To paraphrase the old bar joke, cartoonist Bruce Tinsley is a man who walks around with a duck on his head. Maybe not so much on his head as in his head -- and heart.
And no matter where they go, the pair often feel like a duck out of water. The bird is named "Mallard Fillmore," a former newspaper reporter now working for WFDR-TV in Washington, where his conservative politics ruffles the feathers of his liberal superiors.
Tinsley, 45, is also a former newspaper reporter now syndicating his duck-starring comic strip to more than 420 newspapers in which his unabashedly right-wing cartoon has been canceled and later reinstated dozens of times over its decade-long syndication. Tinsley's black-inked alter ego has gotten him fired and made him the target of bagfuls of hate mail, even death threats.
On the comic pages, where it runs in most papers, the strip stands out like George W. Bush at a Michael Moore movie screening. Mallard has satirized Democratic candidate John Kerry, defended the war in Iraq and railed against the strangling burdens of taxation. Conservative America celebrates him as its answer to left-wing strips such as "Doonesbury" and "The Boondocks."
But no less a topic than politics is political correctness and what Tinsley regards as its big-footed romp across the American cultural landscape. Mallard's sensitive beak sniffs out and lampoons its influence practically everywhere, on college campuses, in society's dietary obsessions and among Hollywood celebrities, to name just a few.
In one series a month after 9/11, Tinsley dispatched little Mallard, alone and unarmed, into the proverbial lion's den: "This is Mallard Fillmore reporting from behind enemy lines," the cartoon panel began. "A few hundred yards from where hard-line zealots pump young recruits full of hatred for Western culture -- here on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley."
Even though a Republican has occupied the White House for much of his life, Tinsley always seems to have felt out of step politically.
"I've spent most of my life in places where there haven't been a lot of conservatives," says Tinsley, who lives with his wife and two children in the Indianapolis area.
"My high school teachers were burned-out hippies, and college just multiplied that experience exponentially, and then I went into journalism."
Readers can witness Tinsley's revenge on his former instructors in recent strips dealing with the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq. Although Tinsley is appalled and embarrassed by the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, his comic blasted the media for "relishing showing the pictures over and over and over again."
But nothing brings in the hate mail, Tinsley says, as when he takes on race and gender issues. In the past year, he did one series espousing his view that black children had overly indulgent television-watching habits and another one opposing affirmative action programs at the University of Michigan.
To Matt McAllister, an associate professor of media studies at Penn State: "Mallard has really come at the right time. He explicitly takes the conservative side, and the public has been hungry for that. He's the Fox network of comic strips."
Traditionally, hot-button subjects such as politics and religion are kept off comics pages through a combination of cartoonist self-editing and newspapers themselves, says M. Thomas Inge, a professor of English at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., who has written extensively about comics and culture. Readers usually expect the comics to be primarily feel-good, escapist entertainment, and the shock of controversy can lead to reader alienation and canceled subscriptions, Inge added.
Naturally, there have been and are exceptions, but they are few and far between. For some reason, most of them -- such as Walt Kelly's "Pogo" and Berkeley Breathed's "Bloom County" -- have values typically associated with liberal politics. Newspapers today are trying to balance political voices on the comic pages, adding another conservative one called "Prickly City" by Scott Stantis. But some critics question whether conservatives or liberals can be humorous enough to earn a place on the funny pages. "It's very difficult to be consistently witty when dealing with political issues," McAllister said. "I don't think Mallard is very funny."
A huge fan of Al Capp and his "Li'l Abner" strip, Tinsley credits journalist, writer and author William F. Buckley for being his guiding light. "He's hilarious and brilliant," Tinsley said. "Best of all, by invoking his name under any circumstances, I could make my high school and college teachers lose their lunches. I later discovered that it also works in newsrooms and Starbucks."
Don't get Tinsley wrong; he loves liberals -- at least one anyway -- his wife, Arlette. In what would be a cliche setup for a sitcom, Tinsley is wedded to a civil rights attorney every bit as liberal as he is conservative.
They began arguing about politics on their first date two decades ago, and they haven't stopped since.