EDITORIAL CARTOONING WITH ROB ROGERS
An Antique (Albeit Still Informative) Interview
Editoonist Rob Rogers was fired on June 14 because he was drawing too many cartoons critical of the Trumpet. The disgusting details of this ominous episode are recited in Rants & Raves, Opus 381, which we posted hereabouts just a week ago.
Rogers is still syndicated by Universal Press (which is paying him 100% of the sales revenue instead of just his contracted 50%), and he has a local gig with a new newspaper, Pittsburgh Current. But neither of these outlets pays all the bills.
In addition to doing editoons for both, he just finished doing a comic strip version of the story of his firing, which we post herewith.
Why would Rogers want to revisit this painful part of his past? Dunno. But my guess is that he wanted to do villainous caricatures of the bad guys in the story—and caricatures of himself being beat up and pitiful. Just for laughs.
I interviewed Rogers on February 10, 1992. We sat in his cubicle at the offices of the Pittsburgh Press, which, at the time, was one of two newspapers in town; the other, the Post-Gazette, survived and hired Rogers when the Press collapsed after Rogers had been on staff for nine years. (And then, 25 years later, the P-G fired him.)
In the middle of Rogers’ drawingboard that day—surrounded by the debris of previous days, a couple newspaper sections, some clippings—were caricatures of all the Democrat presidential candidates for that year’s election. The campaign was just beginning to heat up, and Rogers had worked late on a recent evening, developing the caricatures. The incumbent President, George H.W. Bush, would lose the contest to Bill Clinton, but Clinton had not yet emerged from the Democrat pack.
What follows is a verbatim transcript of our conversation (except for a couple of lost bits which appear paraphrased between quotations in boldface italic).
Rogers was born in Philadelphia, moved to Oklahoma in 1972 with his family; went to junior high and college there. Started doing cartoons in junior high and high school
Rogers. I always drew cartoons. When I got into college then at Oklahoma State, I started doing them for the school paper. And that's the first point at which I thought about doing editorial cartoons for a living. Up to then, I knew only that I wanted to do cartooning of some kind in some form.
Harvey. Had you been doing editorial cartooning up to then?
R. Actually, not. In fact, I didn't even really have a good feel for it. I just knew of them but I wasn't into them as much as I was Mad magazine and comic strips and everything else. I started drawing about campus issues. And I got infected; I couldn't stop.
After Oklahoma State, he finished up at a smaller school--Central State University.
R. Mainly because they had a better art department and they had an instructor there who I knew--it was in Edmond where I went to high school. And the instructor that I knew taught cartooning. So I transferred mainly because they had a better fine art department and they also had this guy who was teaching cartooning, and most of the other schools I'd checked out--nobody really has a cartooning program. And he only did it on his own as part of his advertising art course.
Once a year--ever other semester--he would offer this Editorial and Cartoon Art course. He took it from this correspondence course that he'd taken when he was in the Army. That was Hall Duncan. He still writes to me. We keep in touch. He lives in Arkansas now and he travels around the country doing these humor workshops--humor in the workplace and so forth. There are a number of societies that do that, and he's got one of them.
H. How did he teach cartooning?
R. It was an old school kind of thing--the artists' correspondence course format. By the time I got to him, basically I just wanted a place to do what I did. So the way he would teach you would be to take you at wherever you were. I was more advanced than some of the kids, so he would let me go off and do my own thing. I took the course twice. The second time, I took it as a studio course, and I used it as curriculum for advanced study. Part of my project was to do cartoons for the school paper. So that's how I did it.
H. Was part of his instruction in effect critiquing the work that you did?
R. Absolutely. Every class period I would come in--that was the second time I took the course. The first time around, we all did these basic projects. We all had to clip out cartoons that showed different panel compositions, styles, and so forth. We had to go through magazines and pick out different types of cartoons and gags and uses of cartoons in advertising. Then we developed our own comic strip character. And we'd have to draw the face with as many different expressions as we could come up with. We had to do editorial cartoons. It was a very broad-based kind of thing. And he pretty much let everyone do whatever area they were interested in as it went along.
H. And at that point, you had decided that you wanted to try for editorial cartooning?
R. Yes, I knew at that point that I wanted to do editorial cartooning. But I also had a little comic strip in the paper at school--about a college art student.
