A COUPLE OF months ago, Matt Davies was speaking at his local library when a clear, crisp question from a youngster blindsided him, striking surprisingly close to home.
The Pulitzer-winning political cartoonist and writer was promoting his debut children’s book, “Ben Rides On” (Roaring Brook Press), an illustrated hardcover beauty about a boy who faces a crucial choice after losing his prized bicycle to a bully.
The boy in the Wilton, Conn., library succinctly asked the author: “What does the bike represent?”
The simple inquiry slightly stunned the normally nimble-thinking cartoonist. “A pressure point was released,” Davies tells Comic Riffs ahead of his D.C. appearance tomorrow afternoon at Politics and Prose. Out of a young mouth, those words unlocked a puzzle.
The bike, Davies had thought, didn’t symbolize anything, at least personally. He wasn’t intentionally peddling metaphors. But in that moment, in a flash, he realized the bike stood in for something he loved that had so recently been taken from him. “The whole story,” he says, “began to literally ring true.”
For years, the British-born author had what he considered his dream gig, working in the Northeast as an editorial cartoonist for the Gannett newspaper chain. “It was this amazing job that I had,” says Davies with a lilt of emphasis. “I loved it so much. And then this amazing thing was taken away.”
Davies had been riding high just a few years earlier. He won the Pulitzer in 2005, as well as the first Herblock Prize, not long after receiving the RFK Journalism Award. “The Pulitzer used to guarantee job security,” Davies tells ‘Riffs. “It still means a lot outside journalism, but within newspapers, it’s meaningless.”
Within a few years, Davies could read the economic writing on the wall, amid Gannett cutbacks. “I was producing popular, original content,” says the cartoonist, crosshatching his comments with sarcasm. But in the larger picture, he knew his dream job based at the Journal News (N.Y.) was skidding toward the cliff.
“It was on Nov. 8, 2010, at 9 a.m.,” that his professional vehicle for editorializing was taken away and he was handed his walking papers — not that he remembers that dark day precisely, Davies half-jokes.
Now, at a pivotal point in his career, could Matt ride on?
“My response was not to be mad,” Davies recounts. Instead, he decided to write a book. “I realize that’s an unusual way to deal with the situation. But it really was cathartic. I took something negative and tried to turn it into a positive.”
Davies, whose left-leaning political cartoons were recently added to the Universal Uclick syndicate’s lineup, had felt an immense freedom as a Gannett cartoonist — the intellectual version of the thrill that he felt pedaling around his hometown as a child.
“I was feral as a boy,” says Davies, who is now in his 40s. “My parents would let me hop on a train and head into central London and ride my BMX around when I was 11, 12 years old. We sometimes got into a little trouble, but we managed to deal with it.” (The artist notes that he still rides a bike around, though now sometimes with his three children, ages 6 to 13.)
Davies, whose family moved to America when he was high-school age, also remembers daydreaming in the back seat during the car trips of his childhood — gazing at overpasses and underpasses, hills and bridges and pipes, and imagining himself careering along that topography on his BMX.
The author illustrates “Ben Rides On” with that exhilarating sense of freedom, as our leaning, loose-limbed hero pedals both a literal route to school and also launches his bike into flights of fancy — hurdling sharks and schoolbuses as the warm ink-and-watercolor scenery flies by.
Our protagonist loses his prized possession to a towering, overgrown third-grader named Adrian Underbite (Davies jokes that the bully isn’t meant to literal depict any Gannett execs), and the physical world begins to feel as if it’s against him — until Ben faces a moral choice about how to deal with the situation before he can move on.
Amid the adventure, there’s a poignant image of a trudging Ben, utterly alone, dwarfed in the menacing and massive purple school hallways. The illustration stops the reader cold — just as it did Davies’s sharp-eyed editor, Neal Porter, when he bought the book. The art connects us instantly to Ben’s emotional state. “The world is never as against us as we think it is, of course,” the writer says, “but that’s how we feel.”
Davies, like his boy hero, has ridden on beyond a loss. Besides syndication, he has new freelance cartooning gigs — and is hard at work on his book sequel, in which Ben becomes a classroom caricaturist. “It’s not a surprise,” the author says, “to say this is becoming semi-autobiographical.”
Davies simply didn’t realize just how much, until a boy at a library asked the right question. “Of course,” the author says, “I made up some answer in that moment — I didn’t tell him all this.”