Before we get to my interview with Pat Bagley, which took place in ancient times—in April 1991—let me expend a few words to set the scene. First about Mormons; then about Bagley in more recent times, in June 2006.
or the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, is a Christian
denomination started in 1830 by a
the new “truth” of Christianity, Smith felt a compulsion to spread the “good
news,” and he quickly won converts. Within a year, Mormon communities had been
established at Kirtland (now Kirtland Hills),
Mormonism a cult? Many of the evangelical persuasion of Christianity say
Mormonism is a cult, that it is not truly Christianity. Some of these so-called
truth-tellers are the same people who refer to themselves as “Christians” as distinct
from, say, Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and others, whose
Christianity is, perforce, denied, so I don’t know how seriously we should take
their criticism of the LDS Church. But Mormonism is different from other
Christian denominations in several ways. Mormons believe in the prenatal
existence of human souls, for instance. And they believe in a three-tier
Heaven, in the uppermost of which, the
Enough history and theological background. Now, here’s Bagley as he appeared more recently in an article by Jamie Gadette in the Salt Lake City Weekly (June 29, 2006):
Bagley in the Bookstores
Clueless George Is Watching You
No one is watching Pat Bagley. The Salt Lake Tribune political cartoonist walks into a small downtown coffee shop sans disguise, bodyguards or electronic bugs. He sits down and discusses the bizarre phone call he received this morning from an angry reader. It seems the man thanked Bagley for a sentimental Father's Day sketch, one that's "nothing like the usual trash—all of the horrible, hateful things you do in the paper that do nobody any good," Bagley recalls with a laugh. He doesn't worry about negative feedback. It's not like the government is sending him death threats.
"In Europe, cartoonists have a lot of influence on the editorial page and people really pay attention to it," he says, noting that the highly publicized controversy over a Danish newspaper's illustrations of Islamic prophet Muhammad reflects just how seriously readers take political sketches. "There are cartoonists who have been killed in the Middle East because of what they do."
Bagley recently returned from Italy, where cartoonists of his caliber are widely and openly celebrated. Discussing their work, however, is an entirely different matter.
"When they're talking to an American, they never bring up politics unless you introduce it first," he says, adding that Europeans are starting to relinquish longstanding prejudices. "I think they understand that President Bush is an anomaly, though it's kind of frightening to them that the biggest nation in the world has elected this guy, and he's obviously just as dumb as a cedar post."
Bagley makes no bones about his feelings toward Bush. His disgust with the current administration inspired not one but two clever books depicting Bush as a dimwitted monkey who wreaks havoc in the absence of his handler. Clueless George Goes to War references Bagley's views on the Iraq War, or what he calls, "The biggest tactical blunder America's made in the past century" while Clueless George Is Watching You! calls out the National Security Agency spy program, which had the government listening in on private phone conversations.
"These are clearly illegal acts, but again, the American public has just kind of rolled over and played dead," he says. "So the book's come out of that frustration—that we're just kind of taking this stuff and not doing anything about it."
Bagley links apathy to mindless television. As long as people have their American Idol, Survivor or CSI, they don't have to face the realities of war, poverty, corruption and democracy's steady decay. Judging by the demand for Clueless George books, however, not everyone is zoning out. King's English Bookshop owner Betsy Burton sold 1,838 copies of the first book—a store record. She credits its success not only to Bush's sinking approval ratings but also to Bagley's infectious appeal. While he'll never admit to rock-star status, Burton believes his reputation far exceeds his own opinion of it.
"He's one of the single most important parts of the Tribune for everyone who reads it—no one misses his cartoons," she says. "I expect that kind of adulation will grow as he's picked up more and more places."
Burton admits Bagley doesn't draw the sort of crowds that equally established novelists might attract to a book signing. She's not sure even famed cartoonist Pat Oliphant will ever achieve author Margaret Atwood's standing.
Still, when Bagley reads his latest book at Ken Sanders bookstore on June 30, it's likely the room will fill to capacity as it did last December. Who knows—perhaps someone will even hold up a lighter when he reads the last few lines about the war on Boxcutterivians. Perhaps they'll order a "brazillion" copies to give to friends who wish they'd witnessed the legend before the world was watching, just as Burton predicts it will.
"I just think he's really found the pulse with this book. I really hope he writes three or four more of them," she says. "We need all the help we can to get through the next few years."
