Today I want to introduce you to a political cartoonist who has much to teach us about focus, stamina, creating on a deadline, and working in the arts during hard economic times.
Jimmy Margulies is the nationally syndicated editorial cartoonist for The Record. Through King Features, Margulies’ cartoons appear in The New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Time, Time.com, Newsweek, Business Week, among many others. His cartoons on New Jersey issues are self-syndicated to newspapers and web sites all over the state.
He won the 2007 and 2008 Clarion Award for editorial cartoons from The Association for Women in Communications, as well as the 2005 Berryman Award for editorial cartoons from The National Press Foundation of Washington,DC. In 2003 and 2004, he placed third in the National Headliner Award. He received third place in the 2001 Ranan Lurie Political Cartoon Contest sponsored by the United Nations Foreign Correspondents Association. In 1996 he won both the National Headliner Award for editorial cartoons and The Fischetti Editorial Cartoon Competition. He was awarded second prize in the Berryman competition in 1993.
A 1973 graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in graphic design, he is proud to be on the blacklist of the National Rifle Association. He and his wife Martha, a teacher, have two children, Elana, a financial journalist, and David, a law student. Please welcome Jimmy, and be sure to leave him a note in the comments section so he knows you were here.
What would you say is the goal of a political cartoon? How do you judge if it’s successful?
I would say it is to get to what I see as the heart of whatever issue is being addressed. I am trying to make the reader see things from my point of view, whether it be to say, “Isn’t this ridiculous?” or “This is a real injustice” or “What a tragedy this is.” For me it is not just making the point, but making the point in a way that stands out somehow. I am very strong in my feeling that as a creative individual, I should be trying to express my view in a way that shows imagination and insight that justifies my being in this position of having an audience. In other words, I should be able to consistently come up with ideas which are far more creative than what the average person might be able to do.
I want someone to look at my cartoon and say, “I wish I could say it that way.”
As far as judging whether a cartoon is successful, I have several standards upon which to measure that. One way is if the cartoon elicits a response from readers, where they might e-mail to say they liked it. Another way for me is that I do public, speaking on occasion, and show slides of cartoons, so I can get laughs or some audible response that way.
If some prestigious publication reprints one of my cartoons, I consider that a sign of success. Likewise, if a cartoon or portfolio of cartoons wins a journalism award.
Another is the refrigerator test. If someone tells me they cut out my cartoon and put it up on their refrigerator. I have had a couple of cases similar to that. About ten years ago, when Clinton first acknowledged the Monica Lewinsky affair, I did a cartoon which my sister told me she saw pasted on the cash register in Macy’s shortly after it appeared in the paper. And a few years ago, when the Medicare drug benefit program first began, I did a cartoon on how difficult it was to understand, which I saw cut out and taped onto the counter when I went to my local drug store.
Can I see one of your favorite cartoons?
[This is] the actual cartoon which I mentioned having seen scotch taped to the prescription counter at my local pharmacy a few years ago. Asking a cartoonist to choose a favorite cartoon is like being asked to pick your favorite child. But I do have ones I am most proud of, and this is one of them. It was reprinted in Newsweek, which is very hard to get into. And it also has another positive association… the day it first ran in 2005, I found out I had won a national award.
If I looked through your portfolio, what would I learn about your world view?
It would be pretty obvious that my core beliefs are definitely on the liberal side of the spectrum. Some of the things I feel most strongly about are fighting prejudice or bigotry of any kind, and being in opposition to the proliferation of guns in our society.
While I do use my forum to express my views on these and lots of other issues, I definitely resist being rigidly predictable or being categorized as an ideologue. There is definitely an entertainment component to what I do, so I like to be able to offer variety. Some days, a hard hitting cartoon, other days something lighter or on a less serious topic.
I like to try to find what is inherently ridiculous in any given situation, rather than respond according to some textbook version of ideology. So whether I produce it myself, or whether I admire it in the cartoons of my colleagues, being able to find the humor in something has great appeal to me.
