Man of many cartoons
There are two types of cartoons in newspapers. Have you ever thought about who makes them or how they get on the page? Today you can meet editorial cartoonist Clay Bennett. Next Tuesday, May 2, we talk with Mark Parisi, who draws a comic strip.
The walls of Clay Bennett's office at The Christian Science Monitor in Boston sport framed cartoons and a handful of awards. Among them is the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning. It's the equivalent of winning the Heisman Trophy. And yet, in Mr. Bennett's office, you almost have to look twice just to pick it out.
But that's normal for the low-key cartoonist who started drawing in the fourth grade. He's not one to boast. And he has good reason for that: "I have kids," he says. "Leave it to kids, they never treat you like a big shot."
Since 1998, Bennett's been the Monitor's editorial cartoonist. He's the one who drawsthe paper's daily cartoon about the social and political events in the news. It appears next to the paper's editorial (the article that expresses the viewpoint of the newspaper).
Unlike "funny-page" cartoons, which aim to make people chuckle, editorial cartoons tend to be more serious. They "are signed statements of personal opinion," says Lucy Shelton Caswell, curator of the Ohio State University Cartoon Research Library in Columbus.
Bennett is one of hundreds of editorial cartoonists working for newspapers around the world. His cartoons don't look like anyone else's, though, says Chris Lamb, author of "Drawn to Extremes: The Use and Abuse of Editorial Cartoons in the United States." "They're more thoughtful," he adds.
The serious issues Bennett deals with, and the thoughtfulness with which he treats them, are in direct contrast to the way he begins his work: When he's thinking about ideas for cartoons, he doodles. His desk and the floor of his office are littered with dozens of pieces of paper covered with doodles.
"It sounds so mindless, and editorial cartooning is so mindful," he says, but "I doodle all the time."
Those doodles, done with a thin black marker on scraps of tracing paper, are the first steps in the creation of an editorial cartoon. After Bennett comes up with a doodle he thinks will make a successful cartoon, the sketches are scanned into his computer.
Using the computer he adds elements such as text, his signature, and color. But "I don't use too much color," he says. He prefers muted tones - pale browns and soft greens and blues.The reason is that "usually my cartoons walk the line of being funny and dealing with serious things, so I want the color to reflect that," he says.
It can take four or five hours, and sometimes longer, for Bennett to come up with an idea and turn it into a completed cartoon.
Some days it's easier than others, he says. "Usually when I'm trolling the news, it's what upsets me the most that becomes the next day's cartoon."
Bennett has always enjoyed drawing. As a kid, "I would draw all the time," he says. "It was what I loved to do." When he was 10, he "published" his own version of "Mad," a humor magazine.
A year later, cartooning landed him at the principal's office after he drew a "big caricature" of his fifth-grade teacher on the chalkboard. Needless to say, "the principal wasn't too happy, the teacher wasn't too happy, and the parents weren't too happy," Bennett says. "But all my schoolmates were just delighted."
Bennett's advice for aspiring editorial cartoonists is to "draw about what's important to you. Do you have too much homework? Do a cartoon about that. Draw about stuff at school." But watch out for caricatures of teachers!
He also suggests paying attention to the news. "Read papers; listen to the radio." Not Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan, but National Public Radio or news programs. In fact, "my kids don't even think the radio in my car has any other stations than news," he says. "It's always just news, news, news all the time."
On April 18 Bennett made news himself. He won the Overseas Press Club's Thomas Nast Award for best cartoons on international affairs. But if the plaque actually finds a place on a wall in his office, don't expect to find it at first glance.
When Clay Bennett was making the cartoon about Barry Bonds, the major-league slugger of the San Francisco Giants was grabbing headlines for his alleged steroid use. So Bennett decided to make an editorial cartoon about it.
In it, a boy and his father are at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. In the gallery are Ty Cobb's cleats, Willie Mays's oversize glove, and bats used by Hank Aaron and Ted Williams. On the wall is an asterisk, representing how, according to Bennett, Bonds's baseball legacy will be remembered.
"Editorial cartoons are not always about politics," Bennett explains. "As long as it's got an opinion on a topic, it's an editorial cartoon." Besides, if he hadn't become a cartoonist, he would have loved to be a professional baseball or basketball player.