Ask A Pro
Examples of Work
Contributions to the Boss Hog series
On impeachment of President Clinton
On a nuclear missile shield
On the Supreme Court determining the 2000 election
On the candidates views of the budget surplus
A collection of books by Powell
The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.
How did you know that editorial cartooning was the right job for you?
Even though I majored in agri-business in college I had always drawn cartoons. However, my drawings, even in grade school, usually addressed some grievance or something that struck me as hypocritical or stupid. Because I had a reputation as the kid who drew all the time, I was frequently asked to do other types of art. Frankly, I wasn't interested in just drawing. It had to be a means to an end for me — a visual way to express my thoughts and feelings on current issues and issues more close to home, such as the school administration at my college. After trying illustration, pastel portraits, and humor panels, I finally realized that my true interest was in commentary, using the cartoon medium.
How did you train for your job?
If there was a starting point, it was probably drawing on the collection envelopes while sitting on the back pew of the First Methodist Church as a survival mechanism to Muzon Mann's sermons; same for school. I usually zoned out after the first 10 minutes and filled my notebooks with drawings of teachers or classmates with the biggest nose or ears. Same thing after I hit college. By then I was doing an occasional cartoon for the school paper.
One day I was buying paper for an English project at the stationery store in the front office of the Advance Monticellonian, the weekly newspaper serving Drew County; Frank Jackson, the editor, came out from the newsroom in back and walked over to me. He wanted me to draw a political cartoon for his paper, which he said he'd pay $5 for. Besides painting a sign for Jake's Catfish Farm, this was the first money I'd ever been offered to draw anything. The following Wednesday, my first editorial cartoon ran in his paper. I was a college junior at the time. That weekend I went home to visit my parents and when I opened the statewide Arkansas Gazette to look at my mentor, George Fisher's cartoon, mine was right below his on the Gazette's op ed page. They'd reproduced it from the Advance Monticellonian.
For the next several years, even while I was floundering around after college looking for jobs in my field of agri business, I continued doing the editorial cartoon for Jackson, and every Sunday I had one in the Gazette or the competing paper, The Arkansas Democrat. I had begun to get a lot of comment and feedback on my cartoons, and one day it just clicked that I was an editorial cartoonist. At that point I started the long, arduous task of finding a newspaper large enough to hire a full-time editorial cartoonist.
Who reviews your work before it gets published?
I run the rough sketch past Steve Ford, the editorial page editor and associate editor of the News & Observer. Steve and I are in pretty good sync politically and the only problems I might have would be questions of taste or whether or not the cartoon really worked to make the point. Now and then we go to the mat over one, but 90 percent of my ideas get through the first time.
How do you get ideas and inspiration?
The daily dose of news usually fires me up enough put my feelings on a topic into cartoon form. It is important to understand your topic, or should we say, know your prey, so I do a lot of reading and watch news shows. On really dry news days I might go for a topic outside the political arena. Good cartoons can be gleaned from about anything dealing with the human condition.
Do you consider yourself more of an artist or a journalist?
I'm a journalist. I just use a brush, India ink, and a 12' x 9" piece of Strathmore drawing paper to have my say instead of a word processor.
How can you tell if readers get your point?
That's hard to judge, unless you get a barrage of calls or emails asking for an explanation of the cartoon. When I get calls asking me to explain a cartoon it often becomes obvious that the reader hasn't read the paper or has no familiarity with the topic of the cartoon. When choosing a topic and constructing a metaphor, I can't sit around second-guessing whether or not the person viewing the cartoon is familiar with the subject. When something gets my fingers itching to draw about it, I just assume that a pretty good number of people who turn to the editorial page have at least a passing familiarity with the topic. A great way to judge how cartoons go over with readers is to do talks to various groups and schools. The feedback to the slides usually tells you quite quickly which ones "worked" and which didn't. Often the one getting the most reaction is the one I least expect it from.
How do you draw the line between being funny and sharp and not being mean and tasteless?
There is certainly something to be said for pushing the envelope, but it is possible to go over the line. A cartoon can be mean, but as long as there is a meaningful point being made that can be acceptable. If the cartoon is demeaning and mean to an individual or group but makes no broader point, then there is a good chance that the cartoon doesn't have the intellectual legs to support the meanness. Taste can be pretty much in the eye of the beholder. While it isn't often acceptable to use scatological metaphors, for instance, there have been times when a topic called for something that might otherwise be considered "over the line." Sometimes the editor will solve the problem right away and just say, "No way!" Of course, a cartoon some readers would judge too mean or tasteless might just be the one that gets you a Pulitzer.
Is there a favorite topic or person that you like to draw?
I have no pet topics. Whenever I see a politician or public figure doing or saying things on any topic that I consider wrongheaded, selfish, foolish, or chicken-hearted I can't wait to transform him or her to ink. Naturally, some people are easier or more fun to draw than others. Gore was difficult – he looked different in every picture. Some better figures to caricature would be Nixon, Kissinger, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Arafat and Alan Greenspan. The elder George Bush lent himself well to cartooning and I think W will too. Clinton ... well, that's a no-brainer.
What advice do you have for an aspiring editorial cartoonist?
Be able to draw out of your head and do caricature. You've got it or you ain't.
- Study the work of cartoonists and artists who turn you on. Try drawing like them but use your own ideas. You will learn a lot and though you may be criticized for looking like another artist, but your own style will eventually surface.
- Analyze the flow of the captions and what they are saying in the cartoons. Learn the difference between a cartoon that just says that something is bad and one that goes deeper to focus on who is to blame for a bad thing.
- Get a good education, of course.
Read, read, and read.
Immerse yourself in history. Everything that happens today is rooted there.
Keep up on current events.
Know your heart and get in touch with your core beliefs.
Don't be afraid of failure and especially don't be afraid of making people mad.
Be prepared to go against the flow and know that your strongly held opinions will be laid bare on the editorial pages of the paper for all to see. Be true to yourself and don't just be a set of fingers for the paper's policy.
Be your own person because the cartoon has your name on it. It is your opinion.
Know upfront that you probably have a better shot at playing in the NBA than landing a cartoonist slot at a major newspaper. There are only about 150 or so full time editorial cartoonists in the United States.