H. Autobiographical stuff, eh?
R. Yes, I think every college comic strip is autobiographical. And that really got me interested in it. I went to the library there and checked out Jeff MacNelly's first book--not the Shoe book but the first book of editorial cartoons. This was 1979 or 1980. It had come out after his first Pulitzer Prize. And so I carried it around like a Bible. I checked it out for ten or twenty weeks in a row. Finally the library said, Don't you think you ought to let someone else check this book out? And I said, Well, okay. So I put it back and waited a couple of weeks and then went back and checked it out again. I was influenced by him like everyone else--and Pat Oliphant and some of the others--but I think it was neat to have it. I would refer to it. It was a great little inspiration.
Graduated in 1982. Took 5 years because he transferred and lost a couple credits. Then came to Pittsburgh to go to the Graduate School of Fine Art at Carnegie Mellon University. He had been in fine art courses--painting, drawing--at Central State U. in Oklahoma at the same time as he was cartooning for the school paper.
R. I knew that it would probably be tough to just walk out and get a job as a cartoonist. So I thought, Well, I'll finish, get a master's degree, then I can teach college if I have to--or whatever. I had wanted to continue in fine arts as well as cartooning. When I was in graduate school, I didn't do any cartooning for almost two years; just concentrated on painting and drawing and got my master's.
Then the last semester, I started doing cartoons for the Pitt News at the University of Pittsburgh because the CMU paper had about 10 cartoonists already--all these guys with little comic strips and editorial cartoons all over the place. I had submitted one to the CMU paper but they cut it up and squeezed it in between other stuff so I went to the Pitt News, and they started printing my cartoons. [At the U. of Pittsburgh, where he wasn't even enrolled.] It's funny: they consider me an alumni of the Pitt News even thought I didn't go to Pitt!
Then what happened was that one of the Pittsburgh Press editors, the photo editor here--Bruce Baughman--saw my cartoons in the Pitt News and called them to have me call him. So I called him and set up a time to come in for an interview. I had been taking my Pitt News cartoons and assembling a portfolio to send out to newspapers. I figured to try for that first--then look for a teaching job. I didn't really have a focus yet.
So in the meantime, one of these portfolios --I didn't send one here to the Pittsburgh Press because I figured I'd come in in person for an interview-- one of these portfolios went to Memphis where Angus McEacran, now one of my editors here, is from.
He had just come here from there, and a friend of his in Memphis got one of the portfolios and sent it to him and said, I know you are looking to hire a cartoonist, and here's one in your own backyard. So Angus sent me a letter which I received the day before I was to come in for an interview with Bruce, and I was very confused. So I got in here and interviewed with Bruce and showed him the letter, and he didn't know what it was about, so we went in to see Angus. And they hired me as an intern for the summer with the intention of hiring me full-time eventually if I worked out.
H. But they wanted you to try out first.
R. Right. And they had not had a cartoonist for 25 years before I came. They had been using syndicated stuff from MacNelly and others.
H. It's surprising to me how many papers now have a staff editorial cartoonist. When I was a kid, there didn't seem to be that many. And there was a period in the 1970s, I think, when it seemed to me that not many papers had their own editorial cartoonist.
R. I think that's one thing that MacNelly did: he was at a small paper, he won a Pulitzer Prize--and he was young. Suddenly a lot of papers said, If the Richmond News Leader can have its own cartoonist, why can't we? So that sort of started the whole thing, I think.
Started here in the summer of 1984, and they wanted me to do three cartoons a week. I hadn't been doing daily cartoons, and they wanted to sort of break me in to doing it. They figured anybody could put together a portfolio of ten-twelve cartoons. So they started me out doing three cartoons a week. And they wanted me to work in the art department the other two days. The first week--I graduated on Monday, and they had me in here on Tuesday--no time off --so that week, I did three cartoons, and it was Friday and it was time to do an illustration for the paper.
And it was one of those illustrations where you have to use a ruler and a rapidograph pen--some kind of bar graph. And it took me so long to do it--I'm used to just drawing. So the next week, I did five cartoons! I just kept coming in with ideas, and I said, Do you mind if I just did five editorial cartoons?
H. What they didn't realize is that you were just trying to avoid the bar graph dungeon over there.
R. Yeah--and actually, it worked out better. By the end of that three-month internship period, I'd done enough cartoons to find my stride, to find my style a little, to be a little more consistent.
H. Did you have a style at that point?
R. Yes, but it was derivative. It wasn't truly my own. After the first year here, I latched onto my own style. It was a little derivative of MacNelly but also Dick Locher, too. So it was good to jump in and do five a week.
