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As voters wade through dizzying campaign barbs and long-winded analyses, a picture and a punch line are worth a thousand words. We meet two editorial cartoonists who use humor and art to satirize politicians and highlight salient issues during this campaign season.
- Brian McFadden Cartoonist, The Strip (appears in New York Times Sunday Review section) and Big Fat Whale
- Joel Pett Pulitzer Prize-winning Cartoonist, Lexington [Kentucky] Herald-Leader; President, Cartoonists Rights Network International
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn an election year when candidates are throwing barbs and pundits are pontificating, a picture and a punch line are worth a thousand words. Editorial cartoonists cut straight to the heart of the issues and personalities and make us laugh in the process. But art as commentary can be a dangerous business when people react badly to your work. Editorial cartoonists from around the country are gathering in Washington this weekend for a professional conference and festival, parts of which are open to the public.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWe grabbed two cartoonists for a peek into how they depict politics with a sketch and a joke. Joining us in studio is Joel Pett, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky and president of the Cartoonists Rights Network International. Joel Pett, thank you for joining us.
MR. JOEL PETTKojo, thanks for having me.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Brian McFadden. He is an editorial cartoonist and creator of the strip in the New York Times Sunday Review Section and the weekly comic strip Big Fat Whale. Brian McFadden, thank you for joining us.
MR. BRIAN MCFADDENThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIIf you're interested in joining this conversation, which editorial cartoons do you like best and why? You may want to share that with us. Call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. It seems like an election year would provide an embarrassment of riches for editorial cartoonists. How, therefore, do you zero in on what you're going to draw, Joel, when there seems to be so much material available?
PETTWell, it is an embarrassment of riches. That's the exact phrase I was going to use. But oddly it can also be a distraction. At the end of an election year I often look back on my year's worth of work and I realize that I've ignored some big local things or some of the, you know, global subjects that I'm really interested in because everything seems -- you know, every day it's so compelling and you think, well, you know, one of the candidates said this. I have to react to that. But there's -- you know, there's a tendency to overdo it I think. So to me it's making sure that you're not too distracted by it.
NNAMDIIs it your opinion that cartoonists should have a political viewpoint that shows up in their work?
PETTAbsolutely. I think it's all of our opinions. I don't any cartoonist who thinks not.
MCFADDENI mean, if an anchor man drew a cartoon that wouldn't be particular compelling just pretty much illustrating the news. Like, you need an opinion to be something compelling.
NNAMDIJoel, do they tend -- cartoonists to be more liberal or conservative in your experience?
PETTWell, there are plenty of both. I've never really understood why if you look things the way they are you would go into criticism or cartooning. But, in fact, there are plenty of them...
NNAMDIWhich is, in a lot of ways, the definition of conservatism, yes.
PETTYeah, right. There are plenty of each, let's just say.
NNAMDIWhat are you trying to achieve with your cartoons about the presidential race? What do you want readers to take away from those cartoons, starting with you, Brian?
MCFADDENOh well, first I'd like them to laugh and then maybe squeeze some ideas in there. But my main goal is just to be funny. But just to -- I like to have like the absolute ridiculousness of a lot of it like the news cycle. Like we'll be talking about Romney's silly press conference and then -- so I just -- like, since I do a weekly cartoon I get to have a more spread out look instead of the daily cartoonists who have to do a single thing every day. I have more time to be like, all right, what did this really mean? And if it meant nothing I get to make fun of it.
NNAMDIIn your case, Joel?
PETTWell, first of all, Brian is too modest. You know, first of all, he's got that amazing huge audience with the New York Times. And he crams about two weeks worth of stuff into every one. So he's written as much as the rest of us do in two weeks every week.
NNAMDII mean, look at the same thing, fall college courses that I've been looking at as one of his cartoons has got one, two, three, four, five, six panels. And in each panel he's kind of discussing a different subject. He gets to do a lot. But what, Joel, are you hoping that the average reader will take away from your cartoons?
