I’ll take advantage of this forum to put an instructive, but slightly sad story, into the annals of journalism and cartoondom.
There is in a newspaper life very little memorabilia, things one can frame for the wall or make into lamps later on. I knew a man at The Denver Post who retired after 30 years of daily copychopping, and he said all he had was a linotype slug of his first byline that one of the compositors had given him. A friend at The Washington Post told me he had nicked one of Herblock’s India ink bottles, and he could get me one, too. I passed but now I wish I had said yes. In the end everything goes into the paper, and the paper goes out the door.
But there is one thing I wish I could have gotten ahold of. The great cartoonist Bill Mauldin was an early hero of mine, even before I knew I wanted to do this for a living. His was a special sense of humor, one that crept up on you and took residence in your memory. It was the kind of wit that’s traded by regular people, in an audience somewhere, in lowered voices, while the more important and self-important are making loud speeches. He had guts and wasn’t much impressed with editors. He was, as most know well, a cartoonist for The Stars and Stripes during the Second World War. He did this as an enlisted man and he had stood up, in person, to General George Patton, who wanted him fired. After that, your average cringing windbag editor didn’t seem like much to worry about.
My story takes place on the day in 1963 that John Kennedy was shot. Mauldin was working at the Chicago Sun Times. As the reporters and editors stood in stunned silence, watching the initial reports from Dallas, Mauldin, as shocked as any one of them, turned away from the broadcast and headed for his office and drawing table. A staff member, Kay Fanning, who later hired me at The Christian Science Monitor, told me this.
Mauldin was in the mold of cartoonists of his day in that he was first an artist. He had studied anatomy, physiognomy, light and shadow, architecture and perspective. He had had what is now called formal art training. He had never developed a distinctive stylistic cartoon shorthand. He was simply good at drawing.
But like most artists he needed a model. He often used himself, with the recently developed Polaroid instant cameras. The cartoon he planned to draw on that black day has since become famous for its evocation of the national mood of shock and grief. He planned to draw Lincoln, seated in the throne at the Lincoln Memorial, slumped in loss, his head bent forward into his hand. Mauldin moved his office chair in front of his Land camera and tripod, set the self-timer, and posed himself in the somber mood he felt.
A while later Kay Fanning asked him if there was any way she might buy the original drawing. Mauldin had by then become a good friend of Kay’s. He said he was sorry, but the cartoon had been given to someone else for a collection. He thought for a minute and then said that he might still have the Polaroid. If she wanted that …
Now that would be worth having.
I am including this story because it reminds us of two things. First, that you can often do more without words than with. And second that an artist can usually find the emotion he wants or needs within himself. Of course Mauldin proved, time and again, that when the times demand, a drawing can pierce the emotional heart of a story deeper than the most gifted verbal lapidaries. And even though the assassination of a President is far too wrenching and rare to serve as an daily example, the image of Bill sitting in front of the camera, acting out his shock and sorrow, should keep this example in cartoonists’ minds as long as the drawing that came from it will remind the nation of how it felt on that day.
I’m no one to talk, being as great a fan of the dumb joke and irrelevant silliness as anyone. Even so, I deeply believe that the heart of political art is the kind of drawing that kicks words aside and takes over the reader’s ability to see the truth any other way. A drawing can do this, when it is a nexus of skill, practice and a long study of the world. But most of all it must come from within.
Jeff Danziger is a cartoonist with The New York Times Syndicate. His book, “ Wreckage Begins with ‘W’: Cartoons of the Bush Administration,” was published in 2004.