I remember the first day I started, I went in and I showed him my sketch, and he said, Okay, I have to leave here by five o'clock, so I want to see the finished drawing before it goes into the paper. And I was used to spending as much time as I needed on my drawings. I'd sit at home at my apartment or in my dorm room, and I'd take as much time as I needed. Suddenly, I had to do the drawing in four hours. To me, that seemed impossible.
So I started drawing furiously. I finished by four and took it in to him. The next day I was a little less nervous; next day, a little less. After the first week, I didn't have to show him the finished drawing anymore: he got the idea that the sketch was pretty close to what it was going to look like. So now, I just show him the sketch and get it approved and then work at my leisure.
H. Do you think of the role of the editorial cartoonist that of a crusader, or reporter, or humorist --or what?
R. He has to be a crusader. Hopefully, he speaks for a lot of minority voices out there that don't have that little 2x4 space he has to work in. Not only must he be a crusader for his own beliefs but he speaks for a lot of people out there who feel the same way he does. My own personal view is that humor is one of the best ways to get that point of view across. So I tend to do a lot of humorous cartoons. It's my personality, but also once you've got someone laughing, they've let their guard down and they're going to be open to what you're saying in the cartoon. Whereas if you're hitting them over the head with an idea, all they'll get is a sore head. They're not going to be receptive to your idea.
H. Have you browsed around much in the cartoons of the forties? People like Daniel Fitzpatrick. I cannot remember seeing a Fitzpatrick cartoon that was funny. They were grim things.
R. They really were. And I think that the face of editorial cartooning has changed over the years. And I think Oliphant had a lot to do with that. Even the taste in humor has changed in America--Mad magazine, “Saturday Night Live”--all these things that have influenced us over the years have changed the kind of humor we like. I can do cartoons now that I couldn't have gotten away with in the forties. It wouldn't have been acceptable.
H. Of course, Herblock's stuff was funny, too. But I think you're right, Oliphant really bowled this country over when he came here. He drew his cartoons in a different shape. His graphic style was different from everyone else's. Everyone was imitating Shoemaker and Herblock. And Oliphant was funny--viciously funny.
R. Oh, hilarious. He introduced the gag cartoon into political cartooning. And that's probably one reason I'm doing editorial cartoons right now because I don't think I could draw cartoons the way they were drawn. Those were, to me, political illustrations--with labels and so on, heavy messages.
H. Really visual metaphors. There was a point of view there--you could see that--but they had no dynamic. They were like billboards.
R. Like a logo almost. You looked at it and said, There it is. You didn't laugh. Maybe it moved you in some way. I think that humor is definitely the big difference in cartooning today.
H. To what extent are you a reporter?
R. Yes, a reporter in the sense that you bring something to light, things that have already been reported but you treat them in ways that may make them more understandable to the average person. Not that the average person reads the editorial page necessarily. But a lot of times issues can be so convoluted in technicalities, but if you can boil it down in one cartoon, a lot of times, you are reporting it. You don't break newsstories on the editorial page.
H. An editorial cartoon is not a complex analysis of a circumstance. It's a single point of view, and most issues don't reduce to single points of view. With almost every issue, there are legitimate alternative points of view. How do you deal with that?
R. You try to figure out how you feel about the subject, first of all. And I don't think the editorial cartoon is supposed to be an objective endeavor. I think we're among the few at a newspaper who get paid to be subjective. And I think it's important to have a clear view of what it is you're reporting or crusading about. There are issues that I don't have a strong view on. I can almost always tell you what Herblock will say about a subject. But I'm not as clear-cut as that. I don't like to be pigeon-holed, for one thing. But there are those issues where you can bring to light some areas that people might not have thought about. You don't have to take the obvious point of view.
H. Here's this education cartoon. On the face of it, this cartoon proclaims that American education is not doing well here. So who is the villain in this situation? There could be a whole list of villains because it is a very complex issue. So when you did this cartoon, in your mind, who was the villain? Who was going to get jabbed?
R. The other thing about that cartoon is how many-- I've done a zillion cartoons on American education. Every year--twice a year--there's a story about how badly we're doing. So one consideration here for this particular cartoon is, How do I make it different from the ones I've done before? A lot of times, the ones I've done before have made the Administration out to be the villain--Bush the education president and not doing a good job of that. I've had plenty of cartoons on that, and I didn't want to take the same angle on that this time. So I tied it in to the Winter Olympics, which are going on right now--holding up score cards. And we're obviously not doing too well. But what I'm trying to show with this cartoon is not so much who the villain is but who the victim is. And the child there is obviously the victim of a bad education.
