Drawing Dissent

Armed with pen and ink, three cartoonists take aim at the state.


A picture penned with savage wit and a piercing point may be the most effective and succinct weapon of political criticism. So it's not surprising, in an era of skepticism about big government, to find a handful of libertarians working among the ranks of American political cartoonists. They fit into a long, if not always honored, tradition.

History is rich with examples of the political cartoonist's pen wielded as the mighty sword of dissent and the rib-tickling feather of satire. French artist Honoré Daumier was thrown in jail in the early 19th century for turning his king's head into a sour-looking pear. In the 18th century, British painter William Hogarth uproariously caricatured the personages and pomposities of the English court. Later in the century, Thomas Nast thrust William Marcy Tweed into the bin of infamy by exposing the mayor's Tammany Hall shenanigans.

Cartoonists have created enduring political symbols: the heavy hand of Herblock forever added unshavable whiskers to Richard Nixon; Mauldin's Willie and Joe represented the struggles of the American GI; Nast's donkeys and elephants gave the two-party system animal spirits. Most important, cartoonists have given visual impetus to movements against tyranny, from Benjamin Franklin's simple urging that the American colonies "join or die" in the face of British domination to David Low's relentless crusade against Hitler's brutality.

The joy and virtue of political cartooning is that by its adversary nature, it can question state authority at every turn. But regardless of its mission, the cartoon provides simple and concise commentary that arms, while amusing, the thinking citizen. What a cultural invention! What a glorious weapon! What a job!

Political cartoonists agree. A rare breed, many graduated from making fun of the principal to making fun of the president. The career requires a strange brew of artistic ability, a thorough knowledge of politics and culture, an off-beat, naughty sense of humor, and round-the-clock creativity to filter the news of the world through the looking glass and onto a reserved spot on the editorial page. It's any malcontent's dream: to daily lampoon the high muckamucks, to vent outrage over the state of affairs in a most immediate and satisfying way—and earn a living at it.

Fortunately, for them and for us, the art of political cartooning has enjoyed a very recent renaissance. Some trace the development to 1964, when Australia native Pat Oliphant began cartooning for the Denver Post. Widely acknowledged as the dean of the burgeoning American art, Oliphant is credited by many with revolutionizing the style of political cartoons with his fanciful brush strokes and boundless free association. Every panel seemed fresh and totally original, and the field took notice. Future cartoonists, including those with a libertarian bent, were inspired by the man with the little penguin in his corner.

Oliphant was followed by Garry Trudeau, the mischievous radical Yalie, who brought politics home to stay in the comic strips with "Doonesbury." And if imitation is the sincerest (and most frustrating) form of artistic flattery, second to the Oliphant clones with goofy creatures in their corners come the new army of imitators following Jeff MacNelly. The nation's dominant conservative cartoonist, MacNelly enjoyed quick success at the Richmond News-Leader in the early '70s with his own unique style.

Oliphant and MacNelly, the two most-imitated artists, are different birds—in art, politics, and personality. Oliphant draws wild, free, and fun, poking at everything and everyone, but an underlying liberalism is pervasive. His images of poor people eating Alpo, or that unforgettable naked family living in a pickup, betray his distance from those who would de-bloat the welfare state.

But Oliphant also displays antipathy toward more-sympathetic figures, satirizing dogs and children (rarely without finger-up-nose), much like his inspiration and sometime stand-in for Uncle Sam, W.C. Fields. His corrosive cartoons reveal a corrosive demeanor. He was reportedly livid over MacNelly's appearance on the cover of a 1980 Newsweek tribute, insisting that he, as the premier cartoonist, belonged front and center.

MacNelly, by contrast, is a laid-back character who draws a great caricature of himself, all eyebrows and glasses and chin. To the dismay of his fans, he retired from political cartooning soon after Reagan's inauguration, thinking his work was done, and concentrated on his personal aviary, the comic strip "Shoe." But he soon realized the ideological imbalance of savagery in the field and returned for a second shot. MacNelly's art is a combination of freely goofy and bulbous figures mastered with an eye for detail. Both artists inspire "schools" within American art.

Newspapers have recognized the cartooning revolution and now enjoy a rich diversity of art styles and viewpoints from which to choose. Within the tiny fraternity, estimated liberally at about 150 among the millions of working stiffs, there are the silly and the serious, the great draftsmen and the simple doodlers, the novel thinkers and the slavish imitators, the liberals and the conservatives. Then there are those who, with clear intentions and conscious effort, work (or play) to realize cartoons' potential for bucking Leviathan. They, even more than the larger field of their counterparts, are a rare breed: freedom fighters armed with pen and ink.

