September 6, 2018 – Herbert L. Block – Herblock as he signed his work – was my favorite editorial cartoonist when I was growing up. I decided as a young teenager that my fall-back goal in life (if for some reason I was not elected President of the United States) would be to become an artist like Herblock.
Herblock, the Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist for the Washington Post, was syndicated in newspapers all over the world, including the Syracuse Herald-Journal. The H-J was an afternoon paper and I’d snatch it out of the yellow box in front of our driveway as soon as it arrived. I’d read the comics first, set the sports section aside for my brothers, and then turn to the editorials.
The paper’s editor, Alexander “Casey” Jones, wrote snappy commentaries, once singling out my hometown of Morrisville, N.Y. as a speed trap (and he had the ticket to prove it). On good days the paper included a Herblock cartoon, and I didn’t just glance at it casually. I studied it, admiring the bold lines and black crayon shading that added a third dimension to each drawing. His drawings of Harry Truman and Joe McCarthy were instantly recognizable and I would spend literally hours imitating his technique with my own drawings of Ike and JFK.
After a while I convinced myself I was good enough to send some of my cartoons to the Mid-York Weekly which covered small town news from its main office in Hamilton, N.Y. I drew a picture of JFK but the president’s features were too regular (except for his mop of hair) to capture a good caricature. I had better luck with New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. I drew Rocky grinning beatifically while sitting on a pedestal that was crumbling beneath him. It was a good enough likeness I said to myself, and I borrowed a brown envelope from my Dad and sent the cartoons off to the Mid-York editor.
About a week later I received a call from the paper’s editor, Tony Combopiano, who asked if he could come to see me. Hamilton is eight miles from Morrisville so Combopiano was not adding a lot of time to his day. I said, sure, when, and he said, now, and I said sure, and I wished I had showered that morning.
Tony Combopiano turned out to be a bit of a cartoon himself, a petite, twenty-something man with black curly hair and a prominent nose on which were perched thick horn-rimmed glasses. I don’t recall that we shook hands before he sat down on our living room couch and pulled out the Rocky cartoon I had sent days earlier. At first I thought he was going to yell at me about it – a natural reaction given that I was 16 – and he did take a few seconds too long to hold it in front of my face.
“I’d often thought it would be nice to include a cartoon with the editorials but we never found anyone with this kind of talent,” he said. If I had been older I might have called B.S. because there were scores of talented artists at Colgate University and even in the college on the hill in Morrisville. But these talented artists had no compulsion to send cartoons to the Mid-York Weekly, so I nodded and blushed.
The deal we worked out was that Tony would call me every Friday with a cartoon idea and I would draw it and mail it to arrive in the editorial offices before deadline the following week. Tony offered me $10 per cartoon, which seemed exorbitant to me so I didn’t presume to negotiate.
Friday came and went with no call so I wondered if he was going to use my Rocky cartoon along with an editorial suggesting the governor’s popularity was waning. But no cartoon appeared in the Thursday paper and I began to wonder what was wrong.
Tony did call the following Friday. “Are you familiar with the Central New York arterial proposals?” he asked.
I inhaled and then swallowed. “Uh, not really.”
“You know,” he said, talking fast, “All this talk about putting in new roads to make it easier to get from the small towns to Utica but no one has said anything about make a direct route from Hamilton to Utica.”
I knew I was being silent too long.
“I see,” I said. But I didn’t.
“I’d like to write an editorial about the need to decide this. Can you get a cartoon in the mail by Monday?”
I hesitated again so Tony tried to re-explain the issue in greater detail, possibly even reading lines from his draft editorial.
“Okay,” I said.
This was my first realization that the cartooning business was not going to be as much fun as I thought. I could feel the panic in stomach as I sat down and began to draw. Each draft cartoon was worse than the one before. Finally when it was time to walk to the post office on Monday morning, I slipped a drawing into a brown envelope and sent it off. It was pretty bad. Tony did print it adjacent to his editorial (which I found completely opaque) and I did get a check for $10 in the mail. But there were no more Friday afternoon calls from the editorial offices of the Mid-York Weekly.
I didn’t stop cartooning altogether, and happily the chaplains I served under in the Air Force began noticing my drawings and started using them in base publications. I continued cartooning during my angst years at Eastern Baptist College and had a ball. I’ve written about this odyssey in earlier blogs, and they can be excavated from the links that accompany this one.
I never bothered to save a copy of the cartoon I did for the Mid-York Weekly, which was drawn sometime in 1962 or 1963. I considered it an abortive effort and a lesson learned.
This afternoon I was hiding in air conditioning from the late summer heat, poring through old papers and magazines and building tall piles for recycling. I picked up a small, yellowing booklet held together by rusty staples and opened it to see if it was worth saving, I saw immediately it was one of my grandfather’s self-typed genealogies of the Jenks family so I decided to keep it. As I set it aside, a yellow piece of paper cut with pinking shears from an old newspaper floated onto the dining room table. It was the old Mid-York Weekly cartoon.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Grandpa Jenks clipped every newspaper item that mentioned the Jenks name and preserved it for genealogical research. I knew there was a stash somewhere of clipping about weddings, military service, obituaries, births, even Uncle Bob’s letters to the editor. It made sense Grandpa would see value in a grandson’s cartoon, even if the grandson couldn’t see it.
I held the clipping for several minutes trying to decide if it was as bad as I remembered it. The old paper was fragile so I decided to scan it to make it part of the permanent record. My record, anyway, as a would-be cartoonist.
Looking back on my would-be cartoons, it seems to me that the angrier I was, the better the cartoons. My Air Force cartoons were relatively benign, but my college cartoons were sometimes vicious. They were drawn in the late sixties and early seventies when I was mad as hell and not going to take it anymore: Vietnam, racism, assassinations of the Kennedys and King, tin soldiers and Nixon coming. The angrier I got, the better I drew.
I had put aside my India ink pen for several years, possibly because I thought of the Clinton and Obama years as relatively bi-partisan and usually hopeful, at least compared to the years of Vietnam and Watergate.
In the past couple of years, however, I’ve been mad as hell again in the face of a disastrously incompetent administration in Washington led by an inept, cruel, amoral, racist, sexist clown.
I know that kind of anger isn’t good for my blood pressure. But perhaps my cartooning will improve.
After I wrote this today I tried to get in touch with former Mid-York Weekly editor Tony Combopiano to give him a chance to comment. Just missed him: http://bit.ly/Combopiano
Memory eternal, Tony.