H. The next step is, What do we do about this. And there are a host of answers to that question too, but you want to make people aware that there is a problem. We're not in good shape.
R. Right, I have only so much space. And I can't really list all the solutions. A lot of times, I have the power to make people think about what the solutions could be, and maybe even hint at what a solution could be--like voting for someone other than Bush, for instance.
H. Do you see yourself as someone who comes along and pokes the sleeping dog a little, trying to stir things up.
R. Right. I think that's exactly right. I don't feel that any cartoon I'm going to do is going to change the world. It won't make or break anybody's presidential campaign. But I think if I can get Ma and Pa Smith to think about an issue--to talk about it with their family, to put the cartoon on their refrigerator--that is what I'm trying to do. That's the best I can hope for.
H. So you're rousing the rabble, so to speak. A perfectly noble enterprise. I do some editorial cartooning myself for an education association newspaper. The issues are always complex, and I’d show it to the Executive Director, and he says, Well, what about this, and this and this? And I say, Listen--this is a cartoon. It can't be multidimensional. You're got one chance to hit people in the eyes with something, and then next month, you've got something else--or another aspect of the same thing. Like political correctness. I did one about political correctness once. And he was so worried about that: all his friends were the politically correct of the world. And he didn't want to offend them. And I said, The point is to offend them--that's the whole message. Offend these people. Make them mad. He didn't want to make them mad. Well, then you don't want a political cartoonist working for you.
R. I think you're right: the point is to offend them, to make them angry, to make them think. But not just for the sake of offending someone. You can't come into the office and say, There's nothing to draw about today, so I'll just make someone angry. I don't think that's a good enough excuse. And I know there are some cartoonists who wake up and say, I'm gonna make someone angry. What good does that do?
But if someone gets angry--I get angry letters from readers, and I think they're a better barometer of where I'm going than someone who calls in and says, Oh, I just loved that cartoon. Then you think--Wait a minute: I'm doing something wrong here. They're calling to say how much they like my cartoon! Especially when the politicians call! ... They just call in and say how much they like the cartoon, and that takes away the sting a little bit. Sort of taking away your ammunition. You can't afford to become friends with the local politicians.
H. I suppose any editorial cartoonist has to run into that occasionally. To what extent can you fraternize with officials who may at one time or another become targets of your cartoons.
R. And that happens. Because you're at the same political events--fund raisers or whatever--because in some sense, a political cartoonist can become a public figure. And I've found myself at a lot of these functions avoiding politicians: I can't afford to like them. It would japarodize my job.
H. One of the great truths about human relations: if you have any feeling for people at all, if you know individuals, you tend to like them. It's hard to make them villains then.
R. Right, right. And at this point, one of our local politicians is such great fodder for me I don't want to jeopardize my material in any way by talking to him. I hope he just stays on his side of the lockers. I'll stay on mine. [They both work out at the same Y.]
R. I wrote a review of Doug Marlette's book in which he talks about one of his typical days. He talks about his alarm going off at five a.m. and it's still dark outside, and he makes his way to the bathroom. Well, if I was writing my own book--the alarm goes off at 11 a.m. sharp. The sun is streaming in the window. I hit the snooze button and go back to sleep.
I normally get in between 9 and noon. Depending upon what I have to do that day. We have a 10 o'clock editorial board meeting, and I try to make that whenever I can. And if it's an important meeting--somebody like the mayor coming in--I try to get to that.
Then I come in and read through the newspapers, drink coffee, and try to come up with something. A friend of mine, Walt Handlesman, said that, You know it's great: as a cartoonist I get to sit here and drink coffee and go through the newspaper, and most people would get fired for doing that on the job. But we get to do it as part of our job.
Then I come up with a sketch. If it's a good day, it'll be before noon. If it's a slow day, it'll be after noon. I show that to the editor. If he's not off at a meeting somewhere, I can get it approved and start drawing. If he's away, I have to do other things until I get it approved. Or--if I'm pretty sure he'll approve it, I might go ahead and take a chance and start doing the finished drawing. Usually takes anywhere from two to four hours, depending upon how much detail I have to put in--and how many caricatures I have to draw. I was here until ten o'clock at night doing all the Democratic candidates the other night. It's kind of tough because no one knows what they look like yet.
