Brace for scrutiny, Salt Lakers: The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists is holding its 2013 convention here at the end of the month (June 27-29, EditorialCartoonists.com). Besides a few members-only sessions (during which the cartoonists will be trying to outdo each other with unflattering sketches of Utah fashion, the Zion Curtain and the Salt Lake Temple, we assume), the AAEC conference is made up of events that are free and open to the public, like the Thursday-night Cartoonist Death Match, at The Tavernacle; the panel Satire & the Sacred: From Mohammed to Mormon Underwear, moderated by The Salt Lake Tribune’s Pat Bagley; and the Cartoons & Cocktails Gala, a ’20s-themed event that features live music, stand-up comedy and an auction with work from Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonists up for bid. Bagley, who planned the conference, met with City Weekly to talk about the event and his 30-plus years of editorial cartooning.
You’ve been on hiatus from your daily cartoon in preparation for the conference. Is it odd?
I was listening to the radio on the way over, and I heard something about Nelson Mandela. And I was thinking, “If he dies, and I’m not there to do a cartoon about it, that would be bad.” There are things that could bring me to do another cartoon.
What’s your process for generating a cartoon every day since 1979?
As you go through life, you stash away information—whatever you read, whatever you watch on television, what you see in the movies, it’s just more material that goes in your attic. The messier your attic is, the more material you’ve got to go through. You think about this and that, and you can maybe make some odd connections. But it’s hard to say what makes that connection. All I can say is, expose yourself to a lot of stuff, intellectually. I like history, and I read a lot, and I think that helps.
I do it all kinds of ways. Sometimes I just want to draw a dinosaur that day, and I’ll doodle until I come up with a caption.
Has there ever been a day when you're just like, “I got nothin.”?
Oh God, yeah. It’s only happened four times in the 30, 40 years I’ve been there. You can always do a bad cartoon.
Do people come up to you at parties and say, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea for a cartoon!”?
All the time. Every week. Some of them are good ideas, but the problem is that they’re not my ideas. I encourage them, if they want to do cartoons, they should do cartoons. I will say this: I don’t necessarily accept the ideas, but the subject they bring up that they want to address will sometimes kick a thought into my head. They suggest a topic, and I think, “I hadn’t thought about that, but maybe I should.”
Is being an editorial cartoonist in a religious state a challenge or an opportunity?
Oh, it’s an opportunity. I got started at BYU. It’s a place where if you walked across the grass, people would look at you because it was against the rules. It helped to be in an environment where everything was life and death. It’s fun to make fun of that.
What is the current landscape for editorial cartoons?
When I started doing cartoons, there were about 400 newspapers that had their own staff cartoonists. By the time this convention rolls around, there will be about 50 newspapers that have a staff cartoonist. That has a lot to do with the corporate takeover of newspapers. They bought up a lot of newspapers and they started to cut positions. It has a tremendous amount to do with the Internet, and things like Craiglist. When I started at the Tribune, we had four or five sections of nothing but classifieds. Those are gone. People call me up and say, “The reason newspapers are doing so badly is that they have liberal cartoonists like you.” That’s ludicrous. It’s because the Internet has undercut our economics. And then in 2008, when the economy went sour, it was just a bloodbath. It seemed that every week, there was a cartoonist who was being laid off. Things have stabilized. We’re not losing any more, and we are gaining ground on the Internet.
There are people who are making a go of it just on the Internet. And they’ve got to really hustle and work hard, but I’d say about half of our membership now—maybe more—are nontraditional cartoonists. Some appeal to the regional aspect. Some are trying a new model where you get the cartoons for free and build up a base of fans, and then you sell them stuff—coffee mugs and T-shirts.
There’s a panel on cartooning in a Kickstarter era. How does that factor in?
One is when a cartoonist has lost his job and is still trying to make a go of it. He’s working part time fixing bicycles, but he still wants to do cartoons. So there’ll be a campaign to help him pay off his house, and we’ll try to raise $35,000 or something like that. And the other thing is, cartoonists will put out books. So they’ll do a book proposal, and you’ll send them money, and get a book at the end of it.
Speaking of books, do you have any more in the works?
I thought I was kind of done with that, but enough people have asked that I’m thinking about it.
How did you get a convention of cool cartoonists to come to square old Utah?
I remember sitting there in the business meeting and thinking, “Salt Lake could do it. We could do it. It’s going to be a lot of work, and I’m going to be sorry I did it.” It was one of those ideas you get that just doesn’t go away. I had to act on it. I was the most enthusiastic of the people who offered. I do believe we could do a great convention here. I’m proud of my city, and I want to show it off to my peers. We have people who want to go out and see the NSA facility, so maybe we’ll have a little field trip out there.
Is it different to be on the promoting side of an event?
