WHEN I WAS A BUDDING YOUNG CARTOONIST, one of the first political cartoonists I ever met in person — and eagerly sought advice from — was Ed Stein, who had established a prominent perch at the Rocky Mountain News. Responding to my wide-eyed line of questioning, he was patient, thoughtful, insightful — and encouraging about the future of the business.
Today, Stein is still patient and thoughtful and insightful, but his tone toward budding young political cartoonists has changed ever so slightly. Now, his advice to the frisky, would-be up-and-comer is this:
“Run! Throw that pen away and go to bartender school. I have no idea how to make a living as an editorial cartoonist now.”
What a difference the past few years have made for him. In 2009, Stein lost his longtime Rocky perch — what he calls “a fabulous soapbox” — as the Mountain News folded. He continued his syndicated political cartoons, but as I can corroborate from experience, something is lost when your editorial connection to a community — that special mutual chemistry and “feedback loop” — is cut off, and you find yourself feeling for a phantom limb of a local audience.
“The passion was gone. Not having a newspaper and a local readership was part of it. ...,” Stein tells Comic Riffs. “It seemed that what I was doing was increasingly irrelevant, given today’s political climate and the declining impact of newspapers.”
As the cartoonist wryly notes of drawing only for syndication: “Even the hate mail isn’t as intimate and personal.”
And so Stein announced last week that he is packing up the artful tools of his political-cartooning trade — that the nearly 35-year run was inking its last.
Comic Riffs caught up with Stein — who also draws the comic “Freshly Squeezed” — to reflect on a career that made at least two generations of readers laugh and react, as he encouraged them to interact with the work artistically, respond intellectually and, always, truly think critically.
MICHAEL CAVNA: Why did you decide to retire now? And had you felt this way for a while — had you been leaning toward retirement — or was this a sudden decision with a tipping point?
ED STEIN: I'd been thinking about it for a few months, for several reasons. I just wasn’t enjoying it anymore. The passion was gone. Not having a newspaper and a local readership was part of it, and the workload of a daily comic strip plus editorial cartoons was another factor. The toxic political atmosphere certainly contributed, as well. It seemed that what I was doing was increasingly irrelevant, given today's political climate and the declining impact of newspapers.
MC: At the Rocky Mountain News, you had one of those community perches that most all editorial cartoonists hope for: a real connection to the city. Can you speak to your relationship to Denver readers for three decades? What did you like and appreciate and cherish?
ES: I've lived in Denver most of my life, and I love the city. The Rocky gave me a fabulous soapbox — a big daily newspaper with a statewide reach. I had supportive editors who trusted me and let me do my work without interference and who let me experiment. I always thought of the job as an ongoing conversation with readers, and I think I developed a genuine rapport with the readers of the Rocky, especially after I started “Denver Square,” my daily comic strip about life in Denver. One of the reasons I decided to hang it up is that I no longer have that connection, that feedback loop with the readers, and drawing only for syndication isn't nearly as satisfying. Even the hate mail isn't as intimate and personal.
MC: What editorial cartoons — and targets of your commentary — stand out most when you look back over the 30-plus years? Any cartoons you're especially proud of — and any you regret?
ES: I honestly don't have favorites. To me, editorial cartooning is about building a coherent and consistent argument for a point of view over time, and I was lucky to have had 34 years and 8,000 drawings to have my say. Yes, I thought some were more successful than others, and there are plenty of drawings that I'd like to do over, but I'm generally satisfied with the body of work.
MC: Did you have any absolute favorite targets — from presidents to local politicians to other satire-rich figures?
ES: I think I approach editorial cartooning a bit differently than most. I never wanted to concentrate on political figures. The focus of my work has always been the effect of events on average Americans. I never really like caricaturing politicians; I always felt I was somehow missing the real point when I concentrated on them instead of on the effect of their actions on the rest of us. That said, there were two people I couldn't resist drawing. The first was Dick Lamm, who as governor was a fascinating combination of visionary and doomsayer. I don't know who stuck him with the nickname, “Governor Gloom,” but I had lots of fun with his complex personality and his idiosyncratic governing style. The other was Dick Cheney, whom I couldn't blast often enough for the irreparable harm he did this country.
MC: The field of editorial cartooning has changed so profoundly in recent years. Where do you feel most hopeful about the profession — and what frustrates or disappoints you most about the state of editorial cartooning?
ES: I wish I had any idea where editorial cartooning might find its salvation, now that newspapers are dying. My career spanned the arc from the great rise in editorial cartooning during Watergate and Vietnam to the virtual extinction of the newspaper cartoonist. Yes, there still are a handful of cartoonists doing important, original work, but much of what I see now is uninspired, repetitive and dull. The alties seem to have the energy, and some of them are doing genuinely original stuff, but their circulation is so marginal they don't have much impact. The web gives us an unlimited potential audience, but the reality is that it's so fragmented it's almost impossible to build an audience comparable to what a big newspaper used to provide--not to mention the question of how to make a living without an employer.
MC: Will you continue to create [your syndicated comic] "Freshly Squeezed," and are there any other projects or plans you have next for your talents?
ES: I'll continue with “Freshly Squeezed.” Being able to concentrate on it will give me a chance to improve it and build it, I hope. And I do have a number of new projects in mind. I don't know yet which ones I'll work on first.
MC: As a budding cartoonist, I once asked for your advice. What advice or guidance would you give for a young editorial cartoonist wanting to break into the business now?
ES: Run! Throw that pen away and go to bartender school. I have no idea how to make a living as an editorial cartoonist now. I think it's up to the next generation to figure out. The only real advice I have is to perfect your craft and assume a market will find you if you're good enough at what you do. If cartooning is your calling, then know what you're about and why you're doing this.
Having a political philosophy and point of view isn't enough. Don't illustrate the news. Draw about the issues behind the events, not the events themselves. Advocate for people, not politicians. Don't be an unpaid huckster for a political party. Resist the temptation to support their daily talking points. Constantly question your own motivation. Do your research. Know the facts and avoid the spin. Admit it when you're wrong. Don't be lazy; don't do what everyone else is doing. Support ideas, not ideologies.
Say something in every cartoon; make every drawing count. And I could go on.