H. That's right.
R. If the cartoon is just a couple of talking heads, as they say, it's an easy day. Some days, it can be nine to five; somedays, noon to seven; some days nine to two a.m. It varies from day to day.
H. You said your real deadline is 7 a.m., but you try to finish in the early evening the day before.
R. Right. I don't like to come back if I can help it. There have been days when I've had tickets to the symphony or something and I'll leave and then come back later in the evening and finish the cartoon, but normally, I'm done around the same time as everyone else finishes--five or six o'clock. And so it gives me the semblance of a normal life.
H. Are you required to attend the editorial board meeting?
R. I was when I first started, and now, it's become more-or-less a encouraged option.
H. You feel you have to go often enough to --
R. --to keep a sense of what the general tenor of things is. And if my editor wants me to be in on a certain meeting, he'll tell me to be sure to make it. But it's nice having a little freedom to come and go as I please. It helps with the whole idea of being creative on demand--on daily basis. When I was in graduate school, I had a studio, and I worked whenever it was convenient for me. I would sometimes work late at night. And if I wasn't feeling creative that day, I wouldn't go in to my studio. I'd just do other school work. But I can't do that here. I have to have something every day. A product--in the paper.
H. Do you have to get your editor's approval for a cartoon? Must it share the point of view of the editor.
H. In effect, then, he looks at it and he says--
R. He says that this isn't libelous or it isn't going to get us into any trouble legally or it isn't in such horrible bad taste that we wouldn't print it. Occasionally--we have a very good working relationship--and he'll tell me if he thinks a cartoon is just "okay" and not up to par. And a lot of times--I get too close to my work and sometimes I lose perspective, so it's nice to have somebody say, Well--you can do better than that. And I usually can come back and think of something better.
H. So it's really not approval in the sense of yea or nay. In effect, he's your first reader. If you had a point of view that he disagreed with, would he still let you print the cartoon?
R. As long as it didn't happen on the same day as they were publishing an editorial that countered the message of the cartoon. Because it would be a little confusing for the reader. Since my name is signed to the cartoon and it appears on the opinion page, he lets me pretty much draw what I feel.
H. In your contact with other editorial cartoonists, do you feel that everyone is kind of in that boat now--or are there still guys who must hold to the company line?
R. I think pretty much everybody's in that boat: to one degree or another, they have that freedom. I think that one thing is that when a newspaper has a very hard line viewpoint, when they hire a cartoonist, they're going to hire somebody who has that same viewpoint. So a lot of times, if it's not a good working relationship that way, somebody's going to move on. Normally cartoonists are pretty obstinate and self-righteous. They believe that what they're doing is their own creation and they don't want to be anybody's puppet. Even though if it ever went to court, the newspaper would take the cake, I believe that the cartoonist needs autonomy.
H. But at the same time, you have some responsibility as a member of the working press to the publication you're working for.
R. Exactly. If the editor feels--and he's paying me to do the work--and so there is a certain obligation....
H. Does your editor ever come to you and say, How about doing a cartoon on X? Giving you a subject--not telling you what point of view to adopt but giving you a subject.
R. Sure, sure. And it's always understood that he's just suggesting that as a topic, and if I do not feel that that's the subject I want to address that day--normally, it's a subject that is in the news that I was probably going to do anyway sooner or later. So it normally doesn't involve any kind of conflict. And that's as far as it goes: he never suggests ideas. He just might suggest a topic. And a lot of times, it's something that I would have done anyway.
H. To ask the question on everyone's mind--where do you get your ideas?
R. Right: everyone always wants to know. [Laughs.] I just tell them, I copy Tim Menees's ideas. [Tim Menees was, at that time, editorial cartoonist for the Post-Gazette; both papers were in the same building.]
H. And he copies yours--
R. And we just keep going around and around.
H. Let’s look at a specific idea, its history.
R. Okay--I have one that I use with a slide show. This is back when the Soviet Union started going into a spin, and they were talking about taking down all the Lenin statues. So I started out with this cartoon--a factory making Lenin icons. And actually, that was the first cartoon I had--no speech bubble or anything. And I thought, Well, this could be funny. Now all I have to do is think of a caption. I had this much.
At first, I thought maybe I could just have a Closed sign on the door. But that didn't seem good enough. So with the speech balloon that appears in the rough here: normally, they’d be in favor of switching, but in this case, if they do, they would be out of business. But that wasn't funny.
So I tried another speech: “Okay, any more bright ideas?" And that was funnier but still not funny enough. Then I tried: "We could paint Bart Simpson's face on ..." That was funny but it sort of missed the point I thought.
