During this year’s Association of American Editorial Cartoonists Convention in Washington D.C. I met many cartoonists from all across the country. One of the best cartoonists that I met was Michigan editorial cartoonist John Auchter. John Auchter has been published in such Michigan newspapers and periodicals as the Ann Arbor News, Bay City Times, Flint Journal, Grand Rapids Press, Jackson Citizen Patriot, Kalamazoo Gazette, Muskegon Chronicle, and the Saginaw News. In April 2002, John had a gallery show at the Weston Theatre and Gallery in Grand Rapids entitled, “I Love West Michigan! …but I Sure Have a Funny Way of Showing It.” John has a Bachelor of Science degree in Scientific and Technical Communications with a minor in Metallurgical Engineering from Michigan Technological University.
Thank you John for allowing me to interview you. In looking at your website, you have a background in science, with your study of Scientific and Technical Communications. How has your scientific background influenced the way you do your cartoons?
Well my degree (a B.S. in Scientific and Technical Communications with a minor in Metallurgical Engineering from Michigan Technological University) is definitely the road less traveled to editorial cartooning. So from the perspective of wanting to do things my own way, yes, in general my background has influenced me. But finding specific instances of science influence, hmmmm…. I will say that science and engineering puts a heavy emphasis of getting your facts right and expecting your ideas to stand up to thorough testing, and I’d like to think that shows up in my cartoons. I put a great deal of thought into whatever I draw.
The biggest benefit, though, is knowing enough to get most of the jokes in XKCD.
How did you first get started in doing political cartoons?
I have always drawn cartoons. Or if not quite as I exited the womb, then at least since I was 7 years-old — there is documented evidence. But political cartoons really didn’t start till I drew them for my college newspaper. I was doing a comic strip and an editor asked me if I could do editorial cartoons, too. They offered me money, so it was easy to say “sure!” I was always a history geek and kept up on current events, so making the transition wasn’t difficult. Not to say the quality was high, but the ideas came quickly. From there I have drawn for several newspapers all of which have led to my gig with the MLive Media group here in Michigan.
Who were your early cartooning influences?
For cartoon strips, my earliest influence was Charles Schultz. I came of age when Schultz was at his peak, and, man, what a joy it was to read Peanuts. He was so good and so ahead of his time, I can still pick up old books and discover pieces of genius. But maybe Schultz’s biggest influence on me was awe. I knew I could never match his style and characters, so I knew it was vital to develop my own.
Other early cartooning influences (though not necessarily cartoonists) include Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Virgil Partch, Art Spiegelman, Mel Brooks, Bill Cosby, and Pat Oliphant.
During the convention, you talked about your involvement in the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church has a wonderful tradition of fighting for economic and social justice. How has your religious background influenced your political cartoons?
In 1997, my wife, Jane, and I went with her family on a trip to Italy. (Jane’s father is Italian.) Part of it was a trip to Rome and the Vatican and seeing the fairly newly restored Sistine Chapel. Standing there, I had an overwhelming rush of feelings. First, the magnificent beauty of it all and feeling blessed to experience it personally. Then staring up at the ceiling (as one does), I had a new sense of appreciation for the breathtaking talent and desire of Michelangelo. Both literally and figuratively, it felt divinely inspired. But what really captured me and where I spent most of my time was on the far wall and The Last Judgment. Again there is the beauty of the art, but the compelling thing for me was knowing the story behind it. Michelangelo fought battles with various leaders of the church over the course of his work on the chapel, but for the Last Judgment he had a particularly bitter feud with Cardinal Carafa. The deal breaker: Michelangelo included nudes in the work and the Cardinal did not appreciate it. So in this holiest of holy places, they bickered to the point of Carafa trying to ruin Michelangelo and Michelangelo exacting his revenge by making one of the damned souls in the painting the very likeness of Carafa (not unlike something an editorial cartoonist would do).