Return with us now to that day of yesteryear in April 1991 when the United States was riding high, having just trounced the massed armies of Saddam Hussein in the desert near Kuwait and George Herbert Walker Bush was the Man of the Hour. But let us, as Pat Bagley did in one of his books of Utah cartoons, let Mark Twain give the invocation:
“I cannot easily conceive of anything more cozy than the night in Salt Lake City which we spent in a gentile den, smoking pipes and listening to tales of how ... heedless people often come to Utah and make remarks bout Brigham or polygamy or some other sacred matter, and the very next morning at daylight, such parties are sure to be found lying up some back alley, contentedly waiting for the hearse. ...” —From Roughing It
CARTOONING IN SALT LAKE CITY
A Conversation with Pat Bagley
“Humor is the hook,” Pat Bagley said. “That’s what gets people to come back— to turn to the cartoon before they read Ann Landers.”
We were talking about the function of the editorial cartoonist. Is he reporter or crusader or jester? In Bagley’s view, he’s a little of each.
“My job is to do, I think, three things,” he said. “One is to inform, and that can be done with an editorial cartoon that doesn’t really take a position on either side of the issue. The issue may be obscure and needs clarification, so you draw a picture to clarify what’s going on. Another thing a cartoon can do is to persuade. As I tell elementary school people when I talk to them, I’m out there trying to get you to see things my way. But you have a mind of your own, and you make up your own mind. And the last thing is to entertain, to be funny, humorous. And that’s the hook.”
We were sitting in Bagley’s office, a cubicle of 5-foot-high walls snuggled up to a bank of editors’ offices on the second floor of the Salt Lake Tribune building in downtown Salt Lake City. Bagley’s drawingboard was positioned diagonally in the corner away from the windows that overlooked South Main Street. It was April 1991, and for several weeks, President George H.W. Bush has been basking in the glow of his victory over Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War. Soft-spoken, articulate and relaxed, Bagley sat on the stool in front of his drawingboard. He was dressed casually— plaidish sport shirt, jeans, running shoes— and his blond hair and short beard accentuated the kind of ruddy complexion that skiers and other sorts of outdoorsmen have, the kind that radiates health and fitness and makes sedentary people like me wince with envy.
At 35, Bagley has spent most of his working life at the Tribune. But his cartooning is not confined to the paper’s editorial pages. He also draws a comic strip called Lost Soles for a monthly magazine, The Running Times, an outgrowth of his interest in running and racing. And for book publication, he draws some of the riskiest cartoons a cartoonist can draw—cartoons that laugh at religion. He has produced two book collections of cartoons about life in Mormon Utah. Amazingly, the books are best-sellers in that region.
The progress of Bagley’s career as a cartoonist is equally confounding. When he joined the Tribune in 1979, it was the culmination of a short but thoroughly engaging fling at cartooning that began as a result of “a happy accident” when he was a junior at Brigham Young University. Majoring in political science and history, Bagley was heading for a law degree eventually and hadn’t the least intention of being a cartoonist. He had drawn all through elementary school and high school, he explained, “but I didn’t know you could make a living at it. I grew up in a household where artists were kind of nice things but were always spoken of as Starving Artists. It might be all right for some people to do, but you want to make a living. And making a living meant getting into management school or business or law school.”
The accident that started him on the road to cartooning began one day at BYU in a particularly dull class. Trying to keep himself awake, Bagley doodled in his notebook. And having an editorial cartoonist’s bent (whether he knew it or not at the time), his doodling was influenced by an issue then current on campus: BYU wouldn’t allow men and women to live in the same apartment buildings. Bagley drew a cartoon with Bella Abzug in it.
Thinking the idea wasn’t too bad, he took it over to the offices of the Daily Universe, the campus newspaper. He expected the editor to turn the idea over to Steve Benson, who was the editorial cartoonist on the paper at the time. But the editor told Bagley to do a finished drawing, and then the paper ran it. Shortly thereafter, the cartoon got national circulation.
“I was working in the university’s graphics department at the time,” Bagley said. “And one day the secretary came in and said, I was happy to see your cartoon in Time. And I said, What? This is news to me— ”
“—they didn’t pay me!” I interjected with a laugh.
“—yeah,” he laughed too. “They didn’t pay me. So anyhow, I got a copy of the magazine and opened it up and, sure enough, there it was. Some stringer for Time at BYU had sent in some information on the apartment issue, including my cartoon. It was one of those Busby Berkley type musical things, being in the right place at the right time to get the breaks. And it’s been downhill every since,” he finished with a grin, his teeth suddenly gleaming under his moustache.
After that, Bagley was asked to continue doing cartoons for the paper for the next several months while Benson was away from BYU. And when Benson returned in the fall, the paper kept both cartoonists on.
