Remember the Ryatts
Updated: Apr 10
In the heyday of newspapers, cartoonists were kings. Today there are just a handful. Invitation Magazines editorial assistant Abbey Edmonson is descended from cartoon royalty J.P. Alley and Cal Alley, and recently studied under Pulitzer nominee Marshall Ramsey.
Written by Abbey Edmonson | Images Contributed by the Edmonson Family and Marshall Ramsey
Many people don’t know who their ancestors are, let alone what they did in their lives. I’m lucky enough to know a little about both, and what my ancestors did was pretty cool.
My great-great-grandfather was J.P. Alley, an editorial cartoonist for the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tennessee. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for one of his cartoons.
J.P.’s son, Cal Alley, continued his father’s legacy at the Commercial Appeal, and he developed a comic strip called “The Ryatts.” The characters in The Ryatts very closely resembled the Alley children, the oldest of which, Jerrianne, was my grandmother. We have pictures of Cal and his family all over our house. His anecdotes, based upon daily events in their lives, are an endearing window into my family’s past.
My great-grands’ cartoons had influence in the age before the internet. J.P. in particular often tackled issues considered taboo in the South at the time — such as the anti-hate-group cartoon that earned him the Pulitzer. Growing up, I knew that both men’s work held some sort of significance, but I was too young to fully appreciate it.
I remember seeing J.P.’s cartoon on a wall at a Smithsonian museum, but I didn’t stop to think about how impressive that truly was.
Cal said in his biography, “Producing a cartoon requires 10 hours and 20 minutes — 10 hours to think of an idea and 20 minutes to put it on paper.” The nature of editorial cartooning requires most sketches to be done on a day-to-day basis in order to ensure their timeliness. He carried his drawing materials with him everywhere, on holidays, vacations, even when he went out to dinner. My great-grandmother used to say that drawing was his whole life.
I had never paid much attention to editorial cartoons, and I didn’t know the history of the art at all. I figured my artistic genes came from that side of the family, but that was pretty much all I knew about it. It wasn’t until the fall of 2019, when I was given an amazing opportunity through the School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi, that my eyes were opened to the wonderful world of editorial cartooning.
Marshall Ramsey is a well-established editorial cartoonist and editor-at-large for Mississippi Today in Jackson. He’s also host of the MPB Think Radio show, “Now You’re Talking with Marshall Ramsey.” A two-time Pulitzer finalist, he graciously agreed to come to Oxford once a week to teach a class on editorial cartooning, and I was lucky enough to be in it.
Some people may question why I decided to take a class on a form of media that seems to be dying out. As Ramsey told us on the first day, only a handful of cartoonists are left in the world, and one of them was standing in that room. I knew I had to take the class, both for the sake of my family history and because I was genuinely interested. But I was nervous.
I remember that first day of class very well. Ramsey had us go around the room and explain why we wanted to take the class. On my turn, I bashfully recited my family story. He asked the names of my cartoonist relatives, and when I told him, his eyes lit up in recognition.
“Oh, those are some of the greats,” he exclaimed. “You’re, like, cartoon royalty!”
That statement gave me all the confidence I needed to proceed. It made me proud, and I wanted to make Cal and J.P. proud, too.
I do possess some semblance of artistic ability, but I’d never attempted to harness the wit and skill necessary to create an editorial cartoon. Luckily, that semester we had a gold mine of topics to inspire us. Each week, four other young women and I came to class with a finished cartoon that took a stance on a newsworthy event. And each week, Ramsey welcomed us with snacks, a lecture and a visit from a figure in the journalism world.
I didn’t understand how deep cartooning really goes until I took Ramsey’s class.
Cartooning is so much more than drawing something funny. It’s about making a statement on a subject that you have an opinion about and making that statement clear enough that other people are able to understand your viewpoint. That’s the main takeaway I got from Ramsey’s class. Artistic talent doesn’t matter if the message is not clear. Cartoons have the power to bring different viewpoints to the table, and I think that is beautiful.
Historically, cartoonists were really powerful. Back in the 1800s, many people couldn’t read. But they could open up the newspaper and there’d be a drawing they could visually relate to. They were still popular in the 1960s and ’70s. Then newspapers started cutting costs and stopped hiring cartoonists.
“Why pay a staff cartoonist $90,000 when you can buy syndicated cartoons for $15 a week?” Ramsey said. “They don’t have anything to do with your local community, but who cares? That was one of the things that helped speed up the demise of cartoonists working for a newspaper. That said, I think that visual communication still matters.”
Ramsey is adamant that, although newspapers have taken massive hits in recent years, cartooning is here to stay. As long as visual commentary is relevant, cartoons will be around. The trick is learning how to monetize it.
“The thing is, a few years ago, newspaper business changed,” Ramsey said. “I guess that’s a nice way of putting it. OK, it’s imploded. I was caught up in that, of course. … The good news was, it pushed me out of my comfort zone and made me go try new things. Some days I feel like I don’t even know where I am because I’ve got so many balls up in the air, but I love it.”
In addition to cartooning, Ramsey participates in events around the state, interviews people on television and radio, and writes books. In today’s climate, the internet is king. If you aren’t putting your stuff out there, then people won’t see it. It’s no longer like it was in the days of J.P. and Cal Alley when editorial cartoons were featured on the front page.
“They reflected the time and the place that they lived in,” Ramsey said. “Those guys — and I’m not just talking about your relatives — but those guys back then were like little quasi-celebrities. It was a big deal to be a cartoonist at that time. You usually had the best salary in the paper next to the publisher, and it was a good way to make a living. To be a cartoonist was to be royalty. And I guess in some ways, you are royalty.”
I certainly hope I can live up to those standards one day. Who knows? Maybe someday I will use my knowledge of the new media world to bring an old form of media — editorial cartooning — back to its former glory. For now, I’m happy just knowing that my family has made a mark on the world, and I’m pretty proud of that.
See more Marshall Ramsey cartoons and read the complete Q&A interview with him at invitationoxford.com/digital-details.