John Trever is one. Appearing five times a week in the Albuquerque Journal (and regularly on REASON's Brickbats page), Trever is the most prominent cartoonist directing his fire from a libertarian direction. Trever grew up an apolitical admirer of the comic strip, especially Walt Kelly's inimitable "Pogo." His interest in cartooning followed him to Syracuse University, where this son of a college religion professor and minister drew gag cartoons for the campus newspaper and the city daily.

Two years of graduate studies in political science at the University of Chicago were followed by a summer art internship at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. In the fall of 1967, officially out of college, Trever was drafted and served four years in the Air Force as a nuclear missile officer. In 1971, his military duty behind him, he began at a chain of weekly newspapers in the Denver area, doing illustrations, maps, and design, all the while toying with comic-strip ideas. But political cartooning had captured his imagination, and in 1976 he turned that interest into a full-time job in Albuquerque.

Soon, the political influences of his university years began to bear on his art. Trever cites the ideas of Milton Friedman, F.A. Hayek, H.L. Mencken, Ayn Rand, Albert Jay Nock, and Harry Browne leading him to embrace the defense of liberty. Trever's interest in the workings of the financial markets reinforced his beliefs. "I voted for LBJ to keep us from bombing Vietnam," he remembers. "I voted for Nixon to keep us out of trouble. And I've been voting Libertarian ever since."

From this vantage, Trever takes aim at both liberal and conservative positions. While he may target welfare-state spending sprees one day, he may harp on boondoggle defense programs the next. "I've done a lot of stuff on arms control," he explains, "and I was particularly opposed to the MX missile. While I'm not a ban-the-bomber, I was a nuclear missile officer, and I think some of the Reagan administration's programs may have a dubious, even destabilizing effect on our security." Trever's only book of cartoons so far centers on the arms race and its potential to eat up valuable resources.

In his cartoons, Trever goes for a balance between simple gag cartoons, devoid of opinion, and overly preachy drawings devoid of humor. "I try to make a serious point with humor or irony," he says, "but I try to stick to the light or clever side of an issue." His cartoons come across light-hearted but pointed.

His mail reflects this. "I get feedback from time to time, whether to me personally or in a letter to the editor. But for the most part, the mail I get is not too argumentative or nasty."

He's skeptical about any influence on public opinion or political figures, although he says people in New Mexico are "skittish" about becoming the target of attention in his local cartoons. On one issue, his editors wrote in support of a public initiative, a subsidized downtown development project, while he cartooned against it. The initiative's sponsors called to complain that one Trever cartoon would do more damage than the editorials could hope to repair.

Ask about Trever's artistic influences, and as with most cartoonists, "Oliphant" is heard—for his lively artistic gymnastics, not his politics. Trever, who worked in Denver during Oliphant's tenure there at the Post, finds the Oliphant-led revolution in cartooning a source of good news and bad. "The field's been reenergized, and as political awareness grew in the '60s and '70s, success bred more success. But now there's almost a glut of cartoonists, and for each cartoonist, it gets tougher to get syndicated."

Trever himself is syndicated with a group of other cartoonists in a package distributed by News America. He won the cartooning prize of the National Society of Professional Journalists (Sigma Delta Chi) in 1980 and the Free Press Association's Mencken Award in 1983. His cartoons have appeared in books and magazines across the country, and if that's not enough, he'll always find recognition (in appreciation or dread) in Albuquerque.

Scott Stantis, at 27, doesn't have to worry about getting his work recognized, at least not where it's seen. Kicked out of college in California over a series of cartoons about extravagant faculty parties reportedly at state expense, Stantis moved on to two years at the Orange County, California, Register and is now in his second year at the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Unlike Trever, Stantis has received hate mail and even death threats over his cartoons. He attributes it to his passionate style of cartooning, inspired by liberal cartoonist Paul Conrad of the Los Angeles Times.

Stantis has the advantage of an artist father who worked in television. But his cartooning didn't begin in earnest until community college, while he was studying prelaw (he gasps), aiming to become a politician. The cartooning in the school newspaper was atrocious, so he volunteered for the job and, voilà, the beginning of a stormy career. Stantis confesses his own drawings were "horrible" until Los Angeles cartoonist Bill Schorr demonstrated to him some of the basic rudiments and tricks of the trade.

In addition to Schorr and Conrad, Stantis counts among his influences Oliphant, MacNelly, and caricaturist David Levine. Older influences are the prints of Daumier and the political cartoons and comic strips of Winsor McKay, a turn-of-the-century artist who produced the strip "Little Nemo in Slumberland."