So… that long story to tell you this: To me religion is very similar to cartooning — it’s about trying to reconcile the beauty and awfulness and absurdity of the human condition. I don’t feel a direct influence. (The pope has never phoned to tell me what to draw, although I would be inclined to at least have a conversation with the new guy, Francis.) What I do feel is the influence of being a participant.
It has been that way since I started, really. As a kid, my very first cartoons were about angels and devils, heaven and hell. Most were pretty clichéd, unremarkable. But occasionally there were glimpses of deeper insight. I did one with a scene from Hell. Three panels. (1) A guy is tied to a stake, burning in fire with a devil torturing him, and he is laughing hysterically. (2) The devil asks him, “What are you so happy about? You sold your soul and now you face torture for eternity.” (3) The guy says, “Yeah, but I sold my soul in exchange for eternal happiness.” And the devil thinks “#$%@ loopholes.”
I’m not very familiar with the political scene in Michigan. But I’ve read that it was one of the hardest hit areas of the economic recession in this country. How has it been to be a political cartoonist in Michigan?
Yeah, people talk about the Great Recession in terms of 2007 to 2009 (or later). In Michigan, it started in 2000, and we’re only now climbing out. So it’s not a good idea to come to Michigan and complain about how tough things are. We’ll see your collapsed housing market and raise you a devastated manufacturing base! No contest! We win! (Or lose.) Michigan has had to make a lot of tough choices as it has transitioned from a relatively wealthy state fueled by high-paying, low entry manufacturing jobs in the automobile industry to whatever it is we are today. (We’re still working on that.) We haven’t gotten much sympathy from our fellow Americans. Probably because anybody who was stuck with a crappy American-made car from the 70s and 80s is still pretty bitter about it. (Again, sorry about that Chevy Vega. We build quality cars now. Really! Buy one!) But as I said, things are looking up. I myself, after 12 years of having my own technical communications consulting business, took a job last year with an automotive supplier. Living in Michigan I suppose it was just a matter of time.
But it’s not all about economics. The politics are as lively and interesting (re: messed up) as anywhere else in the US. Most of it comes from the differences between the east side of the state (dominated by Democrat Detroit) and the west side (which is largely Republican). I grew up in Flint, which is basically Detroit. But I’ve lived out west near Grand Rapids for over 25 years. And I went to college in the Upper Peninsula, which is a whole other world. So I’m pretty well-suited for the Michigan editorial cartoonist gig.
I’ve occasionally read debates among cartoonists about what has more influence: cartoons on local issues or cartoons on national issues. Your cartoons really give one a sense of the local politics of your area. Do you think your cartoons have an effect on the local political scene?
I’d like to think so. My cartoons appear on the editorial page of eight Michigan newspapers every Sunday with a total circulation of 381,772. But… who knows? It’s still a matter of the right person reading the right cartoon at the right time. People are busy and certainly oversaturated. Whatever point I’m trying to make likely will roll right off (or, alas, be totally misinterpreted). It’s nice to know my editors value having my work in the newspapers. And I still feel newspapers (printed and online) have a voice. It’s no longer the dominant voice it once was, but then, neither is radio, television, even cable. The most tangible evidence for me remains seeing one of my cartoons cut out and displayed on a refrigerator, cash register, window, etc.
You did a wonderful cartoon on May 8, 2012 on the messiness of our democracy. Though our democratic process is often frustrating and slow, your cartoon seems to convey a confidence in our political system. What has been influential in shaping your political point of view?
Oh, you know, the standard things – deep anger, abject disappointment, complete exasperation… and the realization that there really isn’t a better way. This constitutional republic of ours is designed to be frustrating and slow – that’s the genius of it. All those built-in checks and balances keep the crazy people from taking over. So far so good (recent efforts by the Tea Party folks notwithstanding).
Although your cartoons have a general liberal leaning, you are fair in criticizing liberals as well as conservatives. A great cartoon is your July 24, 2012 about annoying liberal habits. As a cartoonist, is your focus less on a political party or a political system and more on the foolishness of human nature?