“It was fun working with Steve,” Bagley said. “Our styles are very, very different; our approaches are very different. But the competition kept us both on our toes.” At the end of the year, the two produced a book of their cartoons called I Am Appalled.
While working for the Daily Universe at BYU, Bagley decided to pursue editorial cartooning as a career, and after he graduated, he started asking around, eventually applying at the Salt Lake Tribune.
“I was not originally accepted,” he remembered. “But a few weeks after I’d applied, they called me up again and asked me to bring my stuff in. And then they hired me. The Tribune was probably the last big paper in the country that didn’t have its own political cartoonist on staff.”
Bagley has a noon deadline (although sometimes he can be as late as 1 p.m. if necessary), and he starts shooting for it early in the morning.
“I come in about seven o’clock and go through the paper,” he said. “If I’m lucky, something will hit me— an issue. Then usually what I do is I start just kind of scribbling— drawing out some things. Again if I’m lucky, something will click, and I’ll work up a rough draft and take it in to one of the editors. And if they like it— if they think it’s funny— then I’ll go ahead and do it. And if they don’t, it’s back to the drawingboard and come up with a different issue.”
“People always want to know where the ideas come from,” I said, “and everybody has a different answer for that question— after a fashion. But few people— young aspiring cartoonists in particular— seem to realize that ideas can come from the act of drawing—doodling and scribbling, as you indicated— as much as from simply thinking in splendid isolation. That is, ideas can come from the pencil. Many people, including novice cartoonists, believe you get ideas independent of the pencil’s working— as a product of a kind of pure act of ratiocination. But maybe you don’t have any idea at all when you start the pencil, and first thing you know, you have an idea.”
“Absolutely true,” Bagley agreed. “Sometimes I’ll be drawing, and it’ll be a gesture that I do in my doodles that will suggest something— and I’ll end up going off in a different direction, different tangent. And it’s hard for a lot of people to understand the process of cartooning because it’s not anything that you can write the steps— one, two, three, four, and end up with a cartoon. It’s magic,” he grinned. “You throw in the eye of a newt, a frog, batwing, and you stir it all together, and if you’re lucky, something comes out.”
“If you’re drawing a particular character, the idea may come out of the personality of the character,” I said.
“Oh, yes. Sometimes it’s a catalyst to get things moving. We all get brain cramps once in a while. Sometimes it’s hard to break out of a certain train of thought. What I’ll do sometimes is pick up a magazine, and start drawing things in the magazine, and those will suggest other things, and pretty soon, I find that I’m out of the rut that I was in.”
“What is your relationship to your editors?” I asked. “Are you like any editorial writer who submits his editorial for approval? Are your editors an audience for you, or are they editing— saying, you shouldn’t print this, or it’s okay to do that.”
“I feel that they’re my peers,” Bagley said, “so they’re an audience. Their reactions matter to me because I respect what they have to say: they’re well-read people, and if they don’t understand the cartoon, then I’ve got to get back and start all over again. The publisher is the one who has the power to kill the thing, or at least to edit the cartoon. And that happens maybe twice a month. He’s given me a lot of lee-way. And that’s not always the case with an editorial cartoonist.”
“Right,” I said. “And it’s something editorial cartoonists always discuss--how much freedom they have to do what they want. I gather that Paul Conrad at the Los Angeles Times believes he can do anything he wants. And I think he does, too. I don’t know if he ever gets stopped.”
“At times, he does get stopped,” Bagley said, smiling as he thought of a Conrad cartoon inspired by the issues in the Middle East in the wake of the just-concluded Gulf War. “He had a cartoon recently with Shamir pissing on the burning bush, and we actually got the cartoon. Then we got a notice from the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, saying— Kill that cartoon.”
“Oh, yeah? That’s surprising,” I said. “But there are cartoonists who maintain they have that freedom, and I suppose that’s a cast of mind as much as anything else. It’s whether you feel you’re being restrained. And I gather you don’t feel that.”
“I feel some of it,” Bagley said. “The thing with the Church [of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Mormon Church]--people want us to maintain good relations with the Church. That’s a stumbling block sometimes. Just from talking to other editorial cartoonists, I know I’ve got a lot of freedom compared to others. My feeling is that only a small handful have absolute freedom to do whatever they want. You have to have some kind of stature to get away with it.”
“Like Herblock, I guess,” I said. “I imagine he can pretty much do what he wants.”
“And Pat Oliphant.”
