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Sometimes a consumer of news just needs a break from the voices and words. Sometimes a bright and colorful hand-drawn image and a few carefully chosen words, in the form of an editorial cartoon, is exactly what's needed.
The Nevada Humanities Gallery on First Street in Las Vegas, this month and next is featuring an exhibition, “Cartooning the Presidency: A Cartoon Retrospective by Mike Smith" at the Nevada Humanities Gallery, Las Vegas.
Mike is an editorial cartoonist for the Las Vegas Sun and for King Features Syndicate. His cartoons appear in about 270 newspapers. He’s been at the Las Vegas Sun for 34 years.
Do you consider yourself an artist, a journalist or something in between?
I think a lot of editorial cartoonists consider themselves to be journalists. But I don’t consider myself to be a journalist. Journalism is the vehicle for my art. I rely on journalists to provide the information that I need in order to come up with ideas for cartoons but what I do is really art because a journalist is really concentrating on accuracy, getting the facts, searching for truth and then a cartoonist relies on all of those things but uses exaggeration and caricature to make a point.
Where do ideas for cartoons come from?
My job is really 90 percent reading, 10 percent drawing. It is really about absorbing as much as you can and then hopefully that information will be the spark that gets the creative process moving.
Do you remember the first cartoon you ever drew?
I always doodled as a child. I always had a lot of interest in drawing and I think like any young kid, any young man that’s drawing planes and cars and trains, exactly what I did as a kid. I didn’t exactly take it seriously as a career until I was a junior in college. A friend of mine in the dorm who was writing stories for the college newspaper suggested I start drawing some cartoons for the campus newspaper. I started doing that and I really enjoyed it. I saw how much trouble I was getting in to on campus with the things I was saying in the cartoons and I thought ‘this would be a great way to make a living.’
Did you like getting in trouble?
What I do isn’t really about getting in trouble. You’re not trying to get into trouble. You’re not trying to make people mad at you. You’re just expressing your point of view based on what’s going on in the news. You can’t always predict how people will react to that.
Do you decide what to draw in advance?
Everything is very immediate because the shelf life of a cartoon is maybe two or three days, depending on what’s going on in the news. So, when I get up in the morning, I’m working on news events from the previous day or from that particular morning. You don’t really plan out editorial cartoons in advance because if you do, you’re going to end up with cartoons that are going to be stale by the time you draw them. It’s a very immediate art form.
What makes president’s such good fodder for editorial cartoons?
Well, they’re in charge and editorial cartooning is about poking fun at people in charge. Without sounding too cocky about it, you want to hold people who are in positions of power and authority accountable for what they’re doing. So, in a small way, I think editorial cartoonists are trying to do that and have fun while they’re doing it.
The late-night talk show hosts are having a ball with Donald Trump in office. Are you?
Yeah! I mean there are days that I come to work and I say to myself, ‘I have to try to not draw a cartoon about Donald Trump today because I’ve done so many of them.’ But then at the same time, in my life time, there has never been a situation where we’ve had so much news and so much news of kind of an outrageous tone coming out of an administration.
If you’re not drawing these cartoons, if you’re not commenting on all these things that are going on, not only are you losing a great opportunity as a cartoonist, but you’re really not doing your job.
What is your routine like?
Reading, a lot of reading, I read all the major newspapers. I don’t watch a lot of cable TV in the morning. Maybe a little bit in the evening. Once you’ve digested all of that information, it’s just a matter of looking at that blank piece of paper until the inspiration hits you. You have to go out and search for inspiration. You can’t just sit there and wait for it to hit you. You have to work at concentrating and trying to find it.
I also do a form of brain mapping, where you write down a subject matter and then draw lines off from that with other related words until your brain starts to click and something hits you.
I usually have anywhere from two to four good ideas that I want to show around to other people. Usually, two to four ideas. I sketch those out and then show them around to people just to make sure they’re ideas that work because just because I might think something works doesn’t necessarily mean it will work for everybody else.
The more colorful the politician the easier it is for you to draw them?
Yeah, it is. And with Donald Trump, it’s almost a daily cartoon in and of itself. So, sometimes you’re thinking to yourself, ‘how am I going to approve on something that is already a cartoon?’ It can be tough.
There are now about 50 editorial cartoonists working around the country and that is down from 200 a few decades ago. How have you been able to stick around?
I’ve managed to survive because the Las Vegas Sun has kept me as their editorial cartoonist. Every artist needs a gallery. For an editorial cartoonist, their gallery is the newspaper they’re working for because that how people see their art. And the Sun has been my gallery for all those years.
Do colleagues at the paper offer up ideas and do you listen?
I always listen to it. I may not use that subject matter but I’m always open to people giving me ideas or subject matter that they think might be good for a cartoon.
Some of my favorite comments are from readers who will call with an idea. There is always a reader who will call and say, ‘Mike if you would just draw my idea you would win the Pulitzer!’ People always think their idea is the best one out there. Actually, some people have pretty good ideas when they call sometimes.
Have you used them?
No, I really don’t. It would be their cartoon then not mine.
Have you ever had a time where you stared at that blank page and nothing is coming?
All the time. It happens all the time. You just keep looking at that piece of paper. The closer you get to the deadline the more creative your mind becomes. I really need the pressure to be creative. If I didn’t have the deadline every day, it would probably be difficult for me to be creative. So, I really thrive on that deadline pressure. Then if you’re really stumped, you need to go back and read some more.
Have you ever had a cartoon that created a lot of controversy?
I think one of the most controversial cartoons I ever did was a cartoon for USA Today on Alaska Airlines, criticizing the quality of the maintenance in their fleet. It was several months after there had been a tragic accident involving an Alaska Airlines plane and then there were investigations into their maintenance as a result. I had this cartoon where the plane had a lot of cracks in the fuselage and the captain was saying ‘We’ve cleared by maintenance for takeoff,’ And people were on Alaska Airline flights and opening up their USA Today’s in their seats and seeing the cartoon. So, of course, Alaska Airlines was very upset about it and they mounted a huge email and phone call campaign.
What did your editor do?
Alaska Airlines was demanding an apology but USA Today stood behind the cartoon did not apologize and we just toughed it out, which is what you have to do.
You have to have a thick skin. If you’re going to put your opinion out there, you have to expect that people are going to react and when they’re going to react you just need to let them have their say.
Mike Smith, editorial cartoonist, Las Vegas Sun and King Features Syndicate