Jim Borgman has been the Enquirer's editorial cartoonist since 1976. Borgman has won every major award in his field, including the 1991 Pulitzer Prize, the National Cartoonists Society's Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year in 1993, and most recently, the Adamson Award in 2005 as International Cartoonist of the Year. His award-winning daily comic strip Zits, co-created with Jerry Scott, chronicles the life of 15-year-old Jeremy Duncan, his family and friends through the glories and challenges of the teenage years. Since debuting in July 1997, Zits has regularly finished #1 in reader comics polls across America and is syndicated in more than 1300 newspapers around the world.
A recent comment asked about my work schedule.
I begin every day reading the Enquirer and usually the NY Times and by listening to NPR as I drive the carpool or on my way to work. Later in the day I scan the Cincy Post and tuck in those random articles people send me or I run across here and there. (Yesterday, while getting my oil changed I read a fabulous story in the Ny Times magazine about those pre-sliced apples we now see in grocery stores and fast food chains.) Late at night I usually peruse some web sites and may (or may not) catch some CNN or The Daily Show.
I try to get my five editorial cartoons per week done in the daytime, usually in small clusters, at my Enquirer office, though I am responsive to significant events whenever they happen. The editorial cartoons require large blocks of focused time, to read and get my head deep into the news. I do them best with my door closed and minimal interruption at the newspaper surrounded by the newsroom.
Zits, the comic strip I do with Jerry Scott, is terrific for its mobility. By the time I sit down with them, the strips are pretty much written and roughed out, so I can pencil, letter, ink and clean them up in the midst of commotion.
So those get done in the evenings, weekends and between the cracks. I often pencil, for example, while waiting in the car (where I keep a mini-drawing board in the trunk that I can prop against the steering wheel) while my daughter is at guitar practice. I've penciled in orthodontist's offices, in the parking lot outside cheerleading practice, and at out-of-the-way tables at coffee shops and lunch joints. Inking, on the other hand, requires the stability of my studio nest.
One of the very few complaints I have about my life as a cartoonist is that there is never a chance to truly stop working. I have twelve published pieces every week and, of course, the smattering of pro bono drawings every cartoonist is asked to do for retiring co-workers, charity events and community causes. So I'm constantly on the prowl for ideas and always looking for a chance to catch back up to my deadlines, which usually feel just beyond reach.
It is the best overwhelming job in the world. But there are times when I look longingly at a newspaper and wish I could simply read it like everyone else instead of grinding it up, kneading it into paste and molding it into tomorrow's commentary.
I'm watching the Olympics these days out of the corner of my eye on a small TV screen next to my drawing board at home. But since my drawing board sits in the middle of our family work room, I defer to my wife and kids when they are doing homework by muting the sound so as not to disturb them and peeking over at the Olympic action between panels as I ink Zits in the evening.
The games make good company, but I end up with only an impressionistic sense of the peculiar sports, just flashes of images with no particular thread or analysis. Only when I read the newspaper the next day do I get any idea what I was watching.
That's probably why an image like this one came to me today as I struggled to join the conversation everyone else is carrying on these weeks.
Man, I have got the ugliest mishmosh of notes to work with today. What am I missing? I need two editorial cartoons out of this jumble in about 4 hours, with an editorial board meeting sandwiched in there. What are people thinking about today? (More than me, I hope.)
It happens in the elevator, first thing in the morning, and fills me with dread. A fellow passenger will point to a particularly goofy article in the newspaper and say with delight, "Bet you're going to have a ball with this!"
Such is the case with the Cheney hunting story. If it's a big enough story, as this one is, the cartoonist has no choice but to draw about it. And the expectations are so high among readers that any single cartoon is likely to fall short of the anticipated hilarity.
But here's what's going through my head in the nanoseconds after I hear the story:
"Oh no. Every other cartoonist will do the obvious angles. Elmer Fudd. Quayle. Cheney's taking you hunting. Silencer on the gun. Everyone wears orange around him from now on. Cheney shown with rifle in every cartoon anyone ever draws about him again. Who else he's shot. Leno, Letterman and Jon Stewart probably already did most of the angles in last night's monologue. The internet is probably choked with jokes already. What chance do I have of finding something fresh to say?" Etc, etc. etc.
Most cartoonists have studied hundreds of thousands of cartoons in their lifetime, which has the effect of making almost every approach to a subject feel hackneyed and cliched. I subconsciously veto dozens of cartoon ideas before I even realize I'm doing it. So, the cartoon that might delight a reader who will give it a few seconds of her time in tomorrow's paper might be one I simply dread embarking on because I've seen it a thousand times.
I try to push on to new ground as often as I can. But in holding a high standard I sometimes think I pass up obvious but perfectly servicable cartoons that readers are expecting to see. I'll spend a day working past tons of obvious cartoon ideas to find a fresh but offbeat idea, only to realize that the one I should have drawn was way back there in the first few moments after I read the story.
Like most cartoonists and illustrators whose work pre-dates Google, I have large file drawers in my studio devoted to what has traditionally been called a "morgue." A morgue is a file of visual reference material an artist can rely on when called upon to draw, say, an avocado, an armadillo or the Spanish Armada. It is stuffed with photographs culled from magazines over the years, illustrations from medical books, maps, anatomical studies, photos of team uniforms... anything that will make it easier when I get a cartoon idea that requires me to draw unfamiliar imagery.
