(click here for larger and interactive version of the cartoon)
(Image: Steve Breen / San Diego Union-Tribune)
As awards season ramps up and the Feb.1 Pulitzer deadline nears, Steve Breen would seem to have a fair shot at being named a 2011 Prize finalist.
The San Diego Union-Tribune editorial cartoonist -- a two-time Pulitzer winner already -- drew national attention last summer when he flew to the Gulf to gather crude that he used for his cartoons about the BP oil spill. Breen's "Operation Tarball" led to a week's worth of inspired artwork.
Last month, though, Breen might have topped himself. The 40-year-old artist spent weeks on a project centering on immigration issues at the U.S.-Mexico border. The result, titled "Living in the Shadows," spotlights the real lives of more than a dozen undocumented immigrants -- the majority of them from Mexico, ranging from their teenage years to their 50s. Comic Riffs caught up with Breen to discuss the cartoon reportage:
MICHAEL CAVNA: Did you do the reporting for your cartoon, Steve, or was that gathered by other journalists as part of the Union-Tribune's larger immigration coverage?
STEVE BREEN: First, this cartoon took months of work here and there, but I feel strongly about the topic so I didn't mind the sweat. Everything fell in place in the end.
Like most journalism projects these days, it was basically a one-man show. I conceived, wrote and drew it on my own. Our fantastic web guy Andrew Kleske did the programming for the mouse-rollover effect. I also asked two local migrant-rights groups to hand out the questionnaires, which I wrote. I figured people could be afraid that I would expose them if I asked the questions myself. I also feared I would not get honest responses. But I didn't change any of the information I collected.
MC: Did you take photos as reference for your illustration? And might picturing and naming undocumented immigrants put them at risk for deportation?
SB: I didn't use photos because most of the undocumented folks wouldn't want their picture in the paper, and even if they did I didn't want to put anyone at risk of deportation. I guess their name and image in the paper -- even though not a photo -- could put them at some risk, I think the odds are very small. I can't be sure that the names they gave were real. Some probably weren't. But I don't think that changed the spirit of the project.
MC: So part of your message, then, is to literally illustrate how undocumented immigrants can become "invisible" to others in society?
SB: Yes, the darkened figures are all "in the shadows of illegality," so they're undocumented. All the others are legal. So it's basically a reflection of the United States: people in legal limbo living right next to the rest of us, more or less. I did sprinkle a few [other real] people in the cartoon. Myself, my brother, a designer friend at the U-T, an old editor, even three stewardesses who were talking to me and asking questions about the artwork as I drew on the plane ride home from the [Ohio State University] cartooning festival. It was all done on a big 20-by-16-inch piece of cardboard. ... I had to work on it on the road!
MC: How did this brainchild evolve?
SB: Since I draw for a paper in a huge border town, I had been wanting to do something special on immigration for a while. I did a series of colored immigration cartoon several years ago, but with this, I wanted to do something that could take advantage of the Internet. I thought of going the animated route, but I think the interactive approach was better.
MC: So had you ever done anything like this before?
SB: No, nothing really like this before. But I plan to again...maybe on this topic, but probably something else.
MC: And what was the larger reaction like?
SB: The letters and comments are both pro and con, as expected. I think most feedback is of the anti-illegal-immigration variety. And for the record, I'm anti-illegal immigration. We need tighter borders. But my position is: Let's give these people some kind of legal status and end this grand charade. We say we don't want them yet love their labor. And while they're here, let's remember they are human beings, not statistics, not political footballs.
I listen to the debate on this issue, especially in the wake of the Arizona law, and it's really callous and cold. I tell people that if I were living in Mexico, struggling to survive, I'd hop the fence and find a job in America, too, if it meant a better life for my family.
(Full disclosure: Michael Cavna once worked for the Union-Tribune.)