PETTWell, I think all that any of us can hope for that are in the business of expressing our opinions is first of all, to do it well, second of all, to do it with conviction. And thirdly to try to at least explain, if not influence the point of view.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Do editorial cartoons ever change the way you think about an issue? Let us know, 800-433-8850. We're talking with Joel Pett. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky. He's also president of the Cartoonists Rights Network International. Brian McFadden is editorial cartoonist and creator of the Strip in the New York Times Sunday Review section and the weekly comic strip Big Fat Whale.
NNAMDIThe President of the United States, whoever he is, shows up a lot in editorial cartoons. Talk about how you depict President Obama as compared to say how you depicted President Bush, Brian.
MCFADDENWell, Bush was pretty much a gift. That's -- his presidency is what started me in cartooning 'cause it was...
NNAMDIHis presidency started you in cartooning?
MCFADDENIn political cartooning. I had all these opinions 'cause before that I was just telling goofy jokes and I was...
NNAMDIWell, we'll get to that in a while, yes.
MCFADDEN...I was only 20. But, yeah, him -- it was this mix -- it didn't -- it was actually interesting -- there was a lot to work with because he had all these gaffes, but he was doing all these, like, horrible things like starting wars and stuff. So it's a weird mix and it was, I mean, quite an administration to start cartooning in.
NNAMDIAnd how do you -- did you depict him and how is it different from the way you depict say President Obama?
MCFADDENWell, I don't consider myself an excellent draftsman. I just try to draw how they look to me. I'm not stylized like Joel or any of the other good editorial -- like good artists. I...
NNAMDIYou got something to say is what it is.
MCFADDENYeah, yeah, I just have to put some pictures by the words so it doesn't read like a...
NNAMDIYour depictions, Joel?
PETTWell, you just try to exaggerate how you see them. And in Bush's case often time you throw in Dick Cheney, you know the Uncle Dick or Rumsfeld who I see popped up again yesterday defending Romney's reaction to what happened in Libya. I think I draw Obama as very serious because that's how I see him. He's a pretty serious guy, not a goof like W. So, you know, I think that's how I try to depict him.
NNAMDII'm looking here at a cartoon of yours in which you draw Paul Ryan. Tell me, what are you emphasizing here?
PETTShow it to me.
NNAMDIThis is a cartoon in which he is...
PETTOh yeah, well, I thought it -- you know, it's one thing to lie about, you know, a plant closing in Wisconsin or how much you're going to cut from Medicaid. But when you start lying about your marathon time everybody knows that that isn't true. You know, oops, no not three hours, four hours. You know, anybody who's ever run knows that, you know, now we've got a serious liar on our hands here. So that's what I was drawing there. It's kind of hard to describe cartoons on radio but basically Paul Ryan is the starter in a race between Medicaid cuts and food stamp cuts? Is that what it is?
NNAMDIUh-huh, that's what it is.
PETTAnd he's saying -- turn it around again, Kojo.
NNAMDIHe's saying, you'll do fine. I once made it in three hours.
PETTOh yeah, that's right.
NNAMDIWhich was the alleged marathon time that never existed. 800-433-8850. How does Mitt Romney come across in your cartoons? Neither of you seems to draw him in a way that pokes fun at any physical feature.
NNAMDISo you just try to capture his politics?
PETTYeah, he's kind of handsome which is always a drag...
PETT...for a public service -- as a public official.
MCFADDENHe's like an empty -- like a Ken Doll shell. So it's words that are coming out of his mouth and it's just what -- like the trappings that he's putting himself in that week. 'Cause I live in Massachusetts so I've seen Mitt Romney through his various...
MCFADDEN...yeah, through his various Ken outfits from Massachusetts conservative, all two of them, and then now, his couple rounds for president. It's just been like, all right, his face is the same but everything, the words, the people he surrounds himself with are totally different.