“Oh, right— Oliphant,” I agreed. “I think he’s a pivotal figure in the history of American political cartooning. He came along and changed the whole face of it— almost at once—in the space of a few years. Up until Oliphant’s arrival at the Denver Post after Conrad left in 1964, everyone was doing Herblock imitations. And Oliphant came along, and for a long time thereafter, everybody was doing Oliphant. But now, I think it’s really an open situation. I mean, you’re not doing Oliphant and you’re not doing Herblock and you’re not doing Conrad. And there are many other cartoonists in your situation whose drawing styles are distinctive and not in any school or tradition at all: they’re making their own traditions, setting their own styles. And I believe that it was Oliphant— who came to the Post and drew in a dramatically different style (even the shape of his cartoon was different, horizontal instead of the conventional vertical rectangle)— it was Oliphant who created the climate for all this individuality by being so different. He showed that you could be different and still succeed. He was a liberating force. And he is unusual in this respect: a lot of times, someone as widely and as assiduously imitated as he was at first is not a liberating influence at all. Instead, such people set the fashion and everyone slavishly follows the fashion. But not with Oliphant—not after the initial period of imitation passed.”
“No doubt, he was an innovator,” Bagley said. “It’s kind of like Patton’s tanks coming over there, over the barbed wire, and liberating all the concentration camp inmates. If you look at editorial cartoons before Oliphant, they were stilted, stiff—and not very funny. And all of a sudden, Oliphant comes in, and everything is wildly different. And as you say, we’re still feeling the effects of that.” He paused, thinking about the state of the art. “Every time I go to an editorial cartoonists convention,” he continued, “I get the feeling that we’ve lost our way. We don’t know where we’re headed. But my feeling is that in the next ten years, something else will come up.”
“What do you mean by lost? Do you mean editorial cartoonists have lost a sense of mission?”
“Well, cartooning during the mid-sixties radically changed,” Bagley explained. “And it was due to a lot of things. The turmoil of the sixties made an explosive mixture, and cartoonists tried to illustrate the absurdities of the times in the absurd medium of cartoons. But I get the sense that most of us feel we’re kind of adrift right now. We’re not as compelled as a lot of cartoonists were back then—compelled to, well, we had better targets back then. I don’t get the sense that cartoonists feel that sense of mission like they did then.”
“Admittedly, George H.W. Bush isn’t as good a target as Nixon,” I agreed, “—he’s not going to raise the kind of visceral responses that Nixon did.”
“The same thing with Ronald Reagan,” Bagley said. “Reagan turned out to be an affable, cheerful grandfather type. And he was kind of slippery for cartoonists to get hold of. Even the American psyche hasn’t come to grips with the Reagan legacy. And now with the Bush administration— you don’t know quite how to get a handle on it.”
“So if an editorial cartoonist feels less drive or less purposeful today,” I said, “it’s probably because there aren’t the kinds of targets there were several years ago? I guess editorial cartooning is a reflection of the times in more ways than one.”
Working in the LDS-dominated community imposes certain constraints upon the editorial cartoonist, but Bagley sees quite another side to his situation.
“Doing political cartooning in Utah is not ... hard,” he said (pausing to select the most appropriate descriptive term), “because there are things that come up in Utah consistently that made good cartoons. This latest issue about the abortion controversy is the kind of thing Utah puts on itself all the time. The state legislature is very moralistic, and they see themselves as being in the forefront of the fight against creeping moral decay in America. So I can count on them at least twice a year to give me something to do.”
“Something that will keep you supplied with material for weeks, you mean?” I said.
“Yes,” he said grinning impishly. “It’s kind of like shooting fish in a barrel.”
But the blessing is not unalloyed. “The Church has a huge influence here,” Bagley went on. “And it’s a two-edged sword. It’s good in some respects in that I can do cartoons that wouldn’t make any sense anywhere else because the humor is sort of ‘in the family.’ If you’re from Utah, you understand what I’m getting at. On the other hand, the thing that’s bad is that the Church wields such influence in the state that the paper is hesitant to publish a lot of those kinds of cartoons. My guess is that one of every three that have to do with the LDS Church get printed; the others never see the light of day.”
A lot of those “others” have been published by Signature Books of Salt Lake City in two paperback collections of Bagley’s cartoons: Treasures of Half-Truth in 1986 and Oh My Heck in 1988. The books are unusual in several respects.
First, their content breaches decorum. (Joyfully— with such carefree abandon that there’s a kind of innocence about it.) The cartoons in them are almost all based upon aspects of the Mormon faith, and joking about religion—particularly an oft-persecuted sect—was, until quite recently, a firmly held taboo almost everywhere. Secondly, understanding the cartoons requires special knowledge. The jokes are so specific to tenets and practices of the Mormon religion that many of them cannot be understood without knowing something about the LDS Church. Finally, in spite of these seeming obstacles to success—or, perhaps, because of them— the books sell very well. Probably better than most collections of editorial cartoons. Bagley said he’s heard that Oliphant’s annual collections sell about 7,000 copies; each of Bagley’s two books has sold better than 15,000.