It’s kind of weird. But the thing is, I was kind of stuck in a rut, and the reason I did the cartoon convention in the first place is it was going get me out of my rut. It’s worked. I’m having to call people and go out and meet, and arrange things—and I’ve got to be on time.
What’s something that’s surprised you about planning the event?
It’s all the moving parts—especially the Cartoons & Cocktails. One of the shockers is the catering. You find out that you’ve got to spend a lot of money on these things that you could make at home for fairly cheap. But the big eye-opener is the liquor stuff. It’s all got to go through the DABC. I’ve got Five Wives vodka, Wasatch and Squatters as sponsors. They just can’t give me the beer—they have to let me know how much the beer costs. I get the AAEC to cut a check for that much. I take the check to Wasatch, they take the check, give me the beer, and give me a check for the amount. It’s really complicated. But that’s Utah.
I have to ask—what’s the Cartoonist Death Match?
This guy named Todd Zuniga, he’s from San Francisco, and he’s kind of a comic host. He’s created this thing called the Literary Death Match. It’s a little bit like [NPR’s] Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. It entails getting a team of cartoonists, with celebrity judges [Ken Sanders will be one June 27]. Nothing is really at stake. He’s tailored it to cartoons. He’ll blindfold a cartoonist from each team and put him in front of an easel, and tell him something to draw—Obama, or a bee or something. They’ll have to do the best they can blindfolded. The judges will decide who wins that round.
What’s going to be happening at the big party, Cartoons & Cocktails?
We’re going to be auctioning off cartoon items. We’ve got ski trips and things that local businesses have donated as well, but by and large, it’s going to be original cartoons from cartoonists. Almost all of them are from Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonists. I’ve got a Doonesbury and an original Pat Oliphant. This is probably going to be the largest collection of Pulitzer Prize winners in Utah at one time. We have a couple of cartoonists who are stand-up comedians—they’ve been on Letterman and Leno—emceeing.
If Salt Lakers can go to just one panel of the AAEC conference, what should it be?
Saturday morning: Satire & the Sacred: From Mohammed to Mormon Underwear. We’ve got Victor Navasky. He’s a former editor of The Nation, of New York Times Magazine. He’s now the head of the Columbia Journalism Review, which is a huge deal. He’s written a lot of books, and won the National Book Award for Naming Names—about the McCarthy era in Hollywood. He just came out with a book in April about the power of political cartoons. I’ve also got Daniel Peterson from BYU. He’s the head of the Islamic department down there, and he’s been in the news lately because Mormon scholars are at each other’s throats. Peterson, in person, is very amiable, very personable, but when he writes, he can be very vicious—he’s not a shrinking violet. And Mormons aren’t used to that. He’s also written a book about Mohammad.
What makes editorial cartoons so powerful?
Victor Navasky, in the book he wrote about cartooning, has theories. Cartoons can be very powerful, and they’ve always been that way. There are cartoons going back thousands of years. There were cartoons making fun of Pharaoh. There’s something about putting a person in an image that can provoke tremendous response. Part of it’s cultural. In the Middle East, they really take cartoons seriously. They’ll kill you if they don’t agree with you. There was that Syrian cartoonist who was doing the Assad cartoons, and some thugs pulled him out of the car and smashed his hands—he barely got away with his life.
You access a different part of your brain. Sometimes when I’m cartooning and I’m really into it and I’m in that part of my head, and I get distracted and have to talk to somebody, I find it hard to talk. It’s not related to your verbal part of your brain. There’s something else that goes on there.
What cartoons have you done that have received a big backlash?
I had this idea for a cartoon featuring Gordon B. Hinckley. And as far as I knew, no one had ever done a cartoon featuring the sitting president of the church. I didn’t know how it was going to go over, or even if they would let me do it. I thought, “He’s been out in the public eye, he’s out there doing his PR blitz, meeting all these news people, making himself available to the press and being very public—so he’s fair game.” So, I did a cartoon featuring Gordon B. Hinckley, and I got all kinds of responses from people who were offended on his behalf—this is disrespectful, this is sacrilege. They weren’t threatening to kill me—it wasn’t anything like the Dutch cartoons—but it was kinda the same thing. And then I heard through back channels that Gordon B. Hinckley had seen the cartoon and liked it, because he looked kinda cute in the cartoon. So he was fine with it, but there were any number of people in the lower ranks, in the mid ranks, who would run to his defense even when he didn’t want it.
Have the Tribune editors ever held one of your cartoons?
They’ve had a few that they haven’t run. There was one cartoon I did decades ago that was about state employees. It’s a guy sitting in a cubicle, on the phone, and he says, “Another holiday? I don’t know if I can fit that into my busy schedule.” His calendar is filled up with holidays and vacation and days off and sick days. The suggestion is that state employees have it pretty cushy. I did that cartoon and went into the work and the phones were just off the hook. We had five or six lines coming into the Tribune, and they were all lit up, all day long—except from 12 to 1 p.m., when they stopped.