Some folks might not think of being a cartoonist as a writing job. But as Sacramento Bee editorial cartoonist Jack Ohman can attest, for people in his position the writing is more important than the drawing. I sat down with the former Pulitzer finalist recently to talk about the craft of cartooning.
RE: You’re known primarily as an editorial cartoonist, but some people may not know that you’re actually also a really good writer. Give me some perspective on all of this and how writing works into what you do.
OHMAN: I reporter friend of mine at the Oregonian once said that editorial cartoons are editorials in haiku form. So I think of my number one skill set as the ability to be reductionist and to come up with small phrases. When I’m writing a punch line for an editorial cartoon, it’s got to be very distilled. I had done some book reviews for the Oregonian, and just before I came down I had published my first 60,000 word book of essays on fly fishing, so I had a hardback book with a major publisher. I walked in the door [at the Sacramento Bee] and I was told pretty specifically that they wanted to see a proposal that did not include five cartoons a week and 3:30 tee times. They said, we want you to do a blog. I had never been interviewed about my writing before, but I had a very strong writing interest at any early age and was very into Thurber and EB White and some of the early New Yorker writers and National Lampoon. So I was writing that length of a column most days before I got in print. Then they asked if I wanted a Sunday column. I said, ‘hell yeah I want a Sunday column.’ I’m a very fast writer which is extremely useful in a newspaper deadline environment. I really enjoy it, so I usually pitch in one a week. Sometimes I’ll do two or three depending on the work load. So I was actually more into the writing aspect of it than I was the drawing aspect.
RE: Does it take away from your art?
OHMAN: The drawing is like a parlor trick for me. I’m not a formally trained artist. I’ve worked very hard to get to where I am, but that’s not something that I hang my hat on. If I wasn’t a political cartoonist I wouldn’t try to figure out a way to do cartoons. I had a very interesting four year period from 1994 to 1998 where I drew a comic strip that was called Mixed Media that was about the media culture. That really helped me do the big Sunday panels that I’m doing now. I learned that in comics it’s got to be really sharp so that was good trial by fire. A lot of things you see in my big Sunday comic panel are very similar to things I was doing with my comic strip.
RE: You mentioned that you’re able to write fast. For a lot of people that’s one of the big struggles. Were you always a fast writer or have you acquired that?
OHMAN: I don’t know. This sounds kind of corny, have you ever heard of the Dana Family? Charles A. Dana was editor of the New York Sun. Richard Henry Dana wrote “Two Years Before the Mast.” They’re all my direct lineal descendants, so my grandmother used to say, ‘you’re the restoration of the Dana dynasty.’ So I feel like sometimes they are sitting on my shoulder, whispering in my ear. So I thought maybe they were fast writers. I don’t know.
RE: How about today? It’s so important to be spot on with what’s happening right now, nationally and locally. Are there writers or other figures that you follow that interest you the most that help impact that a bit?
OHMAN: I really liked George Will and Bill Buckley when I was a young guy. I didn’t agree with them but I loved their writing voice. George Will is a tremendous writer. Just a great, flowing, wonderful voice. And I loved Bill Buckley’s persona. In my head I was always like, ‘I wish I had gone to Yale.’ I don’t know about contemporary writers – it’s almost easier for me to think of writers from 35 years ago than now. It’s almost like they were so formative and informative to me and vivid at the time and now it’s almost like you don’t even think about writers. You think about blogs. I like Leonard Pitts very much. He’s a great writer. I love Andrew Sullivan, who is a terrific writer with a strong writing voice. I love Garrison Keillor, he’s the clearest writer there is. Very much in the E.B. White, non-ornate and yet really communicative way. There’s a fly fishing writer I love named John Gierach. I really was highly influenced by his writing. He has a philosophy degree from some small college some place and he was a strong influence on me. He is the best fly fishing writer in the United States right now. So I really got into his stuff a lot. He’s part philosopher, part technician, part essayist. I love the way he tied all these tendrils together to create a really strong writing voice. I don’t really go in for snarky.
RE: Which would probably surprise a lot of people.