For all the aura of innocence that infects the books, the cartoons have bite. Their joyousness is not gentle. And some of them are downright wicked in their assault on Mormon sensibilities. So how does Bagley get away with it? How does he survive, going around blithely treading on the sensitive religious toes of his readers?
To begin with, he was raised Mormon. Although he grew up in Southern California (which, he says, “explains a lot”), he was born in Salt Lake City. And he did the customary missionary duty (serving in the Bolivia La Paz Mission 1975-77). Thus, his cartoons are, as he puts it, “in-house humor—it’s all in the family.”
“The Mormon Church played a huge role in my life,” he continued by way of explanation, “as it did with a lot of people around here. And Mormons have a tendency to circle the wagons when they feel that they’re being threatened, when they feel they’re being criticized. Being within that circle of wagons, I could see what went on there, and what I did with the cartoons was to kind of chronicle that nonsense. And it was to let off some of the pressure I felt, growing up in the Church. Growing up Mormon, you face a lot of contradictions, and you can either grapple with them, wrestle with them, or work it out somehow, or just ignore it and go along your merry way. And cartoons for me were a way to wrestle with those demons. And I felt that they also helped a lot of other people. People still come up to me, and say, You know, I really appreciate that cartoon on this particular subject—that’s true. So the cartoons were a release.”
But Bagley is more humorist than psychologist. (All humorists are psychologists; but few psychologists are humorists.) In the introduction to the first of his books, he reveals something more of his motivation in doing the cartoons:
“Sister Howell was my Top Pilot teacher in Primary. ... Long before sociologists discovered that Mormons were different and began churning out dissertations as though we were a tribe of Hottentots, Sister Howell had already leaked the secret to my fellow Top Pilots and me. ‘Mormons are different,’ she would say. And I soon learned why. I learned that the world generally wallowed in sin and hot tubs. I learned that we resisted such worldly pleasures. In time, I even developed compassion for my wayward brothers and sisters. They were the lost sheep— prodigals who were too busy whooping it up to realize just how miserable they really were. I, on the other hand, learned that I was blessed with the law of tithing, the law of chastity, and the law of the sabbath, the word of wisdom, and, eventually, with the burning wish that just once a year Mormons could have a holiday so that we could be just as miserable as our gentile friends. ... Sister Howell made sure that we knew we were choice, special. ... She was nothing if not thorough. But there was one thing Sister Howell forgot to tell us— probably the one thing which endears us to our creator more than anything else— the fact that we make such terrific subjects for cartoons.”
Encountering such an introduction, a Mormon reader would know at once that he was in for some ribbing but that it was all, as Bagley said, “in the family.”
Still, as I told Bagley, seeing the cartoons in the books was, for me, something of a revelation.
“I grew up in this part of the country,” I said, “—in Denver, Colorado—and I knew the Mormons were over the other side of the mountains in Utah. And I always felt Mormons were a particularly serious, dedicated bunch--scarcely the sort of people who would laugh at themselves. And yet they must be doing just that when they buy and read these books, or else you’d be vilified in the streets. People would come after you with sharp sticks and other kinds of weapons— ”
“Well, that happens,” Bagley laughed. “Not the weapons part but being vilified. I’ve had nasty letters and phone calls and vaguely threatening letters because some people don’t appreciate how I’m portraying the Church. They think it’s sacrilegious. It’s wrong— ”
“And some people will write in and say, You’re got it right on the button, I suppose.”
Bagley nodded. “I know that the cartoon has hit the nail on the head when I show it to a Mormon neighbor of mine. He’s fairly orthodox, fairly straight. His first reaction—if he laughs, you can see something registering in the back of his brain: I really shouldn’t be laughing at this— ”
“And that’s your measure of success!”
“Yeah—he’ll laugh and then say, Well I don’t know—this may be going a little bit too far. And that’s just what I want to do.”
“You want to go far enough to make people pause and think,” I said. “The situation with your neighbor—that’s a great illustration of what editorial cartooning is all about, I think. Good story. Anyhow, as I was saying, reading these books of cartoons was an extraordinary experience for me. They present a completely different vision of what the Mormon community is like. If it can be tolerant of this stuff, then it’s a good deal more tolerant a group than I thought it’d be—if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“I’m not the only one who does Mormon cartoon books, by the way,” Bagley said. “Calvin Grondahl, who used to work at Deseret News, came out with the first Mormon cartoon book. The official Church has had a really difficult time living with this sort of thing. They can’t really outlaw these books, but they’d like to.” He smiled and went on: “The way the Mormon leadership sees things—it’s like they want to play a football game, and their rules allow them to go out on the field and run up and down making touchdowns, but the opposition doesn’t show up. If the opposition shows up, then they feel that it’s persecution. So they’re uncomfortable with the cartoons, but, at the same time, they’re savvy enough to realize that they cannot stop them.”
