Illustration by Stuart Carlson
Longtime Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial cartoonist Stuart Carlson didn’t go quietly. “I was told they could not justify having a full-time staff position,” he says. “I voluntarily took the buyout – but voluntarily as when somebody puts a gun to your head and says, ‘Hand over your wallet.’ ”His departure stunned many. “It’s very tragic,” says Bill Sanders, the former Milwaukee Journal cartoonist who retired in 1991. “Stuart is doing first-class work. I think they made a major mistake.
”It might seem logical for the JS to turn to Gary Markstein. Hired by the Journal, Markstein drew cartoons alongside Carlson (who’d worked for the Milwaukee Sentinel) after the 1995 merger of the papers, then was reassigned as a features designer four years ago. He is still in national syndication and also collaborates on a comic strip. Markstein says his bosses asked if he’d up his workload by adding one cartoon a week for the paper. “I told them no, I was not interested.”
Editor Marty Kaiser is noncommittal about the future of local cartooning at the JS. “We’ll have to see what we do going forward,” he says.
The national trend is not promising. The co-owned Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune no longer have staff cartoonists. (The Times cartoonist, Mike Ramirez, a Pulitzer Prize winner, landed at a Memphis paper; he’s one of the rotating syndicated cartoonists now used by the JS.)
Ted Rall, president of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists, counts 94 full-time staff cartoonists in the country – one-third the total of 1980. The rise in syndication, aided by the Internet, now gives papers easy access to the work of staff and freelance cartoonists nationwide.
Statewide, Joe Heller at the Green Bay Press-Gazette is now the sole editorial cartoonist on staff. The Wisconsin State Journal uses a freelancer, Phil Hands, as does Milwaukee’s Daily Reporter, which publishes one a week by John Kovalic.JS insiders say that with the departures of Carlson and editorial writer Jerry Resler, both liberals, the newspaper’s editorial board will shift rightward. But dropping a local cartoonist contradicts the paper’s core strategy of offering what readers can’t get anywhere else. “What about that local content they seem so keen on?” Carlson asks.
Ironically, he adds, he was handed an edict two years ago that 70 percent of his six cartoons a week had to address local topics. That meant extra work: Carlson had to draw more on his own time to meet his quota (four per week) of nationally oriented cartoons for Universal Press Syndicate.
“They’re going to lose that coverage of local and state issues and satire of politicians they can’t get anywhere else,” says Rall. “It shows a contempt for your readers, and for providing hard-hitting coverage. When you take away the attack dog, you’re making the paper limp and more boring and giving people an excuse to cancel their subscription.”
Carlson, whose soft-spoken, self-deprecating humor belies his skewer-sharp wit, published his first cartoon in the West Bend Daily News as a high-schooler. He credits then-Editor John Torinus with that break. Torinus later helped him get jobs at a weekly and then as a Sentinel reporter. He’d been there six months when, in 1983, the legendarily gruff Sentinel Editor Bob Wills “bellowed across the office, ‘Carlson get in here!’ ” Fearing his job was over, Carlson learned instead the paper had fired its cartoonist, Tom Curtis. It was the day the U.S. had invaded Grenada, Carlson continues, imitating Wills:
“ ‘This is history in the making. I don’t want us to be without a cartoon. I want you to do it, and that’s what you’re going to do from now on. Now get out of here.’ And that’s how my dream job started.”
At the Sentinel, Carlson was perhaps most famous for creating an iconic image of Mayor John Norquist and County Executive Dave Schulz as The Honeymooners’ Ed Norton and Ralph Kramden – roles the two pols later brought to life in a charity fundraiser. Contrast that with the one he did on priests with AIDS. “It was basically the church covering up [and] sending priests away to die alone, out of sight,” Carlson says. “People went berserk.” But when scandals about pedophile priests later came to light, “in retrospect, it didn’t look nearly as outrageous.”
A UW-Milwaukee graduate with a fine arts degree who briefly tried to make a living as an artist, Carlson says he may take up his paintbrushes again. Meanwhile, his syndicated work for Universal Press won’t be enough to live on. (“People have been asking, ‘What are you going to do?’ I tell them I want to be an astronaut.”) And just working for distant papers won’t be the same: “You lack that continuing dialogue with the community.”
Also lacking will be the love/hate intimacy with his targets. “My last week at the paper, Mayor (Tom) Barrett was nice enough to call. He said, ‘I’m going to miss you.’ ” Carlson shot back: “If you’re going to miss me, I wasn’t being hard enough.”