When the better angels of my nature prevail, and I opt for restraint, I’ve never regretted it.
“Once a cartoonist,” I used to say when something even slightly naughty popped out of my mouth—or from my pen. That quip served me for many years as an easy ticket to get away with naughtiness, straight-faced cattiness, or just a poorly managed bad mood. Someone’s cosmetic enhancement, for example: “Just wet her lips and stick her to the wall.”
I was a cartoonist from the day I put a fat #2 pencil to the margins of the funnies at the kitchen table, around age three. I was popular in grade school, with original paper dolls for a dime a sheet, poster contests, entertaining my cousins and illustrating my letters and envelopes with spot drawings.
How you discover that you’re onto something is that you are consistently rewarded for it. Pavlov, the pooch, the bell.
My gift for caricature surfaced in Mr. Ofelt’s seventh grade science class. Sitting in the back row of that classroom—the long, Formica-topped tables with small stainless steel sinks, smelling vaguely of formaldehyde, three kids to a table—rendering Mr. Ofelt’s striped bell bottoms, flowered shirt, long blond hair, sideburns, and open leather vest on my Pee Chee—my reward was cracking up the last row and Mr. Ofelt too, pretty much every weekday, in 8th period. And getting straight A’s in science. It’s wonderful to be the teacher’s pet. Distinguished careers are so often made of this.
Because we naturally default to whatever has worked for us in the past. Yes, Darwin. But you might say this is also the kernel of the 10,000 Hour Rule, made famous by author Malcolm Gladwell, who convincingly postulates that if the Silver Beatles, as they originally were, hadn’t kept at it in grungy Hamburg clubs there would never have been a Beatles. (That, and the sudden appearance of genius manager-promoter Brian Epstein, not yet 30, in 1961.) In other words, given enough time, practice, false starts, restarts, appetite for solitude and willingness to burn midnight oil, we inevitably get better, even to mastery.
So I carried on, conspicuously drawing Adidas in the junior high school library to attract the attention of the cool boys, because I didn’t have the goods to make the cheerleading or girls’ varsity volleyball squads. (It didn’t work.) On to high school, where I became political cartoonist for the weekly school paper and won first place in national journalism contests two years in a row. At 20, freelancing three times weekly for the Portland State University campus newspaper (for example, “Jimmy Carter and His Taft-Hartley Act”—a vaudeville metaphor for something nobody cared about). Ultimately—10,000 hour reward—international newspaper syndication, but for such a short time it was a breakthrough really only because I was picked up just as newspapers, in actual newsprint, and newspaper syndicates began dying off like dodos in the nascent digital era. My accomplishment really was more about marketing to skeptics than skill with political caricature.
Still, in conventional syndication with growing exposure, where I indulged in caricature in almost every editorial cartoon, I was increasingly rewarded with invitations to speak or sit on panels at arcane cartooning conclaves, with the bonus of hanging out with and even befriending a few big names. With a compulsively PBS rather than popular touch, I acquired a healthy respect. A United States Senator had his press secretary call me, to ask politely if the senator might have a copy of the very unflattering cartoon of him that had been syndicated all the way to the Jerusalem Post. That was, I think, my 10,000 Hour Sweet Spot of caricature. There followed commissions, more submissions and, in 2013, an anthology of editorial portraits of women in the news. By then, illustration for the media Twitterverse in the retro mediums of graphite and watercolor was neither fast nor cost-effective enough for anyone concerned, especially the artist. Right-click stealing had already long been rampant; in syndication, I’d already suffered the compliment of having Pulitzer Prize winners literally trace my published work in their own style, and openly syndicating to their own far bigger lists, twice.
Today, I’m retiring from editorial caricature.
Around 2015, I felt a creeping reticence every time I came up with a hot subject—target—and went through the organic pleasures of sketching and painting, scanning and formatting, right up to the moment of pushing the button to post or publish. Then stopped. On Election Day 2016, it seemed there was only one subject: not the obvious (since everyone was obsessing about him, anything I came up with would only be redundant), but his second press secretary, Sarah Sanders. I saw Sanders through to final art, just to get her out of my system. For four years, I’ve had Melania, McConnell, and Pelosi queued up, sketched in pencil but nothing more, literally gathering dust.
Because I’ve come to realize that, for me, caricature is mean spirited, even if unintentionally. And for what? Not money, for sure. Today, professional opinion and satire are an expensive risk. In 2019 even Mad magazine, the citadel of satirical caricature, finally went down. You can’t make a living at it now. In fact, you might not survive trying to do so. Just ask Charlie Hebdo.
Caricature is a visual commentary, a subjective spot opinion as is all editorial work. People will always collect art, including caricature, of themselves; but would there be a market, since it’s all about marketing, for the incomparable Al Hirschfeld today? If not thoughtfully handled, caricature has power not just to amuse, incite, or even persuade but to wound and even destroy people. By the caricature standard of success, nothing anyone who sees the caricature might or might not do for the rest of their lives—including most of all the subject—will reverse whatever flash-burned onto their lizard brain. The hard drive never, ever truly forgets. Again, for what? Only one mean little reward for the artist is possible. You post, or publish, this thing with the conceit that it might be seen and that somewhere, someone felt at least some kind of visceral tic. Hey, another follower!
Casting bread upon such water is a dubious impulse. Think, for a moment, what actually happens to bread on water.
In fact, it’s going beyond the merely satirical or witty to casual condemnation. Damning the subject—that is, target—as frivolous, vicious, stupid, evil, ridiculous, contemptible or just plain worthless. And in doing so, damning them to everybody they know or ever knew. Regardless of any future redemption, repentance or worthy accomplishments, and regardless of whatever goaded you to single them out and throw your stone, it’s out there. Googleable, forever.
There’s an interesting movement gaining notice in the last few years: people leaving their mobile devices at the door, when entering restaurants. Ditching social media for actual socializing. A backlash for authenticity. Those restaurants are becoming very, very popular. Maybe graphite and watercolor on Bristol paper, for publication on any platform, will make a comeback. And maybe, for the world’s greatest jugglers, vaudeville isn’t dead.
Moments ago, I got up and shredded the dusty sketches. The better angels have so many other things to do.