And humor is what people remember when they see a cartoon. Plus it enables me to find a way of making my work appeal to even those readers who may not agree with my point of view.
How does a rough idea or a rough sketch become a final product?
After making a very rough sketch with a felt tip pen on letter size paper (this is what I show to my editor) once the idea gets the OK, I then use tracing paper to begin on the final version.
I tape a piece of tracing paper on my drawing table and do a pencil drawing of the cartoon. I work in a horizontal rectangular format, 9 inches high by 13 and 1/2 inches wide. Working in pencil on tracing paper allows me to make all the changes or adjustments in a way that avoids having to erase on the final version of the cartoon.
My drawing table is actually a light box (like what someone would use to view slides) on legs. So I flick on the flourescent lights housed below the glass surface, and lay a piece of illustration paper over the tracing paper. I draw the blinds, turn out the overhead lights in my office, and just have the light from the drawing table and I can see through the illustration paper to the pencil drawing on the tracing paper. Using a felt tip pen for the lettering, I do that first since it is more painstaking and precise. After the lettering, I then use a brush which I dip in a bottle of India ink to do the drawing, which is a looser and more active process than doing the lettering. It usually takes me about an hour and a half for an average cartoon. Then I make a xerox reduction of the black and white art, and add color to the xerox using colored markers. The reduction in size allows it to fit on a scanner bed. That part is done by the technicians in my paper’s photolab.
Talk to me about having to be creative on a deadline. How do you continue to get good ideas? Do you tend to play with a number of ideas before you hit on one that has a spark? I’d just love to hear the whole process behind the scenes. And in particular, I’d love to hear how you continue to meet deadlines, whether you’re at the top of your game on any given week or not.
From an outsider’s perspective, I know that the concept of having to produce something creative every day sounds like a stress inducing situation. But I honestly do not attach any such negative views to that at all.
I basically see it as something I chose, and a daily challenge to meet, hoping I will be satisfied with the end result.
I start off by doing my homework, so to speak: reading The New York Times, as well as my paper, The Record, for the major news stories, and then glancing at the other sections like lifestyle, etc. I also listen to National Public Radio, a few different news web sites, and – very important – the evening news on CBS. At least before the Internet and cable TV, most people got their news from TV, so I always thought it was necessary to see which stories, images, etc., were being shown.
After I have digested what is going on, I have in mind one or more issues that interest me, and which I hope most people are familiar with. Sometimes, even when I am not specifically thinking about cartoons, an idea will pop into my head. Often these inspirations are better than what I would have arrived at by consciously thinking up ideas.
But this does not happen every day. So I usually sit down with a clipboard of blank white paper, and try to brainstorm. I try to come up with 5 or 6 ideas a day to show to my editor ( the editorial page editor). Sometimes they will all be on one topic, other times on a variety. Some days it is easier than others to be inspired, depending upon the issue or how I feel. But by aiming for a number of ideas, I hope that at least one will be stand out as the best.
As much as I don’t like to think that the first idea which comes to mind is the best, often it is. But for those times that the second, third, fourth, fifth or sixth idea gets the nod, I do try for muliple sketches.
Sometime if I provide a variety of topics, my editor will OK more than one. This is helpful, because it carries me for another day or two. I don’t like to get too far ahead, because I want to be very timely.
Another observation I can offer about having to be creative all the time is by comparing it to a car. If you have a car parked in your driveway that you use only once a week, it will be harder to start up when you need it. But if you drive it every day, it will start more easily. I feel that by having the discipline of making myself come up with a number of ideas every day, it is much easier to get into that frame of mind than if I had to do it only occasionally.
Did you start out wanting to be an editorial cartoonist? Tell me the story of making this career choice and how you ultimately ended up in your current job at The Record.
I always knew I would somehow make a living using my artistic ability, but it was not until I was in college that I discovered editorial cartoons and decided on that as my career choice.