NNAMDIWell, I talked about Joel's view of Paul Ryan. As a newcomer to presidential politics Ryan is getting a lot of ink. What interests you about the Republican nominee for Vice-President, Brian?
MCFADDENWell, he is embraced heavily by the Tea Party. Originally, like, when they started I was like, oh that's like people on the left. They won't have any influence on the party. The parties are too established. But somehow the Republicans manage to cede control to these people. And now Paul Ryan's considered serious just 'cause he put some numbers in a book. And...
PETTIt was a big book, come on.
MCFADDENIt was, yes, and it didn't have no pictures so...
PETTThere were no cartoons in this book.
MCFADDENYeah, he's way more serious than me.
NNAMDIOn to the phones. Here is Mary Beth in Olney, Md. Mary Beth, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARY BETHHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. My husband is actually an illustrator and years ago did a lot of illustrations for the Washington Post with essays. And he said that one of the most difficult illustrations he had to do was of David Gergen. And not to be disrespectful, because I admire him so much and his thoughtful and careful approach to opinions, but he found it very difficult to do that drawing when you don't have a specific character or personality that you can draw -- you know, that you can put into the mix. Do you ever find that? Do you ever, you know, have that kind of problem when you're doing your cartoons or characters of famous people?
NNAMDIWell, let me make that a two-part question. Is it one, difficult to lampoon people that you happen to like and respect?
PETTI'm not sure I like and respect anybody enough that I can't lampoon them. You know, you can always find fault if you try hard enough and you get paid for it.
NNAMDIAnd what our caller Mary Beth seems to be saying, Brian McFadden, is that her husband viewed David Gergen as somebody who was fair and, therefore, respected him for that. How do you draw somebody who you think happens to be fair if you can't show one side of them or the other?
MCFADDENWell, if you want to be like nice to the person but the situation is absurd and ridiculous, you can take their position and exaggerate it and not even have them there, just because you know, like, oh, this famous person said this thing. But I know with illustration it's a bit different, so I guess like you could do the Washington Journal stippling. That looks dignified and...
PETTYeah. Her husband's gig was illustrating, right? So he was given a story, okay, illustrate this it's David Gergen...
PETT...but in fact if we thought he was fair and balanced and doing a good job, we just wouldn't draw a battle.
BETHRight. Right. He just -- he was just told to draw him, and he actually did -- he concentrated on his forehead and did a pretty big face, and it worked out fine. It's a great illustration, but I just wondered how you approached it. So thanks so much for taking my call.
PETTI got to tell you, Kojo, that you cannot insult these people. The egos are so giant. My career has exactly paralleled that of Mitch McConnell...
PETT...and his office walls are covered with my worst efforts to draw him as, you know, a dinosaur and a turtle and a prostitute and, you know, all this stuff, and then I get these requests for...
PETT...you know, copies. It's very discouraging.
NNAMDIThat's funny because I went to see the portrayal by Kathleen Turner of Molly Ivins over this past weekend here in town, and Molly Ivins...
PETTOh, mm-hmm. Yeah. Yeah. I heard that was great.
NNAMDI...once said that after she had said terrible things about a guy in the Texas state legislature, he ran up to her and said baby, you put my name in your newspaper.
PETTYeah. Exactly. You cannot take a bite out of those egos. They're too big.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, however, there are pitfalls to editorial cartooning depending on the political environment one is cartooning in. We'll talk about that and take your calls at 800-433-8850. Mary Beth, thank you for your call. You can also send email to email@example.com. Do editorial cartoons ever change the way you think about an issue? What role do you think editorial cartoons play in this campaign, and in our political discourse? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing editorial cartooning with Brian McFadden. He's an editorial cartoonist and creator of "The Strip" in the New York Times Sunday Review section, and the weekly comic strip "Big Fat Whale." Joel Pett is a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky. He's also president of the Cartoonist Rights Network International. Call us 800-433-8850 with your comments on questions.
