THE HOOK came without warning. Yes, V. Cullum Rogers had a veteran journalist’s sense of how things had long trended unfavorably. But after his two decades at the Indy Week in North Carolina, word last week that his political cartooning job was being eliminated still struck as a surprise.
“Things have been thinning out forever” in journalism, Rogers says by phone Wednesday with a philosophical air and a warm drawl. Plus, just more than five years back, he got a new publisher, which, he notes with a laugh, “is never a good sign for a cartoonist.”
But today, the artist — who goes by the nom-de-toon VC Rogers — published his farewell cartoon, in which he thanks his readership around the Research Triangle region for getting to share some 1,000 cartoons over nearly 21 years at the alt-weekly. He accepts the departure without acrimony, noting that he was told that the decision to eliminate the position came from the publisher and not his editors.
“It’s been a helluva ride,” says Roger, 68, “and I have no real regrets about it coming to an end.”
The professional organization for the country’s political cartoonists, though, isn’t taking the news as quietly. “The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists is disappointed that [owner Mark] Zusman and co-owner Richard Meeker seem to have forgotten what makes local, local,” the AAEC says Wednesday in a statement. “Cartoonists dealing with local issues are often one of the few features that give a newspaper identity and character.”
The award-winning Rogers certainly exudes character in his work, and he is a true local, having drawn in the Durham-Raleigh area for four decades. Among the local issues he has tackled is the recent removal of Confederate monuments. Rogers’s cartoon from last August on the issue, titled “The Hard Part,” was part of a portfolio that garnered him a first-place award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia.
Rogers says his work, which ran under the title “Peripheral Visions,” seldom stirred significant controversy, perhaps because of the warmth of his illustrations and the general amiability of his wit. The angriest calls might come, he says, if he insulted Duke football.
As an alt-weekly cartoonist with a dedicated print perch for decades, he represents a shrinking breed on the journalism landscape. Yet the career timing was often so right for Rogers, who seemingly was born for just this job.
Rogers was born in Bennettsville, S.C., and became fascinated with editorial art while in junior high, when he picked up a book by the famed St. Louis Post Dispatch and Chicago Sun-Times creator Bill Mauldin, who just a few years earlier had won his second Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning.
Rogers published his own political cartoons while at North Carolina’s Davidson College, but he didn’t particularly view that as a viable career path. So he got his master’s degree in English — “that’s what you do when you don’t know what to do,” he says wryly — and worked various jobs, including as a bookstore clerk.
He didn’t even fully consider a career in cartooning despite having a relative in the business: Charles Saxon, his uncle, drew more than 700 cartoons for the New Yorker. (“He gave me my first professional advice,” Rogers says. “Learn to draw.”)
But by the time he was 27, Rogers had two predominant interests — politics and cartoons — and he had ruled out farming (“I didn’t like the hours,” he says), so he tried his hand at professional art, selling his first cartoon in 1977. That led to a decade-long run at the then-Durham Morning Herald. He next edited and drew at the Raleigh Spectator, before answering an ad in the mid-’90s to become the Indy Week’s new political cartoonist.
“They paid me $75 for each black-and-white cartoon,” he says. Awhile later, the editors told him they paid $100 for color cartoons. His reply: “You’ll never get another black-and-white cartoon from me again.”
Rogers’s longtime publisher was Steve Schewel, who founded the paper in 1983. But Schewel, who sold Independent Weekly in 2012, moved into politics and last year was elected mayor of Durham. Meanwhile, Rogers says, Indy Week’s flagging circulation didn’t reflect the region’s years of booming population growth.
So even though Rogers’s work won national praise last year — and even though he had received only one pay raise over two decades — he didn’t fit in to Indy Week’s larger fiscal picture. Now, Rogers is eyeing new creative projects, such as a book about the history of magazine parody.
And as he exits, he relishes having spent four decades as a locally engaged cartoonist.
“Local cartoonists are where the influence is,” Rogers says. “It’s maybe not where the [big] prizes are, but it’s where I’ve made people who agree with me smile, and I’ve [happily] pissed off the people who didn’t agree with me.”
Yes, Rogers adds, “A helluva ride.”
The kind of ride that is vanishing over an industry’s horizon line.