Four panels and a punch line: Wasserman's political cartoons

We've Been Framed!, cartoons by Dan Wasserman. Boston: Faber & Faber. 128 pp. $8.95. Across the country, in newspaper editorial offices, there are scarcely more than 100 people doing what Dan Wasserman does for the Boston Globe. Most cartoonists' careers never take off, and they are forced back to honest work. But for a privileged few, real opportunity shows up.

To keep himself alive until opportunity did knock, Wasserman had to work and wait, teaching, doing commercial art, and even writing speeches. He thought he had hit it in 1979, when he became a regular contributor to the venerable Washington Star. A year later the paper folded.

He spent five years toiling in the quagmire of independent syndication until landing at the Globe in '85, and from that time on his work has gained in acerbity and acceptance. The result, so far, is in ``We've Been Framed!'' a new collection from Faber & Faber.

Wasserman has perfected the paneled cartoon, usually four panels leading to a punch line, and already he's got his imitators. But he still thinks the state of American editorial cartooning is healthy. ``There are so many styles, lots of viewpoints represented.''

If there is a weakness in the art form, he says, it's a tendency to emphasize humor, which, even though readers love it, can take the place of good ideas. ``We just can't have everybody doing a graphic version of a Johnny Carson monologue,'' he says, noting that cartoons could become a ``medium of entertainment rather than provocation.''

Editorial cartooning is a demanding job, and Wasserman has been able to do it in one the nation's most politically tribal cities. There are no simple issues in Boston; the politics go back for more generations than anyone can remember. To put a strong cartoon on the Globe's editorial page takes a real belief in the First Amendment. As Pat Oliphant says in the introduction, you can't be ``overly concerned about bright lawn ornaments.''

Wasserman's work demands that you take your government seriously if you're going to get the joke. But if you do, you get a laugh, plus the compliment of being au courant.

Jeff Danziger is the Monitor's editorial cartoonist.

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