Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The 9/11 cartoon that never was

I drew this cartoon in 2011, on the 10th anniversary of September 11th. But after I submitted it to the Mirror, I thought better of it and submitted another instead.

Amazingly, even a decade after the event, I thought memories and feelings were still too raw for me to make the rather harsh observation in the cartoon. And that observation is that, even with all the time that has passed and all that has happened since, flowing from that tragic, horrific day - the wars, the deaths of thousands more innocent people - none of the parties involved have learned anything.

Today, with the drum beat of war once again growing over Iran, that is exactly what we should be reflecting on.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Some timeless advice

This great video posted on the page for the upcoming Damn Cartoons! event coming up in Washington, DC features some timeless advice from editorial cartoonist Ding Darling:

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A dying artform?

Liz França, Brazil, first prize winner 2012 Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom (CCWPF).
Vancouver-based writer and cartoonist Geoff Olsen examines the present state of editorial cartooning in a well-written piece in the August issue of Common Ground.

Great article, well worth reading not only by cartoonists but by anyone concerned with the effects of media concentration on freedom of speech. I met and chatted with Geoff at the Montreal convention of the Association of Canadian Editorial Cartoonists last month. Editorial cartooning's uncertain future was the focus of many a dinner table and late night hospitality suite conversation as cartoonists try to find their way through a shifting media and economic landscape.

Most telling quote: "Although editors vary in temperament, editorial cartooning seems to be endured rather than encouraged by management. Perhaps one problem is that the political sentiments of the average Canadian caricaturist lie somewhere between Stéphane Dion and Jane Fonda, while the editorial position of many Canadian newspapers ranges somewhere between Barbara Amiel and Genghis Khan."

Friday, July 27, 2012

Falling in love with colour

From the time I started cartooning at the age of 15 I drew all my cartoons in black ink on white paper. And I continued to draw them that way for decades.

I came up with ideas, sketched them out and drew them in black and white. The cartoons were then printed in black and white. There was a brief period where I tried using grayscale (or halftone as it was known back then) for shading and a longer period when I crosshatched, but overall it was all line drawing in black and white. Aside from a brief unpublished experiment using poster paints I never even tried to work in color. No watercolours or pastels or even coloured pencils for me.

Then about five years ago, I got an email from Mirror editor Al Sutherland telling me the paper was going to start using colour everywhere inside, as opposed to just the cover and a few inner pages. He gave me the choice of continuing in black and white or making the jump to full colour. I agonized over it for a few hours (I had a deadline the same day, of course) and finally decided to make the leap. I figured I could always go back to black and white if it didn't work out.

It wasn't an easy transition. Basically I didn't think in colour, I thought in terms of black and white line drawings. So most of the time I just did line drawings and dropped in colour, the way most Sunday funnies are done. The colour was really just a filler, something to make the drawing a little prettier.

It took me years to realize I could use colour to take the cartoon further, to make the punchline (if there was one) more effective. And eventually, only in the last year or so, I started to plan my cartoons with colour foremost in my mind, sometimes deciding the colour scheme first before I had even sketched out an idea. This was a real revelation. And, to tell the truth, my biggest regret about the Mirror closing (even more than the loss of a regular paycheck) was that my experiments with colour were at an end, or at least on hold until I can find another outlet for my cartoons.

Anyway, here are a few favourite examples of my colour cartoons from the Mirror...

Friday, July 20, 2012

"How do I draw a cartoon about THAT?"

It's a question editorial cartoonists ask themselves whenever something tragic occurs in the news. It could be a major natural disaster, it could be the death of a prominent personality. Or, as has happened not once but twice this week, it could be a mass shooting like those that took place in Toronto and Colorado.

How do you approach it? You can't be funny about it, obviously, but the story is so big you can't ignore it either. It's your job to interpret current events visually. And normally your job is to be provocative (to a certain extent, you're expressing an opinion after all), glib and funny. But you can't do that when lives have been lost, families torn apart or destroyed. In such cases you need to be especially sensitive to the feelings not only of those directly touched by the event but to the thousands who identify and grieve along with them.

In the cartoon above, Yahoo! Quebec's Fleg reacted to last night's Dark Knight Rises Colorado movie theater shooting with a reference to the Caped Crusader himself. Batman mourns the dead from an isolated mountaintop. The cartoon is sombre while making an appropriate pop culture reference. It expresses a sadness and bewilderment that most of us feel but doesn't otherwise express an opinion.

Freelancer Michael De Adder's Toronto Star cartoon on Monday's block party shooting goes further in its view of that tragic event. It comments on the sad fact that an inner city toddler in Toronto is almost as likely to get hit by a bullet as they are to fall off their trike. In other words, childhood isn't supposed to be like this, kids should be able to run and play in their neighbourhoods safe from the danger of flying slugs.

 Unfortunately, as is often the case when feelings are high, the cartoon was completely mis-read by a lot of people who might otherwise agree with the sentiment. In some cases, readers thought De Adder was trying to be funny about the story, which he obviously is not. But sometimes irony, or the lack thereof, lies in the eye of the beholder. Other readers took exception to his use of the word "they," interpreting it to mean African-Canadians, whereas De Adder meant the "they" to refer to children. In fact, as he explains in his blog, his initial version of the cartoon had the word "children" in it but he changed it because he thought, with a child pictured, the word "children" would be redundant.