I really took a liking to satire and political satire as soon as I was old enough to appreciate it. My teenage and young adult years took place in the nineteen sixties and early seventies, so I was definitely influenced by what was going on at the time.
Some of the early forms of satire I remember were a tremendously popular record album by Allan Sherman “My Son the Folksinger” which was basically changing the lyrics of well known songs to comment on various aspects of life. “Hello Mudda, Hello Fadda, Here I am at Camp Granada” was sort of a breakout hit that people may remember, set to the music of Dance of the Hours. There was also a very popular comedy album “The First Family” by Vaughn Meader, impersonating the Boston accent of JFK. And a TV show hosted by David Frost “That Was The Week That Was”
[Regarding this and the subsequent Barack Obama cartoons, Jimmy is showing the evolution of how he draws a character who is new on the scene.]
As I got into my teens, I started playing the guitar, and some of the songs I listened to and played were protest songs on the Vietnam War, civil rights, etc., by Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, and others. The idea of using some form of entertainment to make political statements was really exciting to me. And for a while I had the goal of becoming a folksinger. I did play at some campus coffeehouses and antiwar rallies at college during that time.
Long before I decided to become a cartoonist, I was an avid fan of cartoons in The New Yorker, which my parents subscribed to.
My college major was in graphic design, but somewhere in sophomore year I got turned onto editorial cartoons, and started trying to draw some of my own. I did a few that summer for an underground paper on Long Island, and then decided that becoming an editorial cartoonist was what I wanted to do when I graduated. I was also a big fan of underground comics like R. Crumb, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, and others.
Another thing that dawned on me as I was formulating my career choice was that as an editorial cartoonist I would get to express my own views, whereas someone who is a graphic designer is really using their creative talent to sell someone else’s products, or communicating someone else’s ideas. Being very idealistic, I knew that if I had to use my creativity to do something that my heart was not in, I would feel that somehow I was compromising my integrity.
….At the time I graduated [from Carnegie Mellon] in 1973, there were fewer than 200 jobs around the country for an editorial cartoonist at a newspaper. Openings would only occur infrequently when sometime retired, or moved to another paper. And I had to compete with people who had more experience. So it took me a long time to succeed. But I really, really wanted to achieve my goal, so I did not give up.
[I had to trim the interview here, but I’ll summarize what not giving up on his goal looked like: moving back in with his parents for several years (but winning a contest to help introduce Shout stain remover while he was there), applying for a grant, working wherever there was an opening in his field, even if that meant too few hours, little money, or the need for this Vietnam War protester to accept work at a military publication. It took over seven years to get his first job at Journal Newspapers, and another 3-1/2 to get a job at The Houston Post. In 1990, Jimmy landed his current job at The Record.]
That’s a long time to pursue a career. What kept you from giving up? And what do you think you did right to either find or open doors?
When I realized I wanted to become an editorial cartoonist, it was as though I had found my calling and this is what I was destined to do. Even though there were many years of struggle, I made the decision to pursue something where I could feel that I was not just working at a job to make money, but because I wanted to be passionate about what I was going to be spending five days a week doing.
As I was doing this, it dawned on me that I went through high school and some of college doing what I was supposed to do to please my teachers, but in sort of a robotic way, because I did it without necessarily feeling a great deal of attachment emotionally to completing my schoolwork. Once I discovered editorial cartooning, I felt as though I was doing what I really wanted to do. So having experienced that, it helped keep me motivated to hang in there until I reached my goal.
What I think I did right, in addition to remaining focused on my goal, was to become as informed as I could about my profession, as well as joining an editorial cartoonist organization to help me with networking to learn about what few job openings there were.
So the first two jobs I got were those where I was the one chosen for the position. The third job, the one I have now at The Record, was one where I got them to create a position for me, because I had gained enough experience to make myself attractive enough to hire.
Have you seen a decline in newspaper readers where you are, and if so, how has this impacted your job directly? And what’s your impression of the fate of newspapers in the age of the internet.