NNAMDITuesday's attack at the American Consulate in Libya, and the Embassy in Egypt may have sparked a video -- been sparked by a video trailer that mocks the Prophet Mohammad. We cannot help but be reminded of the cartoons depicting Mohammad that were published in a Danish newspaper in 2005 and set of violent attacks then. Do you ever feel afraid of the repercussions of your cartoons.
PETTYou want to take that first?
MCFADDENI mean, afraid to look in my inbox, but it's not like other countries, no. People, I mean, just the threat of mean words or like someone in a blog will say something mean about me, but that's one great thing about working in this country. You don't have to -- like people can just ignore you or call you names, and that's usually...
NNAMDIBut the stuff in your inbox can't hurt, can't it?
MCFADDENIt's all right to cry. I have my cry in the morning, and then get back to drawing.
NNAMDIHow about you, Joel?
PETTWell, it's not unheard of for cartoonists in this country even to get death threats and things, but it's not the serious situation that it is in so many other places, and as president of CRNI, and some of your listeners may want to go on the web and look at this organization, it's really just a very small non-profit here in Virginia that looks after cartoonists around the world who are in trouble with their various governments, and it's a very serious thing. It happens all the time, not just in places where there is not freedom of the press, but even here in the U.S., and it's something that should be a constant reminder to those of us fortunate enough to work in this business, not to waste our efforts, you know, not to spend time with, you know, silly jokes and middle-of-the-road things, but there are some responsibility to make it worth freedom of speech, use it.
NNAMDIBefore we get to the dangers facing cartoonists in other countries, are there in this country, in this political environment, subjects that you find are taboo, red lines that you would never cross in choosing a topic, Brian?
MCFADDENWell, I probably wouldn't do anything making fun of God. That would probably get a lot of people angry, and just to get them angry, which is the whole problem with the Danish cartoons and then this recent video with the stuff in Libya and Egypt, just inciting anger is not -- it's not making a point, it's just...
MCFADDEN...angering people. So if I don't have a point, and I'm just angry at something, I have to sit back and think and try to justify that anger, or let it go, which I might have done once or twice.
NNAMDIAny red lines that you would not cross at all, Joel?
PETTWell, I would never draw Mohammad, after -- I didn't know you weren't supposed to, but then after it became clear that you shouldn't, of course, I think every cartoonist's first instinct was, okay, then I will, because...
PETT...you know, what kind of religion tells you you draw my god, I'll kill you, you know. That's a cult not a religion. But, you know, I can't protect the other people who work at the Lexington Herald-Leader, or even my own family if somebody, you know, wanted to take out after us, and to a certain degree, you know, just because you can do something doesn't mean you have to. It took me a long time in life to learn that, but -- and I know it sounds like way too mature for a cartoonist, but in fact, there's just no reason -- and Brian is right, the original Danish cartoonists, they didn't draw Mohammad in the normal course of drawing political cartoons, they were paid to do it by an editor who wanted to make a point and instigate trouble and he sure got it.
PETTAnd that is not to say that, you know, you shouldn't be able to do it, because obviously you should. But to your original question, guns, homosexuality, religion, and abortion, those four things always get people going, but I draw about them all the time.
NNAMDIAnd because I know we're going to get a lot of calls and emails from you description of a cult, I am not sure that you were referring to the entire religion of Islam, I think what you were referring to, and correct me if I'm wrong is that the prohibition on drawing the Prophet Mohammad is not necessarily punishable by death.
PETTYes, of course. I'm sorry. I misspoke there. Where I meant to say was that in all religions there is the self-identified radical faction that is willing to, as Tom Toles showed in his cartoon in the Washington Post today, you know, kill you on God's behalf, which I thought was an ingenious cartoon. I love him. So yes. Thank you for bailing me out of that.
NNAMDIYou mentioned earlier….
PETTMy name of Brian McFadden if anybody...
NNAMDIYou're president of the Cartoonist...
PETTI live in Kentucky.
