The Ungentlemanly Art and Me

At The Drafting Table

Ever since I can remember, I've been a sketcher and doodler. My grade school note books were always full of drawings, below and above the notes, and all over the margins, not to mention the covers. I would share cartoons that I drew, and the more serious paintings that I made, with my school pals and my family, putting them up here and there in my environment, wherever I thought they might be noticed. I had a love for the physical act of drawing and painting that neatly dovetailed into my interest in taking random gizmos apart and putting them back together again to see how they worked. In the forth grade, my family gave me for my birthday, a Heathkit AM radio kit, and an oil painting set. I dove into both eagerly. The dual strains of techno geek and art geek have always run strongly in me.

By the time I got into High School, I had an interesting mix of friends, and could be found hanging out with the art room geeks, and the stage and VCR crew geeks. By the time I was in my senior year, I'd finagled two art classes in a day, class time with my techno geek buddies, and the right to hang my work in several different locations in the school. In my senior year, I was brought on board the student newspaper, as a cartoonist.

By then I had become known for the political cartoons I was putting up all over the school. This was the early 70s, the time of Nixon, Vietnam, and Watergate, and I had plenty to say about the times I found myself living in. But while most of my art geek peers turned their political energies toward the art of the underground comix (which I devoured whenever I could get my hands on one), obeying some quirky inner aspect of my nature I still don't really understand, I turned instead to newspaper editorial style cartooning...and old style editorial cartooning at that.

Stephen Hess and Milton Kaplan's book, The Ungentlemanly Art, had a profound effect on me when I first pulled it off the shelves of my High School library. That book, and the daily Herblock cartoons I grew up with in the Washington DC Suburbs, fixed my ideas on what political art should look and feel like. Herblock's drawing style had passed the peak it rose to in the 60s, but his work never lost its fire. During the Nixon years I saw that fire going full blast and the effect was awesome. The more I researched the history of political cartooning, the more I was drawn to other American artists, who preached the same New World fire and brimstone; Rollin Kirby, Daniel Fitzpatrick, Vaughn Shoemaker, Edmund Duffy (friend and co-worker of H. L. Mencken at the Baltimore Sun. Mencken once said "Give me a good cartoonist, and I can throw out half the editorial staff.") and the grandfather of them all, Thomas Nast. Not that their politics were necessarily mine, but their style defined political cartooning for me.

The Other Domino Theory - 1972
This was my last High School cartoon, done in May of 1972 just before graduation. I'd originally sketched this as a long endlessly snaking domino line of tombstones, that eventually crush the earth, but my "advisor", who was letting me use her space on the school walls for my cartoons, advised me that it was too "esoteric", and told me to be more specific about what I thought might happen. I wish I'd stuck to my guns. I've since lost the origional sketch.
As Long As I Got The Vote - 1973
This was done for my college political science class in 1973, my last political cartoon for decades (I did one that portrayed my little community college as a McDonalds, which promptly got me black balled from the college paper. But by that time my cameras had replaced my ink pens as a major interest in my life). The caption is a rip-off of a phrase Thomas Nast kept plastering his cartoons of Boss Tweed with, after Tweed was indelicate enough to say in public, "As long as I count the votes, what are you going to do about it?" I'd come by then to think of Nixon as a latter day Tweed. Watergate would tell me how naive even that view of him was.

By the last half of my senior year, my political cartoons were everywhere. But my stint as the school paper cartoonist was less then wonderful, marked by a series of half hearted school spirit cartoons, pushed on me by the editors. But by then a new love had taken hold in me, that more neatly combined the techno geek and the art geek within: photography. I dove into it, and soon I was doing photos for the student newspaper, and the yearbook. By the end of High School, my cartooning interests wandered off, and never really came back. When I took up the pen and brush for the next two decades, it was mostly to paint landscapes, and draw pictures of beautiful guys, and young gay couples in love...much of the latter work down out of a longing for that elusive soulmate I still have yet to run into. My cameras became my instrument of political expression, and by the time I graduated, I was getting freelance assignments from several county newspapers, and had a press pass. The series of drawings I made in the 80s, on the theme of being young and gay and in love for the first time, was as close as I came to making a political statement through the drawn line during that period.

One Heartbeat - 1987
One Heartbeat
charcoal and ink on Strathmore board
The Old Gate - 1988
The Old Gate
charcoal and ink on Strathmore board

Untitled Landscape - 1985 Untitled Landscape
oil on canvas
Ancient Thunder - 1983 Ancient Thunder
oil on canvas

I maintained a strong interest in political cartoons through the years, often reading the editorial page cartoon before anything else in a newspaper. But I found, and still find, that most working political cartoonists don't do much for me. The sense I get is that they look on their work as a kind of one time disposable daily topical gag, as opposed to actual commentary, let alone political agitation. There is no passion in much of it, no fire. Some of the artwork you see published professionally is downright lousy, and most of the content is breathtakingly superficial. I suppose this is just Sturgeon's law at work. But still, the exceptional cartoonists of our times are brilliant, even by the standards of yesterday's greats. I would name as my favorites, after Herblock and Bill Mauldin, both of whom have passed away, Oliphant, Paul Conrad, Jeff Danziger, Kevin Kallaugher Ann Telnaes, and Ben Sargent.

They say old fires never really die. These days, when I want to express myself politically, I write. Some of it I've posted here on the web site, most of it gets put on Usenet, or one of the mailing lists I'm on. I've been getting letters to the editor published fairly often in the Baltimore Sun, and had one essay printed in a local gay paper. Yet, when a few friends suggested I start a running political column on this site, I figured there might be something more I could do. The beauty of the web is that embraces and brings together just about any form of human expression you can imagine. As I began to redesign my web pages, I wondered, why not do some political cartoons instead...?

I sat down at my drafting table, and almost immediately sketched out several rough ideas that I liked, which was encouraging. It was the same experience I had laying out my first rough Skywatcher plotlines back in the mid 90s, when I wondered if the imaginary world I had created would really be good for any serious story telling. When the creative ideas come pouring out with so little prompting, you should just run with it. But more then that, the old pleasure at working with the tools, at putting pencil and ink and charcoal to paper, came rushing back. It was a good feeling after all these years.

In some ways, this is still about my Skywatcher stories. When I start putting them back on this site, I want have them illustrated, in the fashion of the old adventure stories I used to read as a kid. I'd like to get a professional to do that, but I have such a strong sense of how my characters should look and how they should be drawn, that I almost have to do the illustrations least for the time being, until I can get a professional interested in what I'm doing. But it's been years since I've done this kind of thing, and I am not up to that task yet. Doing political cartoons again, and putting them up on my web site regularly, would give me the chance to work the rust out of my drafting skills, give me an opportunity to improve them, and give me experience in transforming the drawn page, to the web page. But in other ways this is about rediscovering an old joy, the joy of drawing, for its own sake.

So here they are. My goal is to do at least one cartoon a week, and have it posted by Monday. If I have a head of steam up, there might be more...if I have a pressing deadline at work, or important things to attend to here at home, there may be less. If there is no cartoon one week, I'll say so, so you won't think I've abandoned the pages. I'll also maintain a small running archive. Enjoy.

Bruce Garrett
Baltimore, MD. December 2001. Updated November 2003.

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