My favorite was: "We would have been better off making Peewee Herman dolls." But then I thought of the one I ended up with--"I told you we should have diversified."
So that's what I do. I come up with a concept, and then I try to improve it. Other times, when I'm coming up with an idea--
R. This is today's. Over the weekend, there was a story about Bush, telling people that the answer to health care problems is that we should all take better care of ourselves. That would solve everything.
H. Medical insurance companies believe that, too. When I get sick, they don't help me at all.
R. Right. So I thought, Is that what Bush is going to tell these sick people? Hey, just take better care of yourself. And I had this picture in my mind of your mother or father shaking a finger at you saying, You better take better care of yourself. And I thought, How's that going to help the cancer patient or the person with AIDS. What is that saying to them? I had to narrow it down, so I picked a homeless family and had them sitting there with a sign, No job, no home, no health care. And they're holding out a cup, and Bush is saying, You know, you should really take better care of yourself. But my first idea was to have Bush there, and then I had to decide what I wanted to represent --
H. And that's in a way a classic instance of what a cartoon is. Without that picture of those impoverished, homeless people there, there really is no point to that cartoon. Who you picture there is what gives the cartoon its point. This makes the words and the pictures interdependent.
R. In a way--the funny thing about political cartooning is that you don't really have to exaggerate that much. When you do other types of cartoons, you have to exaggerate. But with political cartooning, the politicians are so funny in and of themselves--or so ironic. Bush saying this was just so ironic--for him to say that in the face of all the problems we're having, I just think is pretty much saying it all. It's just a matter of taking those two images and putting them together, and that says, Hey--look at this: isn't this ironic?
H. Do you begin with a current event or topic?
R. Right. Here's one about the Japanese. The Japanese are starting to horn in on one of the only things we do well--bashing them. They're starting to bash us now. So they've gotten on that boat. And I did a couple cartoons on that issue. And here's a bait-and-switch. You've got Bush saying, Well we've begun serious trading with Japan. And one of his aides is saying, Autos? No, insults. Set it up to look like it's going to be one thing, and it's another thing. I do a lot of this type.
Here's the old Statue of Liberty idea--give me your tired, your hungry, your poor. And I was just thinking about the Haitians coming over and being turned back, and I was thinking with the recession and all the other problems we're having, the U.S. is not such an attractive place to live any more. So I did a little bit of a switch. And the sign saying, We're sorry: at present we have more tired, poor, and helpless than we know what to do with.
H. Wicked. True. But wicked.
Harvey looks at several cartoons. Laughs.
H. This really is a language of symbols. To what extent do you feel that there are symbols now that you can't use? Say, Biblical allusions. Can you use them? Do people recognize them? Do they know what they mean? My favorite, for example, is --Do you know what the most powerful weapon in the world is? The jawbone of an ass. How many people would get that, I wonder?
Rogers remembers seeing quite recently a Gary Larson cartoon using the jawbone of an ass allusion.
H. But are there literary and historical allusions that you feel the average reader isn't going to grasp?
R. Yes, that is true. I've used some in sketches I've shown to people around here, and it's not just historical. You've also got on the other end--you've got to worry about younger readers not understanding historical references--but you have to worry about older readers not understanding some of the hipper stuff you might use. I've used a couple things from “Saturday Night Live” or popular lingo in the schools these days. And some of this has not reached the general reader yet. And you have to be careful. I think the expression– Not. I don't know if you've heard that expression. Somebody will say, Sure I'll give you five dollars--Not!
H. I just ran across that in something I was reading, and I didn't get it.
H. Does that come from “Saturday Night Live?”
R. I think it started there--or in schools. But these two guys on Wayne's World--a skit they do with two high school kids and their cable rock show--and they say that all the time. So there's a lot of this lingo you have to be careful using.
H. Are popular culture images more communicative than historical or literary allusions?
R. No, because the pop culture images are only good for the day. But then they're gone. I've fallen and I can't get up. Twenty years from now, no one will understand that cartoon. But I've also done some where I've used --I did one of Bush holding up a newspaper that looks like Truman holding up the newspaper announcing the Dewey won the election. But I had the newspaper say, Saddam Wins the War. And I think that cartoon twenty years from now, people will look at and say, That's a good image.
Or the image of the flag at Iwo Jima. Those images will always with us. And I think there are certain images being created today that will eventually be as [potent] as those. And I think certain of the popular culture images won't be. They're a lot of fun to see in the cartoon because you recognize them as being really current stuff.
