Adam Zyglis is one of the best young political cartoonists today. I met him briefly about two years ago in an Association of American Editorial Cartoonist Convention in Portland, Oregon, and have been a fan of his work since seeing his incisive cartoons in the Buffalo News. Adam’s cartoons are internationally syndicated and appear in publications like The Washington Post, USA Today, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times. He also does illustration work for magazines such as The Week, Time, and MAD Magazine. In 2004, he graduated from the Canisius College Honors program summa cum laude, with a major in Computer Science, a minor in Math and a concentration in Studio Arts. Adam’s first cartooning job was for The Griffin, the weekly student newspaper at the college, where he a first place national award from the Associated Collegiate Press and the Universal Press Syndicate. He placed second in the 2004 John Locher Memorial Award, and he was a finalist in the 2003 CharlesM. Schulz Award. In 2006 and 2011, Adam won third place for Editorial Cartoons in the National Headliner Awards, sponsored by the Atlantic City Press Club.
Thank you, Adam, for doing this interview. From reading your biography, you seem to have a wide variety of talents. You majored in Computer Science, which is a more logical and analytical process, and had a concentration in Studio Arts, which requires more creativity. What is it about each field that you enjoy? What kind of art did you for your Studio Arts studies?
I was originally drawn to Computer Science and Math because I wanted to develop graphics software. It was my way of trying to combine my art and critical thinking skills. However I ultimately found that editorial cartooning was a much better way to do that. I see both as forms of creative problem solving. In terms of my Studio Art work, I mainly focused on fundamentals like drawing, design and sculpture.
How did you get into political cartooning? Did you have any political cartoonists or artists that had a strong influence on you?
I started cartooning for my school paper at Canisius College. At first I targeted issues around campus, and then eventually focused on national politics. Writing my Honors thesis on cartooning and winning a few college contests gave me the push to try and pursue a career. I had some great guidance early on from veteran guys like Steve Sack and Clay Bennett. And being from Buffalo I grew up admiring the creativity of Tom Toles. In terms of art, I was more influenced by line artists like David Levine and Jack Davis.
You are the cartoonist of the Buffalo News, a paper with a circulation of 300,000. What’s it like to work for the paper? Do you get to go to an office?
I love working in the newsroom. For the first 6 years I was drawing from the art department in the middle of the action. That was nice for when big stories broke (like the Spitzer prostitution scandal). You could hear everyone’s reaction instantly. I recently moved into Toles’s old office in the corner of the editorial department, which is quieter and more conducive to thinking. An odd quirk to the space is that nobody can find a light switch so my light is never off. I prefer to think of that as a positive metaphor rather than a waste of energy…
I read in books of Paul Conrad and Herbert Block that they would frequently go to the reporters in the newspaper staff to learn more about particular issues and to see if there are things in their cartoons that are accurate. Do you ask around the Buffalo News reporters for information about issues that you want to do in your cartoons?
I do talk to a handful of people at work about issues and show them a stack of my rough cartoons. They are reporters, editorial writers and some in the art department. It’s important to get different perspectives on issues and see if my ideas communicate.
I don’t know the Buffalo political scene very well. But in looking at some of your latest cartoons, it seems like education is an important issue right now. What is the political scene like in Buffalo right now? Is it a more liberal or a more conservative area?
Education is a huge issue in the Buffalo right now. The waterfront, poverty and economic development are other big issues, although many problems stem from NY State Gov’t. The local Democratic Party dominates city politics. Yet with a large Catholic and working class population, the area has been more socially conservative. Lately it’s exciting to see a group of young progressive leaders emerge. All the positive leadership has been community driven, from the ground up.
Your cartoons take some strong political stands on local issues, so I was curious to know what sort of feedback do you get from the local community. Do you ever get hassled or receive angry emails? Do you feel political cartoons on local issues have more of an influence than on national issues?
I do get lots of feedback. Lots of angry emails and even phone calls. The local cartoons give me a stronger connection to the readers. I feel that good local work is vitally important to both print journalism and preserving full time cartooning jobs. One of the many great things the late Rex Babin contributed to the craft was his emphasis on local.
You’ve been doing some great cartoons against the Republicans and the Republican primaries. Some of my favorites from this year are the ones on April 1, March 23, March 22, March 11 and March 5. Yet you also do some great cartoons critical of Obama (some good ones are the March 31, March 15, and February 15 cartoons). Though I get the impression that you have generally progressive views, you are fair and very incisive in your criticisms of both parties. Would you tell us what your philosophy is on social commentary?