My college drawing professor, Marty Garhart, used to refer to building up our "visual vocabulary," the ease with which we are able to draw objects more or less committed to memory and without reference material. Before any of us could call up twenty thousand photos of a horse's rear end on Google Image Search, I needed to be able to pull off a reasonable facsimile using just my knowledge of horses, and maybe a photo or two I'd socked away in my morgue.
So I was the guy at Kenyon College in the early 'Seventies fishing through the trash barrels in the dorm hallways for Times and Newsweeks in order to cut out the photos and file them in my morgue. I'd built a good twenty-pounder by the time I started here at the Enquirer in 1976, and now that I haven't had to move it for three decades, it has grown to two bulging file cabinets.
Along the way, I began filing hard copies of each day's editorial cartoon usually according to topic, key images and the people caricatured in them. It's an amazingly inefficient system. To find cartoons I've done of Jeanne Schmidt I have to thumb through Stalin, Shamir, Seinfeld, Springsteen and Santa Claus. There is no order beyond the first letter, but who has time to go back and organize?
The good part is that, like most cartoonists and illustrators, I do have a remarkable memory for my own work and can usually picture quickly a cartoon someone says I drew in 1982, for example. If I can see Ronald Reagan trimming the budget of the Department of Health and Human Services, I can look for it in any number of ways. And there it is, under C for chainsaw.
This all comes up because earlier this week I was looking up an old cartoon I'd done on oil dependency, sparked by Bush's recent discovery of the hybrid car and switch grass. In the O file I came upon cartoon after cartoon I'd drawn over three decades on America's oil dependency, each one documenting the national vow to end our reliance. The first was in 1976 and thirty years later our presidents are still using the same rhetoric while dependency grows and grows.
I presented the handful of cartoons to my buddy Bruce back here in the editorial page department, thinking he might find use for one or two as illustrations for columns on the same subject. Instead, he talked with Dave Wells, our editor, who saw in this a Forum cover. It'll run this Sunday.
This one was handed to me on a silver platter in a meeting the other day. A colleague was telling how our editorial page crusade to improve food in school cafeterias was costing her -- her son wanted her to pack his lunch every day now that his school had switched to healthier choices.
When they fall in your lap, you take them.
How surreal has it been to see the words "cartoon" and "rioting" in the same headline lately? For those of us plying our trade in the normally obscure trenches of editorial cartooning, recent stories of the Muhammed caricatures sparking riots in the Muslim world have given pause. How close have any of us come, in crafting subtle statements meant to provoke debate, to mass misinterpretation, cultural offense or even mob violence?
Effective cartooning relies on the grasp of a subtle visual language most of us absorb through years of exposure to a common culture. I count on readers being able to understand that a certain statement a character is making is meant to be sarcastic, ironic, sardonic, tongue in cheek, or plain stupid. How do we telegraph these intentions? Beats me. It's an unarticulated language pulled off through the subtleties of expression, gesture and a million other nuances. And a cartoonist spends a lifetime mastering that toolbelt of scalpels and sledgehammers.
And there are a lot of readers who are less adept at that language than others. I hear often from readers who misunderstand my intended point, having cruised through a visual stop sign or failed to grasp some cue I've painted bright red. I have to think this is one of the reasons cultural senses of humor fail to translate, why British humor, for example, eludes some of us or other cultural humor seems too subtle, broad or obtuse.
All of that said, the current controversy owes more to gross insensitivity on the part of the Danish cartoonists and their offending newspaper than it does to anything lost in translation. We in the western world have learned to roll our eyes at offending material, write it off as idiocy and turn the page. The Islamic culture, on alert to signals from an unsympathetic and dismissive world, has had enough of western condescension.
Drawing cartoons, for all its healthy broad protections, has never been a license to gratuitously hurt people. I fail to see any larger mission being served in the Danish cartoonists' intentions than simply giving offense, kicking people who are different than themselves. I have no sympathy for anyone using the tools of what I have always considered to be the high calling of editorial cartooning simply to hurt feelings. There are times when, in the course of healthy debate of significant issues, feelings get hurt. That is impossible to avoid. But to begin a drawing simply intending to offend people seems unethical to me.
Hell, it seems psychotic.
State of the Taft
I'll be working on John Boehner today for Sunday's Forum page, but the day started with an editorial board meeting with Governor Bob Taft, very possibly our last. Beige Bob wanted to talk about raising the "rigor" level of an Ohio high school education, but let me tell you, the only stimulation that's come within thirty feet of this governor was the coffee pot labeled "regular" in the corner of the meeting room.
Taft always strikes me as an earnest fellow who works adequately inside the box. But I left the meeting feeling the state's goal is to be average in a world that is spinning fast. There is no spark, no Big Thinking, no visionary leadership. The guv wants to raise standards, but students would have the option to "opt out" of the more rigorous curriculum proposals. I wonder if Marvin Lewis gives his Bengals players the option to "opt out" of his more rigorous exercises?