H. Let's talk about caricature for a minute. Any favorites you like to do?
R. Sure. I led the campaign of cartoonists for the election of Paul Simon back in '88 because he was such a great face--the bow tie, the ears, the hair, nose, glasses. He was a cartoonist's dream. And I did a self-indulgent cartoon when he dropped out of the race--it had somebody watching him leave, saying, There goes the cartoonists' vote. I like drawing Bush, but I think what happens is that they become caricatures in and of themselves because they've been around so long. Now my caricature is not about George Bush's facial features so much as it is about his whole temperament. His whole air. The whole facade.
H. Odor instead air, maybe.
R. Yeah--odor. But I think at first when you don't know a politician, you have to try to draw their features as best you can. Dukakis was wonderful. I loved him. Some of the Democrats that we have this time are a lot tougher.
H. Clinton is tough.
R. Yes, Clinton is tough. They're all tough actually. I think Tsongas is good. Guys like Sununu were great. Quayle is another one that's sort of become a caricature in and of himself. You can just write his name, and you can use it as a punchline of a joke.
H. Somebody called him a wind-up politician, and that's perfect.
R. Yeah, a little wind-up toy. But he's not as easy to draw physically because he's sort of plain-looking. Gorbachev was great.
H. I thought he was tough. Round face. Non-descript even.
H. Oh, that's a good caricature of him, too. Eyes are good; you've got him.
R. Well, it's fairly simplistic. Drawing that large.
H. Do you use a brush?
R. Yes. For final drawings, I use a brush on the outlines here. A cheap-o Grumbacher. Nothing fancy. Then I go in after that with the duo-shade, using a large water-color brush to do it. And then I go in with cross-hatching with a crowquil. Mostly I use just the brush and the crowquil. And I think the duo-shade adds a nice gray tone.
H. If you were to advise a young cartoonist just starting out who had not done much with caricature, what would you tell him?
R. If he wanted to be a political cartoonist, I'd tell him first of all to look in another city. [Laughs] That would be my first advice. And then I would tell him, I think exaggeration is the key to good caricature. And the more exaggeration you can get in there, the better. But on the other hand, you must consider your own style as you're developing a caricature. I sometimes have to draw someone three or four times before I get them right. Even with Gorbachev, I sometimes have to draw him three or four times to get him right, to get the pose right. Some people are easier to draw from the side, for instance. Mondale was great to draw from the side because of the nose and the deep-set eyes.
H. Years ago, I was struggling with a caricature for President Eisenhower. It finally worked when I determined that every facial expression required a different caricature. He had such a bland face, so flexible--yet distinctive. You could never look at a picture of him and not know it was Eisenhower.
R. Right. What's interesting --for me, my caricature of Bush has become a symbol in itself. It doesn't really look like Bush anymore. You look at Bush on television, and the Bush that I draw and yet people--readers of the Press--have come to accept my drawing of him as Bush. And they like that. And so when I make him smiling or doing something else, I don't necessarily refer back to photographs [to catch changes in his appearance from expressioin to expression] because I know that [my caricature] has changed. It's evolved from the original drawings that I did of Bush [that looked more like him]. A lot of it has to do with what he's done in office since he started.
H. Your picture of Bush is now a symbol of a picture of Bush.
R. Right, exactly.
H. Everyone knows, this is the symbol for Bush.
R. When a new politician comes on the scene, everyone flounders for awhile until that symbol has been created. A lot of times, certain people develop certain symbols, but a lot of times, they all sort of homogenize. When you see editorial cartoons, you can tell, we're all sort of thinking the same way. Even with ideas--you'll see two editorial cartoonists doing the same idea. But the caricatures will begin to look the same, too. Which isn't necessarily good, but I think that different cartoonists have a knack for caricaturing the same thing about a face.
H. And that can't help but produce similar caricatures. If you begin with the notion that you have to exaggerate certain features, which is the essence of caricature, it's possible to exaggerate the features to the extent that it doesn't actually look like the person. Do you think that a caricature should look like the person being caricatured--at the beginning anyway?
R. I do think that when people who have never seen my cartoon of George H.W. Bush look at it, they know it's George H.W. Bush. There's enough there, enough information, that they know it's Bush. So I think it must resemble the person. But if you have come up with your own -- For instance, our local mayor. You don't know what she looks like, so if you saw one of my cartoons of her and then saw her, you might not put the two together. You might not say, Oh--that is a cartoon of this woman here. If you had lived in the city for any time, you would probably accept my symbol for the mayor as appropriate. And I think it does look like her, but only if you'd seen the mayor enough to get a feel for her.