NNAMDI...Rights Network International. Talk about this year's two winners of the Courage in Cartooning award, Ali Ferzat and Aseem Trevedi.
PETTYeah. We usually use the word recipient because it's such an odd thing to win an award that's given for how your own government abuses you. Ali Ferzat is a Syrian who started drawing cartoons of the Syrian president and wound up with his fingers broken and his face bruised and his body beaten, and he's now had to flee the country. And Aseem Trivedi is an Indian who was arrested for sedition for insulting the parliament, insulting the national symbols, and insulting using the Internet, which I thought that's what the Internet was for really.
PETTAnd these are cases -- two of many cases that we follow constantly, and they -- unfortunately, neither one of them can come to Washington to -- for us to honor them, but it's a very serious thing. Every year we find one or two, and fly them over here and, you know, give them a small cash award and try to buck them up, and then -- it's really a tough thing in many parts of the world to speak your mind, and the bravery is commendable. I'm not sure I would have that.
NNAMDIBecause as you pointed out, the two who are being awarded this year can't come, but even those who do come and receive the awards often go back into the very situations in which their lives are endangered and that's a lot of courage.
PETTYes, it does.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones. Here now is Jamie in Silver Spring, Md. Jamie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JAMIEHi, Kojo. I was actually looking for this cartoon for the last eight, ten years where Bush and his generals are around a war table, and Cheney's trying to sneak in a Halliburton truck onto the map and Bush tells him, no, not yet, not now. And I don't -- I've just been looking all over for that, and I was wondering if any of you would know...
NNAMDIYou were wondering if either Brian or Joel either drew that...
PETTOh, I remember….
NNAMDI...cartoon, or helped you to find who did? We're all drawing...
NNAMDIWe're all drawing a blank here.
PETTMan, I'm sorry. I would so love to impress you by going, yeah, that was -- in fact, I'm going to make it up. That was Jack Ohman in Portland who did that.
MCFADDENAnd for a commission, I can redraw it for you.
PETTYeah, right. For $500, we'll copy it.
NNAMDIWe're drawing a blank on that, but I suspect that during the course of the next hour, somebody might send it in to our website or by email, Jamie, and if they do, then you'll be able to see it on our website posted, okay?
JAMIEThank you so much.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Joel, you've described yourself as a pariah in Kentucky because of the views you espouse in your cartoons. Which ones have caused you the biggest backlash?
PETTWell, like I said, guns, gay marriage, the four Gs, guns, God, gays, and gynecology. That's what'll get you.
NNAMDIWhenever you draw on those they'll come after you?
PETTWell, I mean, people don't really come after you. They maybe threaten you and put your address on the Internet and encourage other people to come after you. My favorite threat ever I got was from a guy who said, when my kid gets back from Iraq, he's gonna kick your ass. I was like, your wife could probably handle me, just send her over, you know. Come on.
NNAMDIWe're talking with editorial cartoonist, Joel Pett.
PETTBut that's the fun of it, you know?
PETTI mean, why would you want to, you know, I don't know that I'd want to work in, you know, Boston or Portland or San Francisco or somewhere where I was preaching to the choir all the time. You know, it's fun to be a provocateur and to -- especially when you think are right, you know. I mean, it makes me feel like I'm doing something worth doing when I can push the buttons of an audience.
NNAMDIAnd the Pulitzer committee apparently agreed. Joel Pett is a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky and president of the Cartoonist Rights Network International. Brian McFadden is an editorial cartoonist. He's the creator of "The Strip" in the New York Times Sunday Review section, and the weekly comic strip "Big Fat Whale." I've got to ask a technical question.
NNAMDII understand some cartoonists have given up pen and ink to draw on a computer or electronic tablet. How do you create your cartoons and how has using Photoshop changed the way you think about and execute your work?
PETTThat's a good question. You want to take that first?