Thanks for the compliment on my recent cartoons. I do hold progressive views on most issues, but I love to target both sides. And I don’t see this as being balanced, just true to what I see to be right and wrong. I try and approach each issue independently, and I let my work be driven by the message.
You did a great blog about a particular cartoon of yours that didn’t get published. The blog gives a great description of your working relationship with your editor and it tells a little bit about the criteria that she uses to decide if a cartoon crosses a line that makes it unpublishable.. The cartoon in question was one where the Republican elephant is nailed to a cross using the “t” in Santorum. What were the readers’ response to this cartoon in your blog? What have been your most controversial cartoons?
I received a positive response to my Santorum cartoon blog post. This may be because most of my conservative critics view my work in print form. I’ve had 3 very controversial cartoons over the past 7 years, and I’ve noticed they have a common denominator: all were tough commentary around a tragic loss of life.
In the past two years, there have been various grassroots movements sprouting up in response to the tough economic times. In the Middle East, there is the Arab Spring. In the American Right, the Tea Party has emerged to influence the Republican Party, while on the Left, the Occupy Wall Street movement has put a spotlight on the economic inequalities in this nation. What are your thoughts on the various people’s movements that seem to be sprouting up?
While it’s inspiring to see all the grassroots movements happening around the world, I don’t think it’s anything new. As a student of history, I believe things are cyclical. Like the fault lines of the earth, there will always be lines of tension between groups of people. Periodic revolutions, civil rights/populist movements pop up to relieve these tensions.
I’m a big fan of your pen and ink art. What is the process that you do in creating a cartoon? What do you do when you want to add color to your art?
It’s great to hear you appreciate my line work. I get rather caught up on detail at times. I’m trying to get myself to loosen up a bit and not control every line. I draw the finished sketches with pigma microns on smooth bristol board. All of the color work I do in Corel Painter, but I feel like I have just scratched the surface with the program. I’m starting to play with the digital watercolor tools and paper settings.
The big topic that I always hear and read about from political cartoonists is the decline of political cartoonists as a profession due to the decline of newspaper circulation. What are your opinions on the viability of political cartooning as a profession?
Like it or not, the fate of professional editorial cartooning is tied to the sustainability of print journalism, and it’s ability to adapt to the web. I do believe newspapers will always be around in some form. The strong ones will survive and adapt, even if they will be smaller and more focused. It’s our job as cartoonists to keep reminding readers and media companies how important we are. I think local work and self-advocacy are the keys to survival.
For your honors thesis, you wrote a paper on the art of the editorial cartoon. What did you wrote specifically in your paper?
For my honors thesis I broke the editorial cartoon into 3 separate parts: the message, the concept and the form. I explored the roles of art and journalism in cartooning and how they applied to each of these parts. Plus it was a great excuse to interview some of my favorite cartoonists…
According to your bio on your website, you’re a native Buffalo resident. For a newcomer to the city, what would you recommend that person see?
Well, Buffalo is such a cool town, and it’s too bad people only think of chicken wings and snow (most of the snow doesn’t even hit the city). The city is redefining itself as a mecca for art and architecture. The Albright Knox is world famous for it’s modern art collection. Dozens of small galleries thrive. My favorite landmark buildings to check out are Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin Martin house, Sullivan’s Guarantee Building and Buffalo City Hall. Any visitor should definitely explore the great bars and restaurants in the eclectic Elmwood Village and Allentown (last call 4am!). It’s actually a secret mission of mine to one day bring a cartooning convention here.
A youtube video on how to access articles from the Buffalo News
A youtube video of the city of Buffalo
Here are more interviews that I did for Everyday Citizen
An Interview With Reverand Gerald Britt
An Interview With Cartoonist Tjeerd Royaards
An Interview With Poet, Activist, and Teacher Diane Wahto
An Interview With Cartoonist Jesse Springer
An Interview With Cartoonist Steve Greenberg
An Interview With Eric Wilks
An Interview With Cartoonist Greg Beda
An Interview With Poet Melissa Tuckey
An Interview With Cartoonist Andy Singer
An Interview With Author Robert Balmanno
An Interview With Cartoonist J.P. Jasper
An Interview With Cartoonist David Cohen