“And meanwhile, the congregation is reading the cartoons and liking them--or not, depending upon the humor and their own risibilities,” I chimed in.
Bagley nodded. “You know,” he continued, “in the Soviet Union, even in the really bad times, the one form of expression that was still open to them was in cartoons. They could poke fun and satirize the system. And I think that’s true with the Mormon cartoons.”
“You realize that you’ve just likened the Mormon Church to the Soviet Union,” I joked. “But your observation is provocative in another way. It’s hard to lay your hands on a cartoon, isn’t it?—to get a grip on it. That classic story about Thomas Nast’s cartoons attacking Boss Tweed— Tweed saying, My constituents can’t read the editorials but they can see them damned pictures--an apt description of the objectives of editorial cartooning, I think. But it’s hard for a victim to say what it is about those damned pictures that he feels ought not to be there. Daniel Fitzpatrick once told about the response of one of the targets of his editorial ire—the guy said he could answer the editorial writers, he could explain his position or whatever, but he couldn’t figure out what to say to the fellow who draws the cartoon.”
“It’s curious,” Bagley said. “Take Mormon symbols. For instance, the Angel Moroni
[who appeared to Joseph Smith and called him to found this new religion] whose statue is on top of the Temple. I grew up in the Church, being fairly devout in my early years—I’m semi-retired now—but I had no hint that that figure, that icon, was off-limits. And when I started drawing him in my cartoons, a lot of people had a great negative reaction to it because they thought it was sacrilegious to portray Moroni in a cartoon. Just putting him into the cartoon, not even making fun of him, was wrong. And that was a surprise to me. They feel strongly about a caricature of Joseph Smith, too, although that’s a little more tolerable for them than a caricature of one of the current leadership. Doing cartoons about the Church is one of the most unique aspects of working in Utah, and it’s sometimes very tricky.”
“I wonder if you weren’t Mormon if you could get away with it,” I said.
“I think if I were not Mormon and hadn’t grown up in that culture, a lot of it would just be a mystery to me,” Bagley said. “A lot of it I wouldn’t even find very interesting.”
Bagley does a good deal of homework to keep himself informed of current issues and aware of what his readers are tuning-in on. He reads both the local papers, the Tribune and the Deseret News, and he reads Newsweek.
“What I find especially helpful,” he said, “is to get a magazine like The New Republic or even The Atlantic or The New Yorker that takes an issue and goes into it in depth. That helps in being able to formulate a cartoon. And, like everybody else, I get a lot of ideas from television. I don’t consider myself much of a crusader, but I do feel strongly about certain issues. I don’t feel that I should be out there starting a movement against putting diapers in land fills. But if I see something that enrages me, then I’ll go ahead and do it.”
“Conrad sees himself as a crusader, pointing out inequities,” I said. “And he’s dead serious in attacking things he feels passionately about.”
“And it comes across in his cartoons,” Bagley said. “I mean, they’re vicious.”
“Right,” I said. “They aren’t very often funny either, that’s for sure. He’s an inheritor of Fitzpatrick’s mantle, I think. You didn’t laugh at Fitzpatrick. He took that crayon of his and made it into a blunt instrument, and then he distilled his rage and put it on paper to tell everyone about it. But let’s get back to you. I suppose some things you just have a gut reaction to. It’s not a question of having to weigh the pros and cons: you just think this is wrong or this is right. Is that fair to say?”
“Oh, yes. You get pretty visceral reaction to, for example, Saddam Hussein,” he said. “Looking in the paper in the morning, you can usually find something pretty outrageous, and you focus on that and take off.”
“So it’s not really necessary to become the world’s foremost expert on a subject in order to comment on it,” I said. “You just react to it.”
Bagley nodded agreement. “And the other thing,” he said, “is that you are really pretty much a blue collar guy like everyone who reads the newspaper, and I see the same images that everyone sees when they watch television. The image— the visual impression—is so important in a cartoon that it’s very helpful to keep in touch with some of the images that are current on television. For example, the Challenger disaster—the picture of it going up and then exploding. It’s pretty much burned into everyone’s memory, and a number of cartoonists after the disaster used that image. They recreated it in various ways. They did the same thing with Michael Dukakis riding around in the tank and helmet.”