Stantis describes political cartooning as a marriage of opposites, a melding of literature and art put to the issues of the day. Cartoonists as intellectuals? "A lot of people are dead wrong if they think we're just flaky dodos who draw funny pictures for a living. When you do a cartoon, you have to be able to defend it intellectually, and that means being well-versed in your ideas." While he does do cartoons that make easy and obvious fun on the light side of an issue, Stantis decries those he calls "the yuk-yuk boys" who concentrate on being funny at the expense of passionate commitment to one consistent creed.

Still, for all the hostility his cartoons have aroused, he holds no grandiose impression of the power and influence of his craft. "I believe very few cartoons actually change a mind, and almost none can be responsible for any fundamental change. What cartoons can do is create and continue a dialogue, define issues, and hopefully move the discussion in your direction."

Stantis arrived at his direction early, working in conservative Republican politics in his high-school years. But New Right rumblings on social issues "pushed him over the edge," and by 1978 he was working in Ed Clark's campaign for California governor on the Libertarian Party ticket.

Stantis warns aspiring cartoonists who share his views that they may have difficulty landing a job. "It scares editors. You tell them you're libertarian, and they think you're in favor of handing out narcotics to pre-schoolers or something." But he enjoys attacking a wide variety of targets from within a consistent philosophy. "I can't be pigeonholed," he chuckles, "and here in Memphis, that's confusing a lot of people."

Henry Payne has all the distinct advantages and disadvantages of cartooning just blocks from the White House. Turning out five cartoons a week for Scripps-Howard newspapers and their United Features Syndicate at the tender age of 24, Payne enjoys proximity and timeliness, but working for a newspaper chain means that he has to stick to world and national issues.

"That's the biggest change for me," says Payne, who drew for the Charleston, West Virginia, Daily Mail before moving to the capital. Without a home newspaper or local cartoons, Payne doesn't get much reader mail. "Many times on a national or world issue, people say, 'It doesn't involve me personally, so why should I write about it?'" Then again, manure in a box—ask Miami cartoonist Don Wright—or letters that tick are not to be missed.

Payne prefers a more reasonable discourse. A 1984 graduate in American history from Princeton, he recalls his father, an engineer and businessman, talking of liberals' misunderstanding of the promise of technology, not to mention other issues. The younger Payne put those early beliefs into practice at Princeton, turning out weekly political cartoons for four years.

Come graduation time, he interviewed with a number of advertising firms but soon grew discouraged and realized he was most comfortable with cartooning. "Frankly, I wasn't sure about it right out of college. But the ad agencies all seemed to hold creativity as a group process, and I much preferred the individual method of my cartoons. So, since I believe strongly that you ought to enjoy what you do, I started cartooning, and I've had a ball from that day forward."

Payne was much influenced by the early Mad magazine, where accomplished comic artists like Mort Drucker, Jack Davis, and Sergio Aragones displayed their works. He reveres Oliphant and MacNelly but also admires the work of fine artists such as Andrew Wyeth. "I think artists should look outside their fields for influences, and outside their own locale. After all, Oliphant was an Australian import."

Political cartoons, like the editorial pages they appear on, provide the skepticism for which newspapers have been renowned since the early days of the republic. Payne agrees that a cartoonist should be a skeptic, and a cartoon should make a point. "It's fine to do something funny, something on the light side. But this is a serious art. We may not be William F. Buckley or David Broder, but it is important to be hard-hitting."

Payne holds a middle ground on the question of the cartoon's influence. "Some say they can't imagine cartoons having an impact at all, but some people really underestimate the effectiveness of a good visual." The very best cartoons, he observes, can communicate the essence of an issue without paragraph upon paragraph of prose.

Payne tilts more right than left in his politics. "I hate labels, and I am not the stereotypical conservative, but I do realize I lean that way." Still, he does not spare the pen for politicians of any stripe. "A politician may have the same ideology I have, but if I disagree with him or what he's doing, it's going to show."

All in all, these are a modest, disciplined bunch, these freedom fighters armed with pen and ink. Unlike Mr. Oliphant, the perpetual sourpuss, they enjoy talking about what they do and they have fun doing it. And unlike their colleagues in much of the major media, they do not, for all their real and potential influence, regard themselves as saviors of the common slob. Nope. They just get up in the morning and quietly devote each day to poking at the powerful, providing the citizenry with giggles and guffaws over the pretensions of "public servants." In a world of Kennedys and Doles, they're a mighty welcome breather.

Tim Graham is a free-lance writer in Washington, D.C.