In the first panel of a cartoon that Mike Mount drew, a crowd stands in front of a multistory building that is under construction. Together, they shout the name of a popular grocery store, expressing a communal hope that it will find a home on the ground level of that structure.
“Wegmans! Wegmans! Wegmans! Wegmans! Wegmans!”
In the next panel, the building stands in its finished form, and two signs reveal which businesses actually moved into the first floor.
“Nail — Spa,” reads one. “Tan,” reads the other.
If you live in a major city or in a small town, you might be thinking “Huh?” or “Is that supposed to be funny?”
But if you live in one of Washington’s suburbs, that sketched scene likely strikes at a familiar disappointment. Mixed-use buildings are constantly going up, bringing with them hope that they will draw exciting new businesses and then letdown when those occupants end up being similar to ones that already exist blocks away. The caption on Mount’s cartoon read: “The Arlington mixed-used lottery.”
“How many tanning salons, nail salons, and ABC (liquor) stores are needed around here?” Mount said on a recent morning when I asked him about that cartoon. “I can think of a thousand things that can go into these places.”
Mount is not a professional cartoonist. He will tell you that’s he’s not even that great of one. He is self-critical in that way. “Drawing hands is one of the worst things for me,” he said. “I just can’t master it.”
But the father of two has long been a fan of the art form and in the past year, he has become a community cartoonist. He creates weekly cartoons for an online news outlet in his Northern Virginia county, capturing within those scribbled squares the weird, comical and relatable parts of living in one of Washington’s suburbs.
He does that work at no charge because he believes in supporting local journalism — which has been dying one publication at a time across the nation — and because of that critical eye he takes to his work.
“I would feel bad being paid for stuff that wasn’t worth it,” he said.
Worth is subjective, but there is value in cartoons that focus on local communities. They reveal the issues, priorities and absurdities of places, and in the case of Mount’s cartoons, they do that about life in the 'burbs. When someone from another state hears that a person is from Washington, they likely think of monuments, memorials and city streets. But that term has become generic shorthand for D.C. and its neighboring counties in Maryland and Virginia. Those suburbs are places of concentrated wealth, power and social struggles. They are also where many of the people who make decisions that have national consequences live and work.
Arlington, where Mount has lived for more than 20 years, is home to the Pentagon, Reagan National Airport and the new Amazon headquarters.
One of Mount’s cartoons pokes at Amazon founder (and Washington Post owner) Jeff Bezos’s investment in space travel. It shows two people watching a rocket with the word “Arlington” on its side shoot upward. The caption: “The County Board consulted with Bezos on fiscally responsible ways to spend its budget surplus this year.”
Another of his cartoons features two couples talking outside of a home. The caption: “We moved to Arlington for the public schools, but our house payment really is the tuition.”
It’s funny (and groan-worthy), because it’s true. It’s become increasingly normal for a house in Arlington to cost in the seven figures. In January, a headline on the website of WTOP read: “Want a house in Arlington? $1.3 million should do.”
Mount didn’t plan to become a community cartoonist. His work grew from his admiration of others. He has every book by “The Far Side” creator Gary Larson. “Like Seinfeld episodes, I can read them over and over again and still laugh,” he said. So when an urge to create his own cartoons hit him about eight years ago, a few years after he went from working as a national security producer for CNN to doing public relations work for a defense contractor, he went with it. He searched for topics worthy of social commentary, sketched them into scenes and submitted them to The New Yorker.
The result: A lot of rejection.
“I would come up with these cartoons and I would show them to my wife, and she’d say, ‘Oh, that’s hilarious’ or ‘I don’t get it,’ and I’d send them off,” Mount said. At one point, he realized that he would have to submit hundreds of cartoons to maybe get one published. “I just didn’t have the time to do that with work and family. But every once in a while I would get 10 together and send them off, and then I would get email rejections.”
Eventually, Mount started looking around him and realized the stories that ran on ARLnow, an online news outlet that focuses on Arlington, provided plenty of material for cartooning.
He now creates cartoons for the publication that run monthly online and weekly in a newsletter for paying members.
“Mike has a great handle on those local issues that Arlington residents really care about but which can seem almost comically minor to everyone else,” said Scott Brodbeck, the founder and CEO of Local News Now, which publishes ARLnow, FFXnow and ALXnow. “The localness to the point of absurdity is where I — and I suspect many readers — find much of the humor. But there’s also some genuine satire and social commentary in there, which helps to highlight community topics that deserve more attention and scrutiny.”
So far, his cartoons seem to be resonating with residents, based on comments they have received on the site.
Of his mixed-used building cartoon, someone wrote, “I have never seen anything represent Arlington more accurately than the Wegmans cartoon.”
Of his cartoon on the high cost of housing, someone commented, “Taxes instead of tuition is a very real decision. Not a cartoon.”
And after he re-envisioned the county’s logo, depicting it with a flipped car at its center, someone offered praise of his work and then took a shot at the skills of Maryland drivers. That person wrote, “I am shocked — shocked and appalled — that the flipped car doesn’t have a Maryland license place.”
In an ARLnow piece that introduced Mount to readers in August, he talked about having a great collection of cartoons he calls “Rejected by the New Yorker.” He also set the expectations of readers.
“My cartoons don’t always hit a home run, and one of these days, I’m sure I’ll have a great collection of, ‘Rejected by ARLnow,'” he is quoted as saying. “In the meantime, I hope people have fun with them.”