OHMAN: If you got to know me, you know I’m not a snot. Most cartoonists aren’t. Most of them are pretty thoughtful people. A lot of cartoonists are polymaths. Mike Keefe won the Pulitzer and he’s ABD in math and was a Marine. You talk to him and it’s like talking to a great novelist. And also has a strong writing interest. I love Jeff Danziger who was an Army lieutenant in Vietnam and small town newspaper guy and novelist. There are a lot of really interesting cartoonist who aren’t the hit you over the head snarky persona.
RE: Being able to filter out the world seems to be every writer’s struggle.
OHMAN: Two or three hours is a long time in my day. Yesterday when we were trying to get an editorial for Tuesday, I wrote it in probably 20 minutes. You just fill the container the way it needs to be filled and deadline focuses your attention. You throw things out and go, okay I don’t have time to draw this much of a background and I’ll do it this way and sometimes it turns out to be better because you threw out the extraneous crap. I’ve always said that in cartooning it’s not what you can draw, it’s what you don’t draw that counts. Knowing what to leave out is the essence of art. Effective white space and effective black space is great. It’s an ability to cut out the noise.
RE: What is your creative process like? Do you think about the drawing first and then shape the words, or is it the other way around?
OHMAN: As is said earlier, cartooning is a writing job. For instance, thinking of our ongoing immigration debate, I will walk around all morning thinking ‘how am I going to do anchor baby?’ So then I think about actual anchors on ships, which made me think I could do Trump’s head as an anchor. Then, it’s ‘what’s the ship?’ Well he’s a GOP candidate, or whatever it is, and then I’ve pretty much talked it out already. So by the time I actually sit down with paper, when I’m doing roughs I’ll have that mapped out. It’s like being a playwright and a theater set designer at the same time. You’ve written the play in your head and the drawing is the set design. So if I have Hillary saying something to Bill, my cartoon is essentially done. Its like, ‘how elaborate do I want to set the stage?’ At that point I’m thinking, ‘how do I want to set the lamps and drapes and accouterment in the background that you need to frame the idea.’ So I don’t really struggle too much. I think the hardest part for me is getting to the phrase.
RE: You also have to account for your readers getting the references, right?
OHMAN: Yes, you have to assume a level of information that a reader needs to have in order to get into your work. With the column you have 550 or 600 words to set up the point. In a cartoon you have 12 or eight or four words and they have to have a certain buy-in level of information in order to get it. I would love doing super arcane cartoons about the internal machinations that led to the defeat of legislation, but is somebody out in the suburbs who’s working for a living and raising a family, are they going to be hip to that stuff? It would be hilarious for the Chevron lobbyists but I don’t know how useful it would be to a normal person.
RE: Have you ever taken any art courses? At what point did you decide you could be a cartoonist?
OHMAN: I’ve never taken an illustration class. I started an art history course that was taught, interestingly, by [NYT op-ed columnist] Nicholas Kristof’s mother at Portland State. I’m sure she’s a really lovely person but it was a night class and it was a summer class and it was so hot and I fell asleep. So I’m not a classically trained artist but I did study it. I’m kind of an autodidact in that when I started wanting to be a cartoonist I just read every single cartoon book I could find. In that sense I studied cartooning and illustration, but I didn’t take it formally. I’m sure I’ve read hundreds of books on cartooning and illustration. And that counts. I think I’m probably ADD, and with an ADD person whatever you’re interested in you hyperfocus on. You can go down the rat hole on the root causes of the Cuban Missile crisis but you’re behind on your IRS payments.
RE: You did a series of cartoons on your father’s passing. We talked about how writers have to get into things that are tough if you’re going to write about things that matter. For someone in your position with a wide audience, it’s really brave to open up like this. There’s a lot going on in a very personal story. Did you question doing that? What led you to do it?
OHMAN: With that particular piece, PBS NewsHour was doing a thing on long term care and wanted me to do a cartoon a month for the website. But I couldn’t just do it like political cartoons, I said I’d have to do it like a graphic novel.’ I had started doing that type of strip at the Oregonian in 2008 and had done these personal journalism narratives where I would go into a situation and do six or eight panels on whatever I’d dropped into. I’d go to a homeless shelter and walk around underneath a bridge and talk to homeless people, whatever it was. I’d go to some political event and wander around, observe, take notes and go back and bang it out. So I got interested in graphic novels. I told them that if I could do it in a graphic novel format then I’d do it. And then – just thinking about it, it seemed so overwhelming to me emotionally that I didn’t even want to start it – so I put it off for several months.
