When I attended my first convention of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, I met a great cartoonist from Oregon named Jesse Springer. Jesse has been doing political cartoons since 1994, and his work has been incisively commenting on the political and social scene in the Oregon area. In 2007 and 2009, he won the Grand Prize in the Science Idol cartoon contest, sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists. To see some of his cartoons, you can click on this link
You’ve been a regular cartoonist since 1994. What got you started in political cartooning? Who were your artistic inspirations?
Probably like most cartoonists, I have always liked to draw as far back as I can remember. Notebooks and school papers were filled with doodles and gags for the amusement of myself and friends. And I was always aware of political events growing up, but for some reason, I never brought the two together. It wasn’t until I graduated from college (1990) and began to live life as “an adult” that these political events suddenly seemed to have some relevance to my life. In particular, it was the local political happenings that seemed the most immediate– had the most direct impact on my life. Eugene has a very good, independently-owned daily newspaper, and I began to really become a student of the editorial cartoons. Among the syndicated cartoonists that appeared in the Eugene paper, I would say that Borgman and Toles were the ones I was most drawn to. Before too long, cartoon ideas that applied to local and statewide issues began popping into my head. One day, I decided to sketch a couple of those out. In addition to the daily paper, Eugene has a number of alternative papers, which eventually ran one of those first cartoons (1994). I didn’t get paid, of course, but the idea that I could express myself politically through a cartoon, and that it might be read by some unknown number of fellow citizens, was very exciting.
I don’t know too much about the Oregon political scene, but I assume that it’s a Blue state since it’s near the coast. What is the political scene like in Oregon? From the cartoons that I’ve seen of yours, you seem like a political moderate. What has been the feedback of your cartoons in the local community?
Oregon does tip to the blue side, but it is not a dyed-in-the-wool liberal state. The political scene is very bi-polar, with the urban/rural split accounting for that divide. The urban centers in the Western side of the state account for all of the progressive liberal population, with rural areas tending to be more conservative. And it doesn’t take long to drive out of town to get to that rural place! There is also a fierce independent streak– kind of a modern day Wild West mentality that runs up and down the state. So, the debate is usually very spirited. We also have some of our very own issues, such as being the first state to legalize Assisted Suicide.
It’s probably not a good trait for a political cartoonist, but I am the kind of person that sees both sides to an issue. That’s probably why I come off as a moderate. Some of my cartoons reflect the absurd aspect to an issue, rather than take a specific political point of view. I probably draw a higher percentage of those cartoons than other cartoonists. That’s partly because of my even-handedness, but it’s also because I want to try and maintain and establish a client base that isn’t just in the liberal enclaves. As far as feedback goes, I get the occasional e-mail or letter of complaint or praise– nothing too extreme. My phone number is still listed in the phone book.
Your October 20, 2011 cartoon on the Tea Party and Occupy Oregon seems to see some common ground in the discontent found in both grassroots movements. What is your thoughts on both social movements? How has Occupy Oregon been in your area?
There were pretty strong Occupy Portland and Occupy Eugene movements in the fall, but, like all of the others, they were eventually dismantled– at least their physical occupations were. As a person who has little faith in the current political system, it was exciting to see such a popular movement, but dis-heartening to see so little interest in a concrete agenda that might remedy some of this country’s political ills. I have been hearing more about constitutional amendments to limit campaign contributions and eliminate corporate personhood, which I think are root causes to many of our problems, so I am encouraged by that. If the Tea Partiers are truly for real, then those are two issues that they should also be able to get behind. I think that if there are one or two specific issues like that that Occupiers and Tea Partiers can get behind without worrying about their other differences, then that would really be powerful and exciting.
You do a lot of cartoons on the local scene. What are your thoughts on doing cartoons on local issues as opposed to doing cartoons on national issues? Do you feel your local issue cartoons have an influence on readers?
It was interesting for me to go to two recent AAEC Conventions and hear everyone talk about how they were doing more and more local cartoons, either at the request of their editors, or simply as a response to the changing needs of their regional papers. That’s how I started out, and I never really got going commenting on the national level, so that isn’t really a big change for me. On one hand, it sometimes feels limiting to narrow my focus to Oregon issues, when there are so many other important issues of national import going on. On the other hand, there is something to the notion that the more local the issue, the more directly it affects you. The more something affects you, the greater the feeling it can cause which in turn inspires my cartoons, so I ultimately like the local focus. As far as whether my cartoons influence readers– I think that is the $64,000 question cartoonists would love to be able to answer (hopefully, in the affirmative).
You’ve done a quite a few cartoons on Oregon universities and on public education. Here in California, students are protesting proposed budget cuts. How is Oregon’s education system doing nowadays?
This is one of the interesting things about doing local/state-level cartoons. So many of them could be applicable to other states. Of course Oregon’s schools are going down the toilet just like everywhere else. And it’s not just that the per-student level of funding has gone, it’s that the costs of health care for teachers has gone sky-high. Like many other issues, I think there are root-cause problems that need to be solved first. In the case of education, if we can get this “public option” healthcare plan (that just passed the Oregon legislature) to work, then I think it will really be a boon to education as much as anything else.
Whenever I’ve talked to political cartoonists, they seem to share the worry about the future of newspapers and magazines as outlets for their work. What do you see is the future of political cartoons? As a freelancer, how does this affect you?