“Editorial cartoonists have complained in recent years that there is much of our cultural heritage that they can’t use as metaphors in their cartoons anymore,” I said. “The average reader simply won’t understand the allusion. Literary quotations, for example. And even historical incidents. Do you find that to be the case?”
“Oh, absolutely,” Bagley said quickly. “Biblical allusions. It’s too bad we’ve lost those. Some of the richest imagery we have comes from the Bible. And occasionally I’ll do something like that, and my editor will say—and my editor is college-educated and he understands—he’ll say, This is gonna be lost on a lot of the readership.”
“So the things you use for metaphors now must come from popular culture?” I asked.
“Yes—which is too bad because this stuff is going to dry up and blow away,” he said. “Five years from now, nobody’s going to care much about Madonna. And there are people who are always—look at Mark Twain. His stuff is as crisp and as funny as the day it was written. But if you look at some of his contemporaries, humorists who did some writing then, they were pretty poor. And a lot of that has to do with their use of current, topical material the significance of which has faded away. That’s something I worry about in my cartoons. If I’m just drawing on the popular culture, it might be a big hit now, but down the road, it’s just going to seem dated.”
We talked a little about the art of caricature, an essential skill in any editorial cartoonist’s quiver of barbed weapons. I asked him if he had any favorites for caricaturing.
“Saddam,” he said with a grin. “It helps that he’s so evil. But I enjoy doing people who are just on the edge of full public consciousness—like Nelson Mandella. Norman Schwartzkopf was fun because he was so new. It’s fun to be the first out there with a caricature. The thing about caricaturing in these cartoons is that the waters get polluted very quickly. It was true with George H.W. Bush, for example. People struggled to do a good Bush. And you look at how somebody else does Bush and even subconsciously you begin to pick up on certain things, and then all the caricatures begin to resemble one another after a while.”
“When I was a kid, Eisenhower was president,” I said, “so I tried to do Eisenhower. I was just learning how to caricature, and so naturally, I picked on the president. I thought he’d be easy--simple, round face, bald head. But he was so simple that it was hard to capture anything distinctive about him. And yet, Ike did have a distinctive face. I struggled and struggled. And then one day I was reading a magazine and came across a page of photos of Ike’s face—picture after picture, row after row, each one showing a different expression. And suddenly I realized what the secret was: Ike looked a little different with every expression, so to get a good caricature of Ike, you had to caricature every expression. I think Reagan is difficult, too. I used to sit and watch his press conferences and try to do a Reagan. There are some obvious things you have to use, but the trick is to put them together the right way. I guess that’s something you learn through practice.”
Bagley agreed. “When I first started, my stuff was pretty poor. It was really poor,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve refined the drawing over the years. I think my ideas have always been pretty good, but the art is something I’ve refined. Caricature is a lot that way. I’ve gotten better at it, I think, because I don’t get quite as uptight. If I don’t get it in the first three or four tries, I just step back and do something entirely different. I might get somebody and focus on the forehead and try to draw him that way, and then after a half-hour, it’s just not working. Even though I think it’s the forehead that stands out, I’ll try some other feature.”
Bagley thinks the best way to learn how to caricature is to do it. “Draw people you know,” he advised. “Draw people on the street. I would not necessarily recommend this, but I drew caricatures in a mall. That was about ten years ago, before I started working here. It’s not bad because it gives you constant practice. And if your rates are cheap enough, you get lots of people to sit for you, and you begin to recognize which features to capture and so on.”
“Did you do profiles?” I asked.
“No, full face.”
“Oooff. That’s tough. Profiles are relatively easy to do on the spot like that, under the gun so to speak. But full face—that’s chancy.”
Cartooning is tough to teach, Bagley believes. “You end up teaching your way of cartooning,” he said. “Ever hear that definition of a cartoonist? A cartoonist is an artist who can’t draw well enough to be an artist and a writer who can’t write well enough to be a writer.”
I laughed. “I’ve never heard that,” I said, “and there may be some truth in it. But I think the essence of cartooning is the blend of word and picture. If your picture can stand by itself and make sense alone without words, then it’s not quite a cartoon. If your words can stand alone without pictures, it’s not a cartoon. You need both of them, together—mutually dependent. And then you’ve got a cartoon. Blending words and pictures requires an ability to economize in the way you express yourself. So I guess I think of cartooning as a superior communication accomplishment rather than as a substitute for proficiency in drawing or writing.”