Like most if not all newspapers, The Record has lost circulation. And like many other newspapers, The Record has strived to emphasize that it is in a unique position to provide local coverage that readers cannot get from the web or cable. As a result of this focus, I have been required to do almost exclusively state and local cartoons. I try to do as many state cartoons as I can because this impacts more readers than a cartoon on just one town. Plus my state cartoons are self-syndicated around New Jersey.
There has been a tiny loosening of the restrictions on my work, but not to the extent I would like. During the presidential campaign, and due to the economic crisis, I have been permitted to occasionally do cartoons on these topics.
I don’t know whether to accept the predictions that newspapers, the print edition that is, will be defunct due to the Internet. Advertising dollars would have to migrate to the net in order to support the staff of a paper, and I don’t know if they are doing that sufficiently to make this transformation complete.
I know that I prefer to hold a newspaper in my hands and turn the pages, than to have to click and scroll to read a newspaper online. It is nice to have that option when it snows two feet and they don’t deliver the paper, but not every day. I think that others of my generation and older probably feel that way, too.
My other concern about the fate of newspapers is not simply about the industry, or by extension my job, but about what it says about our society. Will people be just as informed and engaged in knowing what is going in if newspapers continue to dwindle and disappear? Having one newspaper delivered to your home, or buying the same one at the newsstand becomes a routine. When you go online there is an unlimited choice, and to me that would be overwhelming and potentially confusing.
The other thing about the web is that legitimate news which is gathered and edited by professionals according to standards of quality, is on equal footing with information which may be nothing more than someone’s opinion who is creative in spreading it. This has the effect of somehow diminishing quality news’ standing as something to be respected, when it is just as easy to access an amateur’s blog.
The readers at LitPark know well how difficult it is to have a career in the creative arts. Is there anything you learned in your journey that you could pass along as advice?
I don’t know if I am going to say anything that is new or different , but I will say what I have found to be true.
Unless someone is wildly successful in their field, it is difficult to make a living doing just one narrow thing. So be open to using your talent in other ways beyond doing exactly what you love doing most. In my case, I am able to make some extra money over and above my day job in several ways. I already mentioned syndicating my work, as well as selling one time reprint rights. In addition to those, I on occasion sell the original art for my cartoons. Because of the nature of my job working on a newspaper, I have been able to parlay that into doing some public speaking at schools, libraries, senior citizen and community groups, etc.
I also do caricatures for parties and gifts, as well as occasional freelance illustration work. Since I am spending the bulk of my time doing exactly what I want to do, I do not mind sometimes doing something else just to make a little money. Happily, I do enjoy these other things as well.
Another thing I think is important is to be as well informed about your particular field as you can. Whether that be through magazines, whatever is available on the web, and through joining professional organizations. You want to be able to take advantage of whatever opportunities you can, or make your own. While you can get a lot online, meeting people face to face is really important, and makes a bigger impact.
Speaking of online, nowadays everyone expects to find what they need with the click of a mouse. Having a presence on the web is absolutely essential – your own site, or part of a popular site devoted to your field. It is your own billboard to the wider world. I can specifically point to two lucrative freelance gigs which I got simply because my work was shown on a cartoon web site when someone was looking for a cartoonist.
Developing one’s talent is important, but that is only half the battle. In the creative arts there is so much competition that anyone who is serious about success needs to be a great salesperson, publicist, and marketer of themselves. While creative people don’t often like to think of themselves as business oriented, it really is necessary. You have to be as creative in pursuing your career as you are in producing your art form.
I can think of a few people in my field who are more successful as a result of their ability to promote themselves than they are simply because of their abilities. And this gets back to being knowledgeable about your field – from knowing what the situation is you can figure out a plan to make it work for you.
Thanks, Jimmy! There’s an NPR story that talks about how the trouble in the world of publishing and media is impacting editorial cartoonists here. (Thank you, Daryl, for the link!) Just something to know because I think it’s important for us all to be aware of the pressures on artists and to remember to support each other.