(All cartoons courtesy of Steve Breen / The San Diego Union-Tribune)
It was a mission so potentially sketchy, STEVE BREEN didn't whisper a word of it to his friends or bosses, neither his newspaper nor syndicate. Only his wife was entrusted with the secret of Breen's covert op. She, in fact, encouraged it.
The two-time Pulitzer winner was jetting and setting off for Operation Tarball.
"My wife's used to my harebrained schemes -- she usually rolls her eyes," Breen tells Comic Riffs. "Not this time. I tried to talk her out of it, but she said: 'You've got to do it.' "
The political cartoonist had gazed so long at images of the British Petroleum oil spill, his uncapped outrage eventually fueled -- by an artist's creative osmosis -- a sudden inspiration. The scheme: Breen would fly to the Gulf so he could color his editorial cartoons about the spill out of true BP crude. What better way to capture the visual truth of a situation, he reasoned, than to capture the genuine viscous article to use as medium?
"I kept staring at pictures of the spill," Breen says of his idea, which struck in late May, as his pique toward BP and the Department of Interior increased. "Then, as a creative person who works with dark liquid all the time -- in ink -- something organically grew out of that. I play with dark liquid all the time, so I decided to use oil as my ink."
Still, Operation Tarball had so many unknowns -- from acquisition to the aesthetic -- that Breen says he didn't dare yet involve his bosses at the San Diego Union-Tribune. Hush-hush, he bought his plane ticket, packed his Tupperware and set out to score some British spillage.
"There were so many variables," Breen says. "I didn't know if I could even find a beach with the alleged tarballs before cleanup workers got there. Then I didn't know if I could transport the tarballs. Then, if I could get them back, I didn't even know if I could mix them so I could paint with them, or if the oil would show up all."
Undaunted, Breen called ahead to Associated Press reporters working in the Gulf, then contacted Ping Wang, a geologist at the University of South Florida. Wang assured the artist he would find what he sought. After flying into New Orleans, Breen drove several hours to Pensacola Beach. On July 3, he struck black gold. Just days earlier, Hurricane Alex had helped wash ashore more tarballs than entire schools of mixed-media artists could ever hope to gather.
"I felt guilty because I found the whole process fascinating and a creative challenge," he says. "I was on kind of a creative high."
Breen collected his liquid loot. Now, having been aided by AP and USF to score his BP booty, he needed to navigate UPS, a return AA flight and the TSA. He mailed one container home, then Ziplocked two others -- weighing several pounds total, counting the ambient shells and sand -- into his carry-on.
"I was nervous," Breen recalls. "I didn't know if I could fly with tarballs."
The cartoonist got his apparently non-contraband crude safely home. The next step: Figuring out how to paint with the Deepwater Horizon product.
"The sun had dried out the oil, so it was a concentrated goo," he says. "So I decided to mix it with gasoline." Breen headed down to the neighborhood station to fill his car tank -- and a plastic Risotto container. "I had a nice palette once I mixed the tar with different measures of gasoline."
Breen says the approach was akin to painting with watercolor, which he's used to illustrate children's books. Mixing fresh tarball with varying degrees of Unleaded, the artist was able to create tints of rust and sepia, of cocoa and ocher. Strathmore vellum board held the somewhat-sandy medium nicely, with minimal bleed.
Working from his home studio rather than the newsroom, Breen painted four of his five BP cartoons. One cartoon shows the Statue of Liberty clutching "bleeding" oil drums; another depicts an enormous oceanic fist about to capsize a vessel labeled "Gulf jobs"; and a third spells out "BP" in oil-drenched marine life.
"I wanted to use minimal wording so the visuals would have maximum impact," Breen says. "I needed to find powerful images." Only then, once artistically satisfied, did he present the cartoons to his Union-Tribune editors.
" 'Here's what I did over my Fourth of July vacation,' " he says he told Editor Jeff Light and opinion page Editor Bill Osborne. "They were immediately enthusiastic and supportive, which was gratifying. They said they would get me a full color page to run all of them." The five cartoons ran in Sunday's Union-Tribune. By yesterday, Breen says, he had received an enthusiastic reaction from the community and the newsroom.
"I was afraid this might seem too gimmicky or cheesy," the cartoonist says, "like the time the '70s rock band KISS claimed to put real blood into the ink for its line of comic books." So far, he says, the response has been nothing but positive.
A museum in Mobile, Ala., has already expressed interest in exhibiting the artworks, says Breen, noting that he might create more such cartoons: "I've still got plenty of tarball -- maybe now that he's leaving, I could do a caricature of Tony Hayward all in tarball."
Is this the most expensive set of cartoons Breen has ever produced? "Probably," he says. "It's certainly the most flammable."
Breen hasn't yet broached the subject of trying to get his newspaper to expense Operation Tarball. For now, he's just pleased with the creative results. "As editorial cartoonists, the bigger the story, the more [we] want to do a cartoon about that topic. The greater the injustice, the greater the stupidity or greed or irresponsibility, those things really inspire us."
So once he's done working with oils, where might he next find such liquid inspiration?
"For an encore, I might do health-care cartoons using my own blood," says Breen, before waiting a beat. "That will be my last act."
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