My Montreal Mirror cartoon on last year's Tucson shooting went much further than either of the above, specifically assigning blame, in this case to Sarah Palin, who along with an array of Tea Party-supporting conservatives I felt had created an atmosphere that led directly to the attack. I'm not sure the editor of a mainstream daily would have let me get away with such a strong, direct statement. But, working for an alt weekly, I had much more latitude.

Even so, every time something truly awful happens as a cartoonist you have to figure out a way to deal with it that is somehow meaningful, relevant, respectful and true to your world view. It's never a simple or an easy task.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Cartoon Hero: Ron Cobb

One of the first editorial cartoons that stuck with me as a kid was the one above, by Ron Cobb. I saw it in the L.A. Free Press, which my eldest brother (by 10 years) had a subscription to. Not only did I like the actual drawing, but the dark sense of humour behind it appealed to me as well. I was only 13 and hadn't seen Dr. Strangelove yet, so I didn't know you could make a comment about something like nuclear annihilation and be funny about it.

Every week after that, whenever a new copy of the Freep plopped through the mail slot, I grabbed it and sought out the Cobb cartoon. At the time I had no idea who this guy, or even what his first name, was (he was just "R. Cobb" the way that Robert Crumb was "R. Crumb" in the underground comix I also probably should not have been reading). But the combination of clean drawing style and dark irony had me hooked.

This was at a time when I was also being exposed to the work of Jules Feiffer, thanks to another one of my brother's subscriptions, this to the Village Voice. But Feiffer's sensibility as a cartoonist was of another era, primarily the late 50s, with his focus on neurosis and self-analysis (much like Woody Allen). Cobb's outlook was more contemporary, more hooked-in to the 60s "movement" mentality and the counterculture. Plus he could draw really cool machines (which I never could and still can't do).

Sometime in the early 70s I lost track of Cobb and didn't hear of him again, thinking he had either crashed and burned like all my other 60s idols or just vanished into a commune or something. Imagine my delight when I ultimately found out he was connected with some of my favourite movies. Unable to make a decent living as an editorial cartoonist, Cobb had turned that dark sensibility and talent for churning out pictures of great machines into a gig as a production designer on such films as Dark Star, Star Wars and Alien. He also contributed designs to The Abyss, Total Recall and Back To The Future. More than almost any other designer, Cobb helped shape the look of science fiction movies from the 1970s right into the 90s.

What a cool guy.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The cartoonist on the radio...

Sounds ridiculous, right? Like mime on the radio. But here's why I bring it up...

A couple of days ago I had a Twitter exchange with Montreal media blogger Steve Faguy. Steve was teasing me about tweeting that I had applied for a radio job, telling me "You'd be the first radio cartoonist." I reminded him I'd already been the resident "radio cartoonist" for many years on CBC Montreal, where I was the comic foil for the funniest broadcaster in the country.

I worked opposite morning show host Dave Bronstetter for a decade.What I did on-air at the CBC went way beyond my traffic reporter job description. Bronstetter is a true wit who tested my ability to ad lib to the utmost every single morning, much to the chagrin of a string of CBC producers and much to the delight of our audience.

I grabbed the papers every day and concocted a daily, unscripted running commentary on whatever was happening in the news and pop culture. I wrote, produced and performed What Happened, a weekly comedy takeoff on the news that was syndicated across the country. What Happened then spawned an online animated cartoon and a book. I was also simultaneously (no, not while I was reporting the traffic) drawing editorial cartoons for, respectively, alt weeklies Hour, then the Mirror.

So, yeah, Steve, I was a radio cartoonist.

But how did I get there? I've always been a writer. I've always been a cartoonist. I became a broadcaster by accident. A happy accident. The whole story was reported last fall on the CBC's 75th anniversary blog.

I drew a caricature of Morningside host Peter Gzowski (above) while listening to the show one day. (The crosshatch style, so different from how I draw today, was inspired by David Levine). I mailed it in on a whim, the CBC bought the art and started using it to promote the program. Eventually I met Gzowski while I was doing a book tour that saw me do a lot of media interviews, largely radio spots. Surprisingly, I discovered I was pretty good in front of a live microphone.

Now fast forward a bit. A year after I served on the jury of the Salon de la Caricature (and that's another story I'll get to some day), I got a call from the Salon's founder, the eminent Robert LaPalme, asking me to attend a news conference where the current prize winners were to be announced. I got there, looked over the prize-winning cartoons and did a string of interviews (as a cartoon "authority"), including one with a well-known CBC writer-broadcaster. After the interview she shut off her tape recorder and said "You should be in radio." I said "How do you do that?" and she gave me a phone number. Two weeks later I was working as a current affairs researcher for CBC Radio. Then I started working on-air doing traffic on the afternoon show. And, after many more twists and turns, ultimately wound up opposite Bronstetter on Daybreak.

Nowadays would anyone take a chance hiring a young person to work in radio whose main credentials were that they could write a bit (I freelanced for small magazines) and draw funny pictures? Probably not, which is a pity. Some of the best broadcasters I've ever met never "studied" broadcasting, they fell into it. Gzowski had been an editor at Maclean's.

Anyway, there I was, a cartoonist on the radio. And, later, radio cartoonist.