Last year, I enjoyed listening to a panel of left wing and right wing cartoonists in Washington D.C. that was sponsored by the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. All of the panelists were thoughtful and intelligent, but I was most impressed by the answers of Scott Stantis, the conservative editorial cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune. He has been editorial cartoonist for the The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tennessee, The Arizona Republic, and the The Birmingham News and his work is syndicated in 400 newspapers and has been featured by Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, The New York Daily News, The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, CNN, “CBS This Morning” and “Nightline.” Stantis is a past president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC), the largest organization of its kind in the world and was in the board of directors of the Epilepsy Foundation of Central and Northern Alabama. In 2004, Scott Stantis started the comic strip Prickly City which is syndicated in 100 newspapers. I was helped in coming up with some of the questions for this interview by Ted Rall, a famous leftist cartoonist and a close friend of Scott Stantis.
Thank you Scott for doing this interview. I met you briefly at the Washington D.C. AAEC convention and appreciate your friendliness. You’re the first conservative cartoonist that I’ve interviewed and I appreciate your time in answering my questions. How did you become an editorial cartoonist? What cartoonist or artist heroes influence you as you were growing up?
I was a pre-law major with an eye towards working in politics. Sort of a Carl Rove with a soul. The cartoonist for the college newspaper wasn’t very good. In fact, they were awful. So, at 18, I walked into the papers offices and asked if I could give cartooning a try. The Editor said fine and the next week my cartoon ran. It was an epiphany. From that point to today I haven’t wanted to do anything else and, happily, I haven’t had to.
Because it was LA in the late ’70’s Paul Conrad of the Los Angeles Times was the dominant cartoonist. Followed closely by Bill Schorr over at the now defunct Los Angeles Herald Examiner. Bill was particularly generous with his time and advice. Other cartoonists that had a major influence were the usual suspects: Jeff MacNelly, Don Wright, Herblock, Honre Dahmier and Pat Oliphant.
More than them was the influence of the good editors I have been lucky enough to work with. First and foremost was the first one who ran my work, the late Jim Groth, editor of the now defunct San Pedro News-Pilot in the harbor area of Los Angeles. He allowed me to put my drawing board in their newsroom and participate in news meetings and get the very best kind of journalism education.
When I listened to the panel you were in at the Washington D.C. convention, you were a very thoughtful and independent conservative. What were the influences on your political point of view? Were there any conservative heroes that had a deep influence on you?
Great question. My political education began with a fairly conservative/libertarian family. Cartoonists like Conrad demanded that an editorial cartoonist hold strong political convictions. You could plainly see what the socialist economic policies had done to Western Europe’s economy not to mention the train wreck of communism so I knew instinctively that a free market approach was the one that would help the largest number of people. Ronald Reagan was an influence as was Milton Friedman. Economists like Hayek and, of course, Adam Smith were essential to my political thought. Reason Foundation Libertarian writers like Virginia Postrel and Nick Gillespie remain major influences.
On the social agenda side I find myself falling further and further away from my conservative roots. While I remain strongly pro life on all things, (I oppose abortion, euthanasia and the death penalty equally), gay issues and immigration is where I part with the right.
You mentioned in your talk last year that you had worked in Reagan’s presidential campaigns in the 1980s. What do you see is the difference between the conservatism of the Reagan era and the conservative movement today? There seems to be a diversity of conservative thought: fiscal conservatives, religious conservatives, libertarian-leaning conservatives. How would you describe your conservative philosophy?
Libertarian conservative. Radically pro civil liberties.
You’re a conservative, but you’ve taken positions that put you at odds with GOP orthodoxy, such as endorsing gay marriage and defending the right to privacy. Have you been pressured or criticized by more right-wing Republicans?
Yes I have. I have laughably been called a liberal with a straight face. Simply because I believe the Constitution is sacrosanct in terms of privacy and equal rights. These seem to dovetail well to my world view which I still hold is conservative. A deep suspicion of government power which, sadly, many of my conservative friends have surrendered.
You were the editorial cartoonist for several years for the Birmingham News in Alabama. My wife and I visited Birmingham a few years ago to visit their civil right museum and to check out their vulcan statue. We enjoyed the time we were there. What was the political situation like in Birmingham when you were there? What local issues did your cartoons deal with?
