David Fitzsimmons: Cartoon glitterati crave laughs but don't clown around on deadline

2013-07-06T00:00:00Z David Fitzsimmons: Cartoon glitterati crave laughs but don't clown around on deadlineDavid Fitzsimmons Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
July 06, 2013 12:00 am  • 

As we're walking back to our hotel room my wife, Ellen, says, "You cartoonists are sooooo funny. You think you're such bad-boy rebels. But as soon as your deadline comes around, you all panic like chickens with their heads cut off."

We were in Salt Lake City for the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists gathering.

Around 40 cartoonists checked in at the hotel, like dodos and passenger pigeons boarding the ark for one last cruise.

Cartoonists love irony and downtown Salt Lake City is ironic. It is a mix of hipsters, pregnant women and gay pride interlaced with urban chic, light rail and public art.

Our host, Pat Bagley of the Salt Lake Tribune, is a popular progressive voice crying in the political wilderness. Signe Wilkinson, of the Philadelphia Daily News is here.

Steve Kelley, who must be reprinted in "USA Today" more often than anyone is here. Scott Stantis of the Chicago Tribune and the spontaneously outraged Ted Rall are here. The coffee-shop-cool Jen Sorensen is here and all of them are funny. It's the anti-clique.

The editor of "The Nation" lectures us. Former Utah Sen. Bob Bennett educates us.

A Thomas Nast scholar delights us with tales of the elephant and donkey guy who gave us the Santa we all know.

Bagley ropes me into being on a radio show with three other cartoonists. I'm sitting in the studio with the Mount Rushmore of cartoonists, between two of my idols, Steve Benson, the iconoclastic bad boy of "The Arizona Republic," and the great liberal, Mike Keefe, who was with "The Denver Post" for a million years.

I was sitting between two Pulitzer Prize winners. The taping starts and as we joke, jab and banter, we all absentmindedly doodle on the little pads in front of us.

We laughed nervously at Keefe's chilling "Tale of the early buy out" and Benson's "I'm still a recovering Mormon" story. Grandson of former Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints President, Ezra Taft Benson, Steve may as well have been royalty. Steve got struck by the lightning of reason and kissed his faith goodbye. That's why his drawings are electric.

We talk about pens like they are wands. You need to have just the right one. The one that sees the world the way you do. I like a responsive nib gorged full of juicy black ink that flows like blood.

One cartoonist holds his pen like a baker carefully frosting a cake. Another drags his pen across the paper like a plow across a field.

Thursday night a "Literary Death Match" is held at the "Tavernacle." Four cartoonists perform and compete in a cross between "American Idol" and game show about literature. Lalo Alcaraz's PowerPoint presentation of Mitt wearing a sombrero kills. Benson wins, a "judge" congratulates the "LSD" Church and outside on the street corner we wonder aloud whether what we do matters.

Benson is constantly sketching. During lunch at a cafe he draws caricatures of Ellen and me. I learn what it feels like to be drawn and handed a likeness of your self. It is a strange magic, this conjuring of images out of thin air. It's a keeper.

At an evening reception in the beautiful Natural History Museum, Pat Oliphant, the grandmaster of ink slingers, speaks to us. We watch him sketch with charcoal on a large screen while he talks. We all wanted to touch the drawing as if it were the hem of Christ's garment.

Saturday sees a documentary about Herblock (Herb Block), the Washington Post cartoonist. It makes the lives of accountants look exciting. The action sequence where he leans forward in his desk is riveting.

The last hurrah is in a ballroom where "Pink Oliphants" are served and the dapper Jack Ohman of the Sacramento Bee circles the room like a T-rex.

A patron bids $3,000 on an elegant Bagley cartoon honoring the courageous young woman who dared to speak truth to the power of the Taliban. Money is raised and martyrs like Syrian cartoonist Akram Raslan are honored. One can be tortured for the crime we all commit daily. A cartoonist is worth killing.

As we say our good nights, I get a picture of myself with Lalo and remind him of the time on the phone when the great "revolucionario" had to yell at his little daughter because she was getting into his art supplies. Che Guevara was at her sweet mercy. All liberal cartoonists turn into fascists at home.

Flying home, I think about the coming week's deadlines and the list of wrongs to right. I panic like a chicken and start sketching.

The back of the plane home is a long way from sitting in the back of the class, drawing the teacher with horns, and passing it to the kid sitting next to me. He'd unfold it, laugh, and give our position away to The Enemy.

We still crave that moment every day.

David Fitzsimmons is the Star's editorial cartoonist. Email him at tooner@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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