I worry about newspapers more because of what it means for us as an educated society more than for my own sake. Who is going to actually do the reporting if we gut all of the newsrooms and fire all of the reporters? Fortunately, for me personally, I don’t have very far to fall because I haven’t risen very high in the cartooning world. Cartooning brings in less than 10% of my total income (my graphic design business accounts for the other 90%). Of course I would be sad if I didn’t have that traditional outlet for my cartoons, but I would be a lot sadder for other reasons.
Your political cartoons are very thoughtful and insightful. They’re more gentle commentary rather than a biting and harsh attack on society. What is your philosophy on social commentary?
As I’ve said, I tend to see both (or all) sides of an issue, so I am not prone to all-out nuclear attacks with my cartoons. I know some cartoonists would probably think less of me because of it, but that’s just who I am. It’s not that I don’t have a political opinion, nor am I afraid to express it in a cartoon, but I guess– going back to your other question about persuading readers– I think a lighter touch is more effective than a bludgeoning over the head. For a lot of the issues I tackle, I try to think about it from a kid’s perspective. As adults we get wrapped up in all kinds of convoluted arguments and justifications for our political viewpoints– just take a step back and look at it from a child’s mind, a beginner’s mind. Usually, when I do that, the absurdity (or absurdities) become abundantly clear.
What is your process in coming up with ideas and creating your cartoon?
First I read the news in the paper and online. Then, I choose a topic to tackle (this is often the hardest part: an issue I am passionate about may not have gotten much media coverage, or vice versa). I write a concise statement about the opinion I aim to express with my cartoon (this is important too: sometimes when I am having trouble coming up with an idea, it’s because I am fuzzy on exactly what I am trying to say). Then, I just get that blank sheet of paper and start noodling around with ideas. I tend to be just as verbal as I am visual, so there is often a play on words as part of my cartoons. Once I get an idea that I like, I draw a thumbnail sketch and scan it on the computer so I can print it out larger, at the size I want to draw it. Sometimes, instead of an integrated thumbnail sketch, I’ll draw rough sketches of the constituent pieces just anywhere on the paper– it’s a little less constraining that way. Then I assemble the pieces in Photoshop into an integrated whole. Then I print out that rough drawing at about 10″ x 7″ size and put it on the light table. Then, using a Pentel brush pen and whatever regular pens I have handy, I’ll do the final inking on a fresh sheet of paper. Then, I scan that, touch up any little blips, and then add color using a Wacom Tablet. Presto– a cartoon in about 4-5 hours.
In 2007, you won the Grand prize in the 2007 Science Idol cartoon contest. Describe that experience. What was that contest for?
The main goal of the Union of Concerned Scientists is to promote the use of unbiased science in policy making. The biggest threat to that is interference in science by people with pre-defined political agendas. The Science Idol Contest– inspired by “American Idol”– was thought up as a way to try and add some levity to an otherwise serious subject, and also to try and get a little more exposure outside of purely scientific circles. Little known in cartooning circles at first, the first Grand Prize was won by a teacher from Ohio in 2006. When I heard about it the next year, the Grand Prize was $500 plus a trip to Washington D.C. to have lunch with Tom Toles. This was before I had joined the AAEC, so I had never met a “real” cartoonist before, and Toles was one of my absolute heroes. I had to win. I can’t remember all of the specifics, but I entered about five cartoons, three of which were sleeted among the top 12 finalists. Those 12 finalists were chosen from a prescreened group of about 64 by a panel of judges, one of whom was Garry Trudeau, another one of my cartoon Gods. As a part of the process, I traded e-mails with him which I consider to be quite an honor. Anyhow, the Grand prize was determined by online voting, so I motivated my friends, family– I even got on the local news and encouraged people to vote for my cartoon. The problem was, People had to vote for a specific cartoon, not a specific person, so the fact that I had three cartoons among the 12 finalists had the potential to split the vote. In the end, the cartoon that I encouraged every one to vote for came in second… to my winning cartoon. The trip to Washington and the meeting with Toles would take too long to describe– suffice it to say, it was an experience of a lifetime for me.
In 2010, you did quite a few cartoons on the Ducks winning a championship. Is Oregon a big college sports scene? I’m not a college football fan, so how did they do in 2011?
Eugene, Oregon is home to the University of Oregon. Once a perennial doormat in the PAC-10 Athletic Conference (now the PAC-12), they are now amongst elite, thanks in large part to massive donations of cash by Nike co-founder Phil Knight. Given the fact that Oregon is home to only one major professional sports team (the Portland Trailblazers), the rise of the the athletic program at the University of Oregon has indeed become a big deal for the state. After the 2010 season, the Ducks football team played in the National Chamionship game against Auburn, and lost by 3 points. Prior to the game, I knew I wanted to have a cartoon ready for either outcome. That’s why when you look on my web site under January 2011, you’ll see one cartoon that shows the Ducks winning and one that shows the Ducks losing. Unfortunately, it was the latter that ran. Skip ahead to the 2011 season, although they did not play in the National Championship game, the Ducks did notch their first Rose Bowl victory since 1916, against the Wisconsin Badgers.
Here are more interviews that I did for Everyday Citizen
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