Thursday, November 5, 2009

The stuff that dreams are made of: Arrested development as a career strategy

Here is a piece I wrote at the request of staff at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art. They asked for something to provide context for my collected works for the Anchorage Daily News. About 25 years of political cartoons along with numerous and varied illustrations for news stories now reside at the museum. Thanks to the Daily News for helping to make this possible. Word from the museum is that some of the work will go on display next January as part of the new acquisitions show.

What was I thinking?
How and why I became a cartoonist

The danger of asking a boy what he wants to be when he grow up is that he'll answer with something ridiculous and impractical. And then stick with it. That's been my formula for success. I got bitten by the cartoon bug back in the mid-sixties when I was in the second grade. In the optimistic, can-do, post-earthquake Alaska anything seemed possible, even that a person could make a living drawing cartoons for a newspaper. So, when asked that perennial question "What do you want to be when you grow up" I changed my answer from garbageman to cartoonist.

By the time I was a fifth grader, I realized that no serious person could answer "cartoonist" when asked what they did for a living. Cartooning at that time meant "Blondie" or "Beetle Bailey" or, God forbid, "The Flintstones". I could imagine the pitying looks of other adults when I confessed this sadly childish profession.

Then a wonderful thing happened: The Watergate burglary. Suddenly satire was deadly serious, and cartoonists were up front with the best of them. Herblock was recognized along with Woodward and Bernstein when the Washington Post was awarded its Pulitzer for Watergate coverage. And nobody surpassed a transplanted Australian named Pat Oliphant. Oliphant's graphic line was, and still is, as eloquent as his wicked sense of humor and moral outrage.

I was quickly caught up in what the drawings were talking about: High crimes, war, bigotry, the environment, and economics . Challenged and excited by this material, I soon had my own subscription to Time magazine, provided by my exasperated parents who would constantly find their copy missing or dismembered. I would clip the cartoons from the magazines for my collection, leaving the pages full of holes. Now, when asked what I planned to do when I grew up, I refined my answer to "political cartooning".

It is a cliche of cartooning that cartoonists start out as subversive doodlers who will draw at all times at all costs, in spite of or even because of oppression at school from humorless teachers and principals. Heroically, compulsively, our budding cartoonist draws on, fighting authority and cultivating an image as a merry martyr of irreverence.

This was the first cliche I avoided as a cartoonist. I met nothing but support from my parents and teachers. My family kept me supplied with pens and paper, and from time to time they would throw in books on cartooning for my birthday. More important, my Dad especially had a genuine appreciation of good cartooning and was willing to discuss his view of a cartoon. He also taught me to love Bill Mauldin, especially his WWII cartoons.

My teachers encouraged me to draw for school projects. And my classmates egged me on, awarding me the honor of "Most Artistic" in the sixth grade. I've often thought that my career was just an extension of my school days habit of entertaining classmates with drawings.

I went on at preparing myself for cartooning, majoring in art at Whitman College, taking political science and history classes, and doing cartoons for the school paper. Preparation was important: One needed to be ready to make the most of the small chance of getting hired for a staff job. Documenting the number of staff cartooning positions in U.S. newspapers has always been difficult but during my time in the trade, I doubt it ever exceeded 300.

As luck would have it, when I returned to Alaska from college, my hometown of Anchorage was the stage for one of the last competitive newspaper struggles. The long dominant and deeply conservative Anchorage Times was being challenged by the newly reinvigorated and mildly left-wing Anchorage Daily News. The Times had a local cartoonist. The Daily News didn't. Philosophically, I was much more in harmony with the Daily News. After an interview with editor Stan Abbott I started doing a weekly cartoon for editorial page editor Steve Lindbeck: $25 bucks a pop, and all the glory you could handle. For me, it was the stuff that dreams are made of. To cover the stuff that real life is made of, like rent and groceries, I worked at Blaine's Art and Frame shop.

After about six months of freelancing to the Daily News (during which I doubled my cartooning income from $25 a week to $50 a week by upping my quota of cartoons for the paper to two), I got a call asking if I would be interested in a job. They explained that half the job would be creating cartoons and half would be a variety of graphic chores from updating the weather map to creating elaborate charts and feature illustrations. They asked me if I could do all that. I answered with an unequivocal "Yes."

While unequivocal, this yes was entirely theoretical. I hadn't graphed anything since high school math and even back in that day, it wasn't my strong suit. As for maps, that went back to high school as well. They asked me if I could start right away. I protested that I needed to give two weeks notice. I would have done this anyway, but in truth I used much of that two weeks to borrow every book I could from the library on making charts etc. so I could do half my job. I showed up that first day ready to either thrive, or be fired for incompetence.

Led by the idealistic and resourceful Kay Fanning, and staffed by talented editors and writers like Howard Weaver, Stan Abbott and Mike Campbell, the Daily News was a creative hothouse that was an ideal environment for a green cartoonist. Steve Lindbeck, my first editor, was smart and demanding, the first in a line of amazing editors who were my supporters, teachers and friends.