RE: All writers can relate to that.
OHMAN: When I did get to it, it all came out in a flood. There were so many things I didn’t put in that that would have made it even more vivid on every level, family things that were true but would have been very hurtful. Little side personal things that would go hand in hand with the narrative. I didn’t get into my father’s drinking as much as I should have in the piece. I didn’t get into our dynamics so much. I’m not embarrassed by it, I love my dad and I took good care of him and my conscience is clear but there are things about his memory that I didn’t want to go into. I felt like it was about him. It wasn’t a biography of him, it was like trying to set up who he was without going into some of the things that happened between us. So in that regard, it was a really psychologically difficult and yet cathartic exercise. When I was drawing it I had olfactory memories, I could smell his car. The pee smell from the Depends, and the smell form the hospital and his apartment, and I could see the way the rug looked, that I never put in the piece because it was too overwhelming. Maybe if I were to expand it into a book, I would go there. I’m good at seeing vignettes clearly and remembering dialogue clearly, and there was nothing in that piece that was like, ‘he must have said something like this.’ I can hear the real words like a tape. So I had an ability to pull those vignettes out and string them together. The thing is, I don’t write these things out in advance. It’s like I have a six by six square and I’m just filling it in and then I get the next six by six square and I fill that in and bring it in for a landing by the 8th panel.
RE: How were they received?
OHMAN: The reaction has been unbelievable. Every single one of them, when it’s gone up on the PBS news Hour website it’s been the number one things on the website in terms of hits. The first one had like 18,000 shares on Facebook the first day. You’d go and look at it every five minutes and it would have 200 shares. Some of them would be one and two on the website, so the traffic was very strong. And I think it’s because it was very personal and not candy coated.
RE: I’m sure it was very personal for many other people as well.
OHMAN: The reactions ranged from, ‘wow, that was almost exactly how it went down with my mom or dad,’ or, ‘I’m 87 years old and I’m on the other ends of this and I’m feeling all those things he felt.’ That’s a really interesting experience because when you draw a cartoon about Jerry Brown, it is of interest to political people but maybe’s it’s not resonating with others. It’s cool and I like doing them but you’re not touching people in that viscerally personal way that you can with this kind of project.
RE: It’s certainly not your first time sparking things in people. I’m thinking of the Texas fertilizer factory explosion in 2013. Part of your job is to provoke thought and reaction from readers, which you certainly did with one of your cartoons. Things got pretty wild from there. Did you expect that much reaction?
OHMAN: I sure didn’t. I don’t want to make light of it because it was a serious situation. I was very confident in the point that I was making, which is that they deregulated Texas and Gov. Rick Perry was the leading deregulator. It has also been legally proven in court that the factory was fined for safety violations. But the politicians in Texas deliberately misconstrued the point of the cartoon to make political points. If you were in Texas you knew about the cartoon. Perry called for my firing. Ted Cruz called for my firing. Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst called for my firing. The Houston Chronicle cartoonist did a cartoon about a cartoon, about Perry’s reaction and blasted him for it. And I wasn’t the only cartoonist that brought up the fact that there are lax regulations in Texas. If you’re going to run for President on something like that, sometimes West, Texas happens. And 14 people died, and a lot of them were these poor innocent firefighters who ran into this thing and weren’t ready for it. I can tell you that the personal reaction to that was frightening to me. You should have seen my Twitter feed. It was like, ‘we’re coming up I-40 to get you.’ Somebody found one of my kids, I don’t know how, but they found them and called them. They sent TV crews. Dallas and Houston TV station crews went down to West, Texas and were like, ‘how could he possibly do this?’ And it was like, ‘well I’m on your side here people. I don’t want you to get blown up and immolated again. If Perry and Cruz and Dewhurst and these other clowns don’t want to protect you, that’s your call, I’m just showing you how it went down.’ That’s the truth teller role in journalism, and sometimes it’s really uncomfortable for people. In my own case, I had been through other storms, just not of this magnitude before. But every cartoonist, if they’re good, they’re puncturing the balloons and sometimes people get really upset about this. What I don’t want to do is inadvertently cause offense to something because I missed something. I drew somebody the wrong way or I phrased it in an insensitive way.