MCFADDENThat's exactly how I started. Well, I used to draw and scan and then go into Photoshop, and it was this long laborious process to do my long laborious cartoon, like there were all these steps involved. So for about the past three years I have been using a tablet and just drawing straight in the computer and -- yeah. It was Photoshop and the Internet that got me started in my career, and -- but I have done stuff with Bristol board and the old ways of India ink and stuff, and -- yeah. I'm a big fan of the future of not having to do that.
NNAMDIHow about you, Joel?
PETTWell, I've done both. I still mostly draw on Bristol board with ink. Sorry Brian. And then I scan it in and what Photoshop has done is liberate you from the office for one thing, which is terrific, and then it allows you to make mistakes and fix them easily, which is...
NNAMDIYou mean, you don't have to White Out your mistakes anymore?
PETTYeah. No. Yeah. Right, exactly. You don't have to white them out and then wait for it to dry.
NNAMDIDo people even know what White Out is anymore?
PETTI don't know. But...
NNAMDIBut you used to have to do that?
PETTI did used to do that, and believe me, I made a lot of mistakes as the readers are always too happy to point out.
NNAMDIBrian, you are in a way the Cinderella story of editorial cartooning right now. You were doing cartoons for alternative weeklies before being tapped by the New York Times to do an original cartoon each week in the Sunday Review section. How did that come about and how does it now feel to have such a big and powerful audience? At least that's how people feel your audience is, big and powerful.
MCFADDENOh, well, they're not big and powerful with giving me money. No. It's -- I'm still -- it's been over a year and I still feel like a (word?) cartoonist. Like, I live outside of Boston. It's been a pretty similar life. I mean, I get more email now. I feel more responsibility to actually pay attention to the news instead of just right from my gut, fact check later.
NNAMDIHow'd you get the gig?
MCFADDENWell, I was involved with all weeklies for over a decade, like doing my all weekly strips. I made a lot of friends in that comic scene, and yeah. We were posting our comics online and then -- this is in the early days of the Internet, and then when social media came along, like especially Twitter, just having conversations with other like well-known cartoonists, the art director over the Times saw my stuff and had me in mind when they changed Week in Review to Sunday Review, and I guess they like it. They kept me on. They haven't fired me yet, so it's nice.
NNAMDIHis version of I got the hookup.
PETTHe got the hookup exactly. You know...
NNAMDIYou've both dabbled in stand-up comedy. Is that common for cartoonists? Why do you do it?
PETTI have no idea. It's like torture.
MCFADDENI did it because I didn't have to draw. Like that's like the choke point for my ideas, having to stop and draw. So I did a lot of sketch comedy, not so much stand up, improve and sketch. So just goofing around and not having to think too much.
PETTWell, I've done it quite a bit, but I wouldn't want to make a living at it, and I think it might even be a rougher road to hoe than cartooning. I wanted to mention one thing about Cinderella story. There's another fellow here in Washington, Matt Wuerker, who I could really describe as a Cinderella story, because he labored for decades doing all weekly stuff, and in his 50s got his first gig with Politico, and then this year won the Pulitzer.
PETTHe's our host for the convention, so I thought I'd throw him a bone, and it's just great to see people like Matt and Brian, you know, whose work you like and respect, get a break because they're hard to come by these days as you know, in just about any media. It's tough to make a living.
NNAMDIIndeed. Brian, congratulations, and given the fact that a lot a lot newspapers are closing more than are opening, it seems like a hard way to make a living right now.
PETTWell, I'm considerably older than Brian, so maybe I'm not as worried about it.
NNAMDIFortunately, you are both still employed. Joel Pett is a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky. He is president of the Cartoonist Rights Network International. Joel, thank you so much for joining us.
PETTKojo, I appreciate it very much.
NNAMDIBrian McFadden is editorial cartoonist, creator of "The Strip" in the New York Times Sunday Review section, and the weekly comic strip "Big Fat Whale." Brian, thank you for joining us.
MCFADDENThanks for having us, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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