This was my introduction to the politics of race. From almost every perspective. One of my first cartoons was about a city councilman, (African-American), who had fondled a female police officer grabbing her chest and asking, “Are them things real?”. (He claimed he was asking about her bullet proof vest). I drew a cartoon of the female officer running away from the councilman with her arms covering her chest and the councilman saying “Them things real?” While the President of the Council said, “Oh good, now we have quorum”. I was introducing myself to my new neighbors who had invited me in for some tea. On the TV was the local news and there was the councilman berating me and my cartoon asserting that the image was motivated by racism. Obviously, that was absurd. As time went by I drew with equal vigor against white and black politicians. Race remains one of the largest landmines in cartooning. I think it’s worse now than ever before in the sense that everyone has their sensitivity-o-meters on the highest setting. Because editorial cartooning has to be quick and use shorthand to make a point often anything can be read into them.
On a side subject, I have always felt that the first charge of any staff cartoonist is to do strong local cartoons. For all of my time at The Birmingham News I did no less than 60% local work. Here at the Chicago Tribune I believe the number is closer to 70%.
You landed the editorial cartoonist position vacated by the legendary Jeff MacNelly at the Chicago Tribune. His influence is still everywhere, no doubt also at the Tribune. Do people compare his work and persona to yours? Why do you think the Tribune went with you? Why did they decide to fill the position after leaving it vacant so many years? You criticized the Trib for not replacing Jeff, yet they still hired you. Were they annoyed at your past criticisms of the paper? Yours was the most important, and biggest, staff cartoonist hire in years – yet it didn’t make big news and it wasn’t emulated in the form of new hires at other papers. Why not?
I’ll answer the last question first. Short answer: I have no idea why the AAEC didn’t make a bigger deal of it. Regardless of whom was hired you would have thought they would have sung it from the Mountain tops. Instead, it was not even mentioned in the presidents note in the Notebook, (The AAEC publication), and only got short notice. Had I been president I would have invited Chicago Tribune Editorial Pages Editor R. Bruce Dold to the following convention to have him speak and explain why, after nine years, he had filled the position. I would also have given him a medal.
Speaking of Bruce during the interview process we were out to lunch with Gerald Kern, editor of the Trib, and Bruce turns to me and quotes a paragraph of a column I had written when the Tribune dedicated a MacNelly room. It was pretty harsh language and when he was done he asked, “Do you still believe this?” I looked him in the eye and said, “yes I do”. He asked why and I went on to explain that Jeff was a consummate cartoonist and would have been mortified at the thought that his position went unfilled by a newspaper with such a storied tradition of cartooning.
My fervent hope when I was hired was that the rest of the newspaper industry would get the hint.
Because there was a nine year cushion between Jeff’s passing and my taking the job I have mercifully avoided most of the comparisons. On those rare occasions when an older reader says “You’re no Jeff MacNelly!” I reply, “Believe me, no one is more aware of that than I am”.
What’s the difference between cartooning in Birmingham and a big city like Chicago? How are you impacted by working and living in the sitting president’s home town, where the mayor is ex-Obama chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel?
Not to cast any aspersions on Birmingham, (which I loved living in and where I still own a home), but Chicago is the Major Leagues. More political players and bigger corruption. When I moved to Chicago everything got bigger. The audience was five times larger. Which meant the attention was greater. Appearing on WGN TV wasn’t seen by a few local viewers but 76 million homes around the country. It has been by turns daunting, humbling, challenging and deeply rewarding.
As you might imagine there are folks here with very deep loyalty to the President. So every time I criticize the administration we can count on some blow-back. As for Rahm, he is not beloved and, frankly, that bloom is fading for a lot of Chicagoans.
In the Washington D.C. convention, you were in a panel with fellow conservative cartoonists Chip Bok and Nate Beeler. Though the three of you are all conservative, your group had a diversity of opinions on different issues. It seemed like the one issue that united the three of you was your common concern over the national debt. Why is the national debt such an important issue for conservatives?
Hypocrisy alert: During both the Reagan and George W Bush administrations the deficit didn’t seem like such a big deal to the GOP. I cartooned about that then as well as now. Conservatives, in an economic sense, should be the adults. Pay as you go and avoid debt as much as possible. This is pretty simple stuff and it pains me when those on the right forget their obligation to the future.
Your biography says that you were on the board of directors of the Epilepsy Foundation of Central and Northern Alabama. What led you to volunteer your time to this cause? What affect did this experience have on you?
A month after starting the staff job in 1986 at The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tennessee I got a phone call informing me that my brother, Marc, had died while having an epileptic seizure. It turns out more than 30,000 people die from seizures a year in the United States. Working on these boards is my small way of honoring my brother. Obama’s political consultant David Axelrod and his wife Susan have a charity Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy,(CURE). They got me involved and I am in one of their fundraising videos (http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=3WrU5hKG6wk&list=PL6gG1QgDIYVOqVNfB5zVhpJRkW-IP_vjJ) If Axelrod, (who is a good guy. Susan is even better), and I can get together on an issue perhaps there is hope for the rest of the world?