Less than a year out of college I had my dream job. And that's when the learning began. As a member of the Daily News editorial board I got to meet and interview Alaskans from Jay Hammond to Indigenous activist Charlie "Etok" Edwardson. I went to Juneau many times to see the legislature and the rest of state government in the ungainly throes of the lawmaking process. On the graphics side, I got to work alongside and learn from talented people like Dee Boyles, Susan Berry, Ron Engstrom, and my wife, Pam.

Graphics frustrated me. As an ambitious cartoonist, I saw them as a distraction from my real purpose. But appreciation of a good illustration or photo led to an understanding that for this work to shine, it needed a foundation of good design. This in turn led to an explosion of excitement on the discovery of a hidden world of transparent beauty in the elegance of letter forms and the use of space and mass on a page. I never got especially good at graphics, but I came to love them when well-executed. For awhile it became difficult to read, as I would become distracted by the type and the way it was set and displayed on the page. The trees obscured the forest, but what beautiful trees!

Did the Daily News impose any limits on me? Yes. They hired me with a strong understanding that I would concentrate on state and local politics. It seems so obvious right now, but as a young cartoonist bred on a diet of national political cartoons, I chafed at first under this stricture. Time brought change. The longer I worked at it, the more I came to agree with Kansas City Star cartoonist Lee Judge that national political comment is a Faustian bargain. National topics seems grander, and there's a thrill to saying to yourself "I guess I showed the President THIS time!" But unless you are Herblock, chances are the President didn't notice. There's just to much noise out there, especially with the advent of the internet, to have much impact on the national or World level. Anyway, that's Bono's job. The local and state level are a different story.

Over time I came to not only understand but embrace the possibility in local satire. For starters, I had the local bozos almost entirely to myself, with only occasional competition from the other cartoonists. Alaska is richly endowed with oil, fish, and buffoons. And when, God forbid we ever run out of the first two, the annual buffoon runs will still be strong. People used to say to me, "What are you going to do when you don't have Frank Murkowski to kick around anymore?" I'd just smile and reply with a faith that was as strong as it was simple, "Something else will come along." Enter Sarah Palin. And while Bogey and Bergman may always have Paris, it's looking like I'll always have Don Young.

As Thoreau said, "It is not enough simply to be busy, the question is what are we busy about?" So what was my agenda as a cartoonist? First, I saw cartooning as an extension of citizenship. The framers of the constitution protected our right of speech, not in some empty gesture towards Platonic ideals, but as an expectation that we would use it. Cartooning seemed to me to be a great way to stick your oar in and get paid for it. Second, as one who was reared in Anchorage I wanted to help shape my young state and community in a way that meant dignity and quality of life for the individuals who lived here as part of that community. Third, as one who had a bully pulpit, I wanted to use that pulpit for those who were somehow excluded or disenfranchised by the larger culture. Fourth I wanted to have fun. This is the only area where I met with unqualified success.

When I returned from college I thought there was a possibility of an Alaskan "Third Way" embodied most visibly in the Bush Rat Governor Jay Hammond, but whose strains were also present in the work of Supreme Court Justice Jay Rabinowitz, and even in the younger conservative but not doctrinaire Ted Stevens. Alaska could be a state where Republicans could insist that development meet community desires and where Democrats owned guns. Where drilling for oil could go on where it made sense, and national parks could preserve our magnificent and unique environment. Crazy, I know, but if ever a state was large enough to accommodate difference...

I aimed the Third Way and started blasting.

Did my work make a difference? Hard to measure. I've been told by both then-representative Con Bunde and members of the anti-tobacco camp that cartoon pressure saved Bunde's bill to hike the cigarette tax to a dollar. The bill was held in a death grip by House Speaker Gail Phillips. A barrage of cartoons made it too hot to hang on to. Once loose, it went on to become law, saving lives and money. But all the cartoons in the world couldn't get a rural subsistence preference amendment to the state constitution passed, or force a fiscal plan through the Alaska Legislature.

I also discovered through phone calls and conversations with readers that there is a micro level where a cartoonist can have impact on the individual, be they an anonymous bigot inflamed over a cartoon advocating gay rights, or a messenger shot for bearing bad news who calls to say it makes a difference that at least someone understood. There's a wonderful Jewish saying that to save one life is to save a universe. By that logic, if I afflicted one bigot or comforted one victim of injustice then I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.


  1. Thanks Peter for giving us all that background. How did they get you to do it in prose and not a comic strip? Also, was struck by the omission of Garry Trudeau among your role models among political cartoonists.

  2. The first question is easy, writing is way simpler than creating comics. The second question is a matter of personal history. Trudeau did great work during Watergate (most memorable, a rabid Mark Slackmeyer proclaiming "Guilty, guilty, guilty!") But this work was not easily available in the Alaska of that day. I didn't see it until later.

    On any given day Trudeau makes most comic strip creators look like posers. His world has become as rich as a Dickens Novel. Bless him for not faltering and deserting his audience as others have understandably done.

    Their are other greats out there who do incandescent work, especially Edward Sorel, David Levine, Steve Brodner and Philip Burke. The list goes on and on, the more artists I think of, the more names crowd in behind. But the drawings of Oliphant and Mauldin were the reasons I wanted to become a cartoonist.