MARK FIORE is a rare breed even within an endangered species. He is the modern professional political cartoonist who has an established platform and dedicated following — the editorial artist who bows to the past century’s masters while helping carve the future of the art.
Fiore, who is in Washington this evening to pick up the 2016 Herblock Prize Award, says his pioneering career as a political animator was sparked by both personality and professional opportunity. The Bay Area-based cartoonist — who in 2010 became the first Pulitzer Prize recipient to win for an all-animation portfolio — describes himself as “someone with an independent streak” who was fueled by “the fact that what I was doing had never been really done before.”
“I’m sure if someone had offered me a staff job creating political animation, I would have jumped at the chance,” Fiore tells The Post’s Comic Riffs today, hours before he gives his Herblock speech at the Library of Congress’s Jefferson Building. “With something new and different like political animation, having independence created space to push the envelope.”
Ahead of tonight’s event, which also will feature 2016 Lecturer Mark Shields, Comic Riffs caught up with Fiore to talk press freedoms, presumptive nominees, and how a publisher’s edict to go easier on a president led to Fiore’s departure from daily print journalism.
MICHAEL CAVNA: Congrats on the award, Mark — I look forward to your Herblock talk. Can you tease us as to what the theme of your speech will be?
MARK FIORE: Thanks, Michael, it’s such an honor to receive the Herblock Award! Besides plenty of “thank you’s” … if there is one overarching theme it might be “do what you love.” Granted, not the most sound business advice, but I’ll get into that tonight during my remarks.
MC: You arrive in Washington at an especially interesting time politically, of course. Will any of the current presidential contenders perhaps find their way into your speech?
MF: I’m going to thankfully leave out the politics, particularly the current campaign. I look at this night as a time to celebrate Herb Block and all that he has done as an iconic cartoonist. I’ll leave the political analysis to the pro, Mark Shields, who will also be speaking tonight. Of course, I’m happy to offer my opinion if anyone asks, heh-heh.
MC: From the Muhammad Cartoon Crisis to Charlie Hebdo, you have been vocal as a strong free-speech proponent. Would you call yourself a free-speech absolutist or, if not, where do you draw your personal lines?
MF: Yes, I do still consider myself a free-speech absolutist. If a cartoonist, author or just general idiot, wants to draw or speak ill of Muhammad, Jesus, Buddha or Senator Nutballs, go for it. There’s a certain cartoonist who seems to be trying to make a career out of drawing Muhammad and selling his Muhammad drawings in online auctions — it’s amazing how silly, sad and desperate the cartoonist looks. A shocking taboo has just become an online sales tool. The one place I agree with some of the religious zealots in Iran is when it comes to cartoon contests. If they want to hold a Holocaust-denying cartoon contest, go for it! Let’s have a war with cartoons instead of bullets.
Personally, of course, I always strive to have my cartoons say something with a punch, but at the same time respect other cultures, races and religions. Just because you can be a loud-mouthed idiot, doesn’t mean you have to be one.
MC: Related to that, we know that much of the world has no true free press. Meanwhile, Trump talks about pushing for more restrictive libel laws if elected. Within this environment [for journalists], do you ever feel as if your own liberties as a cartoonist are constrained?
MF: We are incredibly fortunate to have a free press. We do have problems, though — mostly related to economic pressures that undermine the health of journalism. Let’s hope we’re still able to critique a real-estate developer/reality-television star if he becomes president. Even though Trump talks a big game, the Obama administration hasn’t exactly been a shining torch of freedom when it comes to journalism in the United States.
MC: Herblock was famously fearless in skewering McCarthy and Nixon, to name just two politicians he satirized with high conviction and personal sense of moral purpose. Are there any targets, be it individuals or institutions or organizations, that you take a special pride in having skewered, perhaps even garnering a reaction or affecting a change?
MF: I’m particularly proud of apparently “injuring” Chevron — although my lucite-award statue of a weeping Chevron logo has not yet come in the mail. It seems that in this day and age, however, politicians in the United States have gotten smart enough to realize that any time they complain or sue a cartoonist, it just brings more attention to the cartoon they want to bury. My goal is to shape the conversation and speak more to the people than to the politicians.
MC: You pivoted from a staff newspaper job to [returning to being] a freelance creator [in 2001]. We’ve only seen the number of staff political-cartooning jobs continue to dwindle since then. Do you look back on your decision as particularly fortuitous or sage, lucky or prescient — [because] it seems that everything that has come to you professionally since you made that decision has been for the good?
MF: My short time as a staff cartoonist was in 2001, at the San Jose Mercury News. Over my career, that was really just a blip as I’ve been going it alone pretty much since the mid-1990s. I quit/was fired from the Mercury News when a new publisher told the entire editorial board to go easier on George W. Bush. As you know, saying something like that to a political cartoonist creates the exact opposite effect.
I don’t consider myself to be a sage who was wise enough to go it alone — more like someone with an independent streak combined with the fact that what I was doing had never been really done before. I’m sure if someone had offered me a staff job creating political animation, I would have jumped at the chance. With something new and different like political animation, having independence created space to push the envelope. I’m of course always happy when an editor or online news outlet wants to run something that is unique and different from everything else.
Overall, I really focus on creating my cartoons first, and then focus on keeping the lights on — whether it’s finding online news sites who want to run my animation or going direct to my audience with a Patreon crowd-funding campaign.
MC: In recent days, I’ve seen several national commentators say that Trump has “broken the seal” on only politicians or military leaders being a leading candidate for president — that he’s opened that electoral barn-door wide. I’m curious — has Trump changed anything about how political cartoonists attack their targets?
MF: The way I look at it, people are people. Trump is a human; career politicians are humans. Sure, The Donald is different, to say the least, but it’s the political process and issues that I target. I don’t think my cartoons about Trump will make him think twice about his policies or his campaign. But I hope my cartoons will make people think twice about voting for him. I want my cartoons not to say, “Trump, you’re an idiot,” but, “Hey, do you guys really think a billionaire real-estate developer from New York has your best interest in mind?” Granted, in a slightly more pointed and entertaining way.
MC: Herblock had a rare platform in mid-century Washington. Do you aim to move the needle of influence through your work? Or is visual satire simply too multi-channeled now to have that sort of central impact?
MF: It is very difficult to break through the noise of punditry and media in this day and age. There are so many choices out there, the audience is incredibly fragmented. I think the most important thing is to create great work and get it in front of as many people as possible. I don’t think a president will make a surprise visit to any of my gallery openings the way LBJ did with Herblock, but I do feel that I can move the needle of discourse. My favorite emails and comments begin, “I usually hate your work but . . .”
Through the miracle/curse of the Internet, it’s as if we all live in one massively news-saturated town and are finding our particular audience. Even though I’ve been doing this for a while, I still feel that I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what is possible with my cartoons.
MC: If you could witness any cartoonist living or dead satirize the entire current campaign, whom — other than yourself — might you like to see do that?
MF: I would love to see a collaboration between Herblock, Pat Oliphant, Paul Conrad and Chuck Jones. I’d set them up with a studio of adoring artists and animators — like myself and Ann Telnaes — and turn them loose on the campaign. These one-minute shorts would then be distributed on Comedy Central, replayed as must-see viewing on all the networks and absolutely crush the ratings. It’d be huge, the impact would be far and wide . . . and the after work, happy-hour dinners would be incredible!
MC: What haven’t I asked, especially about your Herblock talk, that you’d like people to know?
MF: I don’t want people to forget all the other good work in the community the Herblock Foundation does — they’re about much more than throwing a big gala to celebrate the Herblock Prize winner.