You’ve created and developed several comic strips, including the Buckets. Now you have Prickly City. PC is political and character-driven. What’s the difference between the editorial cartoons and the strip for you? Have you been influenced by Harold Gray’s “Little Orphan Annie”, the great conservative comic strip of the 1930s and 1940s?
You know, I was unaware of the early years of Little Orphan Annie. My exposure to the strip was when I was a kid and the strip was already 50-years-old. I thought it stunk. But now I have read the first years of the strip and it is terrific. So, while it wasn’t an influence I really respect it now. (Krazy Kat was actually more of an influence for PC).
Editorial Cartoons and comic strips are two different animals. Writing an editorial cartoon is a one off opinion on a given subject. A comic strip demands character development and story continuity.
You’ve been hired by at least six newspapers. What’s your advice for a young cartoonist seeking a job?
Local cartoons. Let the editor know that you share their passion for local politics and events. By doing this you are giving them something they can’t buy for pennies from Cagle. It also endears you to the readers. I believe very strongly in the mission of editorial cartooning as not just entertainment but provocation and a catalyst for change in the community.
What do you most enjoy about doing political cartoons? Do you feel your work has an influence on national or local affairs?
I love/hate it all. The deadlines are crushing and motivating. Politics remains a fascination for me. Particularly personalities and how they come to visually represent policy. While I think I add to the national debate I am not convinced of a direct influence. It is state and local issues where a cartoonist can have profound impact. Draw the mayor or the governor in a way that resonates with the community and you pretty much own the politician. On the rare occasions when that happens it is a truly marvelous feeling.
You’ve been an editorial cartoonist for over 20 years now, and you were a past president of the Association of Editorial Cartoonists. What do you think is the future of editorial cartooning? What are your thoughts of the economics of syndication as opposed to cartoonists who have staff positions? What do you think the impact of the Internet will be on the editorial cartooning profession?
Actually, I have been a professional editorial cartoonist now for over 35 years.
The internet has had obvious impact on the profession by eroding readership of newspapers and having editors make the wrong headed decision to cut staff cartoonists. On the plus side the internet allows for a much broader viewership of your work. The trick, it seems to me, is to draw something people want to read. Just because you draw a cartoon does not mean people have to read it.
There is a different paradigm for everyone it seems. From staff jobs to webcomics to childrens books and on and on. And seems to me one of the formulas going forward if you want to monetize editorial cartooning is to approach think tanks and interest groups. In the last few years the increase in traffic to sites that have used cartoons is measurably huge. The advantage of the model is you don’t have to compromise you principles Approach groups that reflect your values. Making a trip to K Street in Washington, DC and knocking on the doors of PAC’s and lobbying groups would be where I would start.
That may be by far the biggest change in our profession. The need for the cartoonist to be a salesperson and an entrepreneur. Seeking markets and convincing them of the value of the work. A few years back I did work for a PAC and the pay was terrific. The life of a staff cartoonist is great but that life is going away for the time being. (I believe it will return. Maybe not in the span of my career but it will come back). There is ample opportunity to ply this trade in non-conventional ways. The trick is to find them.
What advice would you give to someone who is visiting Chicago for the first time? What places would you recommend visiting?
Come for the crime, stay for the corruption.
Seriously, Chicago is a truly miraculous city with far too many things to see and do to list here. A few things I would recommend: Walk along the river to the lake and head south. Pack a picnic and go to one of the free concerts in Millenium Park. Eat sausage and peppers at Volare. Have a drink and get to know the owners, Guido and GianCarlo, of Club Lago.
A youtube video of Inside Media with Lalo Alcaraz, Steve Kelley, and Scott Stantis
A youtube video of a panel of conservative cartoonists Scott Stantis, Chip Bok, and Nate Beeler giving a talk for the Assocation of American Editorial Cartoonists’ Washington D.C. convention in 2012
Scott Stantis shows us what makes a good/bad cartoon, responds to hate mail and revisits a recent trip to a local comic book store
Here are more interviews that I did for Everyday Citizen
An Interview With Cartoonist Peter Evans
An Interview With Progressive Christian George Koukouris
An Interview With Cartoonist Gustavo Rodriguez
An Interview With Children’s Book Illustrator Lea Lyon
An Interview With Democrat Nancy Hirstein Smith
An Interview With Cartoonist Ann Cleaves
An Interview With Muslim American Activist Zahra Billoo
An Interview With Peace Activist and Lay Pastor Jim Ramelis
An Interview With Cartoonist Monte Wolverton
An Interview With Cartoonist Adam Zyglis
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
An Interview that Everyday blogger Diane Wahto kindly did of me