Bagley works at the economy of expression that is the essence of a good cartoon’s impact: “What I try to do is cut down on the number of words just because reading is sometimes a distraction. I want to do a cartoon that will hit people right between the eyes—right away.”
For the time being, Bagley is content to confine his attention almost exclusively to his editorial cartoons. He has no immediate ambition to moonlight on a comic strip like Jeff McNelly and Mike Peters and others.
“I’ve talked with some editorial cartoonists who do comic strips,” he explained, “and for some, it was a real fiasco. It ate up all their time. And they’re glad, now, that they’re out of it. Of course, that’s not true of all of them. Some of them just can’t decide if they like editorial cartooning best or a strip. But they all say a strip is consuming. The editorial cartoon allows for other things. So unless you’re willing to sacrifice a major part of your life to a comic strip, you don’t get into it. But someday, I might do it. Not now, though.”
To the aspiring young would-be editorial cartoonist, Bagley says: “I suggest that they do drawings of local people and try to get them printed in local magazines and newspapers. They’ve got a good chance at getting published this way because they’ve pretty much got an open field: focusing on local issues, they’re not competing with the rest of us.”
Bagley enjoys doing cartoons on local issues. “About one out of three of my cartoons is local,” he says. “We get national cartoons from the syndicates, but a local cartoon is something nobody else does here. Doing a national cartoon is like being a piranha attacking George Bush, but on a local level, doing a cartoon is like being a great white shark.” He grinned.
“So you feel you have greater impact on the local level than on the national level?” I asked.
“Oh, yes—I have no impact on the national level.”
“What about the temptation to go for the Pulitzer,” I said, “—which means using national themes. Do you feel that temptation at all?”
“Well, I’m human,” he said with a laugh. “It’s tough because I’m not syndicated, and without that kind of exposure, my cartoons probably wouldn’t get the consideration that others would. I have never entered for the Pulitzer; I should start doing that. I think eventually I’ll get syndicated and all that. But I was happy to see Jim Borgman win this year.”
“One of the things debated these days among editorial cartoonists,” I said, “is whether or not the injection of a lot of humor into their cartoons is a good thing. Historically, editorial cartoons have not necessarily been funny. When Oliphant invaded, the example he set used humor as a weapon. And he was unusual in this respect although Herblock had a sharp wit and was using it then, too. And Ding, of course— Jay Darling at the Des Moines Register-Tribune— and maybe Harold Talburt. But through most of the early history of editorial cartooning, editorial cartoons pretty much just presented an image--a message in metaphor. They didn’t set out so much to provoke a belly laugh; instead, they served to focus your anger. In the wake of Oliphant’s popularity, a lot of editorial cartoonists honed their senses of humor, and editorial cartoons generally got funnier. And not everyone approves. Tom Englehart at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, for instance, says that cartoons today are all smile and no teeth. And even Oliphant—ironically—objects to what his ostensible followers have done to the medium by using humor. Under the banner of satire, he says, editorial cartoonists have gone slapstick, and editorial cartoons have become like the comics generally. I think Oliphant believes that in order to stay pure as an editorial cartoonist, you must be angry about something—maybe everything— and uncompromisingly savage in your attack. He doesn’t like the idea of provoking a chuckle for its own sake. Now, you give humor a significant role in your work. Do you think there’s too much laughter being provoked by editorial cartoons?”
“I hear that criticism,” Bagley said. “But I really don’t have much of a problem with that. I don’t think humor is undermining the profession. The people most outraged by this are those who would otherwise be standing on soap boxes in Hyde Park—very angry and loud, maybe. I think injecting humor into the cartoons isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I don’t know personally any cartoonists who are in it just for the jokes. Cartoonists I know care about what they do.”
“I guess I agree,” I said. “I like your metaphor—humor is the hook that’s gonna get readers back.”
“Look at Mark Twain,” Bagley said. “Side-splitting stuff. But he was sidesplitting because what he said was true as well as funny. And that still works today.”
Bagley Gallery. Here is a batch of Bagley’s latest, culled from the most recent year’s crop of editoons. His casual loopy lines make cartooning look easy, and his lumpy people, cuddly in a goofy, maniac way, almost persuade us that the world according to the Bush League is not as dire a place as we might otherwise suppose. But the respite is brief: Bagley words and pictures reveal the lunacies of modern life and politics. No, no, not simply to reveal—but to hammer into insensibility, to nail to the wall, to drive a stake through hypocritical hearts. Yes, there’s a smile, but that toothy grin is fanged. JEREMY: INSERT BAG-1 (a repeat from Op. 215) and BAG-8 through BAG-11 HERE; THEN DELETE THESE CAPITAL LETTERS.