I just don’t believe in sides. If my cartoons appear to lean liberal, it’s only because conservatives have been doing stupider things lately. I believe it is much better to let your political views come organically instead of declaring an allegiance to a particular side or party and then zealously defending it. I know it’s better for marketing to identify with a side, especially for syndicated cartoonists. You can be packaged and sold as left or right, and editors can run an equal amount so they appear fair and balanced. (Is there any phrase that runs more counter to the goals of editorial cartooning than “fair and balanced”?) But then your side does something insanely stupid and you can’t call them out. Or worse, you have to come up with a convoluted cartoon that defends them.
So, yeah. I think you’re right. I’m more for keying on the foolishness of human nature than advancing a political cause.
Your political cartoons have more of a gentle satirical feel, rather than a harsh attack. I noticed that many of your cartoons are multi-panel cartoons that gently analyze the weaknesses of a particular political point of view. Some good examples would be your November 27, 2012 cartoon, your February 28, 2012 cartoon, your April 3, 2012 cartoon. What is your philosophy on political commentary?
Years ago I had an editor tell me that he really liked my editorial cartoons – very funny, pointed, well-thought out – but he couldn’t use them because “they just don’t look like editorial cartoons.” By which he meant single-panel, highly crosshatched, lots of labels, and so on. But I decided to stick with my style anyway. Part of that was out of a punk rock sensibility of “screw the conventions, I got something to say.” But then I didn’t have the artistic chops to mimic MacNelly, anyway.
So my political commentary philosophy would be… believe in yourself! No, reach for the stars! Wait… be all that you can be! Okay, I don’t really have a philosophy. I guess the nearest I can get is this: People often asked Chuck Jones what audience that he and the creative folks at Warner Brothers intended their animated cartoons for – grownups or children? Jones would say, “Neither. We created them to amuse ourselves.” I create cartoons mostly to resonate with something in me, and usually that translates well enough to entertain and challenge readers.
On April 2002, you had a gallery show of your cartoons at the Weston Theatre and Gallery in Grand Rapids. What was that experience like?
It was a blast. The walls were lined with my cartoons and people stopped in just to see them! That’s mind-blowing when you are used to working in solitude and published to an audience you rarely see. The opening reception was crazy fun. I gave a slide show talk and tried not to sweat though my shirt.
Like anything good, it was a lot of work. But definitely worth it. I highly recommend it. Probably the biggest ego stroke I’ve ever had. (By the way, it really helps if you have friends who own a gallery.)
I enjoy reading your blogs at Auchtoon.com. They really do a good job of describing the context of each of your cartoons. What got you to start blogging?
I started doing editorial cartoons for the Grand Rapids Business Journal back in 1995. Friends and family not in West Michigan kept asking me to send them copies. I would say, “But they are about local West Michigan things – they probably won’t make much sense to you.” But after a while I started to email them with a short description for context. Eventually I built a website and would insert the same sort of context below the cartoon. And that evolved into a WordPress blog. Now in a Twitter and texting world, it seems sort of quaint. But they are still fun to write.
From your cartoons and your blogs, you are very proud to be a Michigan resident. For a tourist who visits Michigan for the first time, what would be your recommendations on places to go?
Come see a Great Lake; we’ve got four of the five right here. They really are quite amazing. Visitors, especially those from outside the United States, tend to make a point of tasting the water. They can’t believe a body of water as big as these lakes isn’t saltwater. They have to prove it to themselves that it isn’t an ocean.
Once you’ve done that, it’s all up to your particular interest. We’ve got it all – big cities, small towns, wilderness. For pure scenic value, you can’t beat the Mackinac Bridge, which connects our two peninsulas. (Folks in the Upper Peninsula are referred to as Yoopers. Those in the Lower Peninsula are Trolls — we live below the bridge.)
And my town, Grand Rapids, is officially Beer City USA. That right there might be enough to attract the AAEC convention one day….
Here are more interviews that I did for Everyday Citizen
An Interview With Cartoonist Ted Rall
An Interview With Navy Veteran Randy Leer
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