RE: Some people are just batshit crazy.
OHMAN: Richard Hofstadter wrote a book called “The Paranoid Style in America Politics.” There’s always been this sick underbelly of politics and journalism, frankly. I think with the accessibility of the internet you just see more and more crazy things.
RE: I’m glad you’ve survived all that. The question there is, does that situation impact the work you do going forward?
OHMAN: No. I do lots and lots of provocative cartoons that could light people up one way or another. That was an example of a cartoon where I didn’t think much about it. Sometimes I think, ‘Oh my god, this one is really going to blow things up again, watch out.’ And then I’ll be like, ‘eh. It’s not that big of a deal.’ There are always people out there who are trying to incite, but I don’t sit down and try to incite. I don’t get off on that. Most cartoonists just want to be thought of as clever in making a point, but they don’t want to get up in the morning, as I did the day after the West Texas cartoon blew up, and turn on CNN while getting my coffee and see on a crawl on the bottom of the screen that the governor of Texas has just called for your firing. That happened to me. Being in the center of that kind of attention isn’t exactly my idea of a good time.
RE: You’ve done four books on fly fishing. Are there more books to come? On any topic?
OHMAN: Sure. I have another fly fishing book idea that I haven’t pursued. They’re cartoon books, cartoons and essays. I did two right in a row. The one that came out 2008 wad called “An Inconvenient Trout.” It was 35,000 words and maybe 70 or 80 drawings. My editor is a very literary editor, considering he works for Stackpole, which is the largest outdoor publisher. But he has an MFA in creative writing so he said to me, ‘I don’t want you writing another fly fishing book, you should write a memoir or a novel or a book of essays and kind of get away from this.’ So when my dad died I wrote 9,000 words on Facebook just about him and the death and the whole thing. And then I thought, is that a manuscript? There’s something in there somewhere. Some people suggested I expand my dad series to a graphic novel, which I don’t know that I want to do. Do I want to spend a year or two thinking about how sick my dad was and all the sad things that happened? Something I’d really like to write is a memoir about growing up in the 70s or 60s, or writing a memoir about being in journalism.
RE: Until I started thinking about this interview I didn’t think about what goes into being a deadline cartoonist and how big that really is, and I think there’s a lot of people that would find that interesting. Especially with the kind of experiences you’ve had.
OHMAN: Thank you. And I have things in there, I just have a lot of work here to do. It’s not like I’m underemployed or anything. But people ask me what I read when I go home and I say, I don’t read when I go home. I listen to 1940s music. I sit in my backyard and watch birds land on the telephone lines. I golf a lot.
RE: When I first got into journalism I wanted to be a sports reporter. But it’s hard to do it without being totally absorbed by it all, which makes it hard to have relationships that are normal. Now after covering politics, where so much of the subject matter is negative, I know that I can’t let myself be immersed in this all the time. How about you?
OHMAN: When people say, ‘are you a news junkie?’ I say, yeah, from 7 until 4, and then I’m a quiet junkie.’ Being in Oregon my entire adult life, coming down to California at 52 and everybody says, oh don’t you miss Portland? Actually not really. I miss my friends and my kids, but I don’t miss the weather. And I like the pace here. I love being able to golf all year and go to San Francisco or Tahoe. So I actually prefer it here. Sacramento is also fascinating for somebody like me, because it’s the greatest show on Earth in the United States. And to have Jerry Brown as the governor, which I don’t say pejoratively. I respect him and he’s an interesting personality, but just to have that vivid personality to be one of your main characters, to have this cast of characters, ranging from Gavin Newsom to Kevin Johnson to all the people in the legislature, wow. It’s an amazing thing. I had a national reputation when I was in Oregon, but when you come down here and you go to a cocktail party and people are telling you ‘I like the one you did on AB 47,’ it’s great. Because it Portland it was like, ‘what strain of weed to you like and what’s your favorite steelhead and what’s your favorite hike?’ That’s not a conversation you have here very often.