’ll be working on an app called Tinyview. Can you tell me more about it?
The founder of this app, Raj Lalwani, got in touch with me about getting some artists to publish on this new comics app he had developed. It’s designed to be read on phones, and you can pay a little bit for extra comics or exclusive comics.
The goal is very different from The Nib. It’s broad in genres, all ages, and trying to recreate the vibe of the Sunday comics section. I’d talked to Raj about being involved with the app—it’s a very part-time gig, but I’m going to help out with editorial work and advising, and bringing on new kinds of comics.
Is there anything else you want folks to know about your upcoming work?
I just want to be clear that I’m still working full-time, and most of what I do is running The Nib. My life will probably be freer without that [political cartoon] weekly deadline, but I’m going to fill that space by doing comics still.
I’m not retired from comics in any way. So there will be less of my work—it won’t be published every week—but I’m not leaving cartooning.