Drawing all these Democratic candidates now is hard because no one has a feel for what they look like. No one has a feel for what they're about. And so it's hard for a cartoonist to grasp onto that, too. The easiest thing to do is to draw someone that you know. It's tough to draw people you don't know. So it may look exactly like them, but unless people know what they look like, it doesn't work.
H. They've got to be visible enough. For example, I'm not sure that I would recognize Tsongas if I saw him in the flesh. I have't seen enough pictures of him yet. What other advice would you give to a beginning cartoonist?
R. My advice, first, when they're drawing a caricature, don't look at a photograph. Envision the face in your head. And whatever it is they remember about that person, start with that. That's what I do when I start out. I'll try to remember what they look like, and I'll draw what I remember about them. And then I'll go back and look at a photograph and adjust my drawing accordingly, however I think I need to exaggerate. But I think it's very important that what you remember visually is what you need to exaggerate. If you remember their glasses or their nose or their ears, those are the things you need to jump right on. From there on, it's just a matter of refining it.
H. That reminds me of what I've read about what Walt Disney did back in the thirties when he was setting up his studio. He wanted his animators to learn how to animate in the way he thought was best, and they set up animation exercises in which the artists would, say, watch a movie of an animal in action, and then they would shut the movie off, and everyone would go away and try to draw the same action. It was their memory of the action that they were after. If they tried to duplicate the action with photographical realism, the action would seem too stiff.
R. Exactly. That's why I think some caricature artists look too much at a photograph. And then they loose a little of the essence of that person. They loose a little of the exaggeration that needs to be there to make it a caricature.
H. What about just getting into the field of political cartooning. Is there a way someone can do that?
R. Oh, absolutely. I think that it wouldn't be fair not to say that it's a very tough field to get into. A lot of newspapers are folding or merging. There are a lot of good cartoonists out there who are not working for major newspapers. But I don't think that's the only way to do cartoons. You can work for small, daily or weekly publications in your home town. You can do it parttime. You can create your own market by finding a magazine out there that deals with a particular subject or topic or trade. Offer them cartoons on those topics. There are so many avenues for cartoonists. It's really up to the individual on how much motivation they have. On the other hand, it's not encouraging to say there are plenty of jobs out there for editorial cartoonists at major newspapers--because there aren't.
I think that anyone with enough motivation and promise will eventually find a job in the field. But there a lot of talented people out there looking for work.
You have to draw cartoons for your own enjoyment first. You have to really love to do it. Otherwise, you'll never stick with it long enough to make it. Don't base it on having a job as a cartoonist. I have seen a number of venues for cartoons out there. You can still do it [even if you're not a full-time newspaper staff member].
We have an entertainment weekly here in Pittsburgh, and there are three or four cartoonists who submit work to that every week. They're not full-time working cartoonists, but they love what they do and they get it out there, and a lot of people see that magazine. I would say that there is enough out there for everybody.
H. You're right. You have to really love to draw to do anything like this. I myself don't love to draw enough to be a cartoonist. I like to write rather than to draw. To say that you must love to draw is so easy to say, but there's a weight of meaning in that casual expression. If you come up with an idea that involves a complicated drawing, unless you like to draw, you won't put that idea forward.
R. Yeah, you're not going to want to spend the time.
H. You're going to pick an easier drawing. That's what I'd do. I'd lose a lot of good ideas because I'd do that.
R. I think it's a love of doing it--a love of creating those images. Cartooning--I used to just sit in class when I was in school, and just draw. A lot of times, if you look through my notes, there are a lot more sketches than there are notes. Somehow I made it through school. But if you looked at it back the, you'd think this is a person who's not paying attention to what he should be doing. But on the other hand, I knew at an early age that I loved to do it and wanted to do it in some form or another for a living. And that's nice. Because a lot of people don't know that early what they want to do with their lives.
A selection of the “best cartoons” from a quarter of a century of Rob Rogers has been collected in a massive tome, No Cartoon Left Behind (2009, 390 10x12-inch pages, Carnegie Mellon University Press, as low as $27 at Amazon). Rogers annotates the cartoons, making this one of the very best anthologies of its kind. This is the good stuff—the very best. If you don’t own this book, buy it now: it’ll soon be a collector’s item and will be priced out of site.