Last Friday, I was out in Golden, BC for a guys weekend at a buddy’s cabin. When I first started going out there, it was just the cabin itself on this plot of wooded land, but now, my retired friend and his wife have an art studio and a new home on the land as well. But that cabin up the hill is still there and he generously allows his friends to use it. I don’t take a lot of time off, but as that Friday was my birthday and Sunday was my friend Jim’s birthday, it was a great excuse to get away with no work. Set up on the deck of the house, the three of us enjoying the sunshine, I decided to grab my bedding and gear and hike it up the hill early so I didn’t have to do it in the dark later. On my way back down the trail, enjoying being in the woods with great weather and just starting to relax, I got an email alert on my phone. I stopped and already had an idea what it was. My suspicion was confirmed when I read that former Premier of Alberta Ralph Klein had died.
Continuing down the hill, I opened up a beer, sat down in my chair on the deck and began working on my phone. My buddies gave me grief that I was supposed to be relaxing, but I explained the situation, told them I needed a half hour and I began sending emails to the daily newspapers across Canada that would want a cartoon on this breaking news. You see, the cartoon was already done. The files had been on my phone for about a week, ever since the news came out that Ralph Klein was close to the end after years of suffering a debilitating illness. Once the cartoons were sent, I spent another half hour answering emails from editors either thanking me for getting the cartoon out so quick or a couple of others asking if I had a Ralph Klein cartoon for them.
Yes, it’s morbid that from time to time, I make my living from a product that is derived from someone’s death. When I hear that someone of note, whether political or cultural, is close to death or has died, I often feel like a vulture, sitting on a fencepost, waiting to take advantage of the situation. It’s not a great feeling. And it’s very difficult to be genuine and not come across as maudlin. There’s a lot of ‘bandwagon grief’ and crocodile tears on social media these days and I try to walk a fine line between honest respect and overt false sentimentality. There are few things I dislike more than hypocrisy and social media is ripe soil for that particular crop.
What’s even more morbid is that when I find out somebody has died, I have to decide if it’s cartoon worthy or not. I must ask myself if newspapers will find it newsworthy enough to write stories or editorials on this person. In some cases, it’s quite obvious. In the case of Ralph Klein, he was one of the most charismatic and popular provincial Premiers in Canadian history. He was beloved by many and not just in Alberta. Personally, I was saddened by his death, largely because his debilitating end seemed so unfair, given how he lived. I felt the same for former NDP leader Jack Layton when he passed, one of the few politicians I genuinely liked, even though I didn’t agree with a lot of his politics. Those cartoons aren’t as difficult because I actually feel something for who the person was, for the life they lived. While I wouldn’t call it grief, there’s a small connection and a desire to honour them appropriately, to do right by them in the cartoon.
Then there are the cartoons I must do about death that are newsworthy, but are regarding people for whom I feel little. This is not a comment on their character, their impact, or their value as a human being, simply that they are strangers to me. A recent example would be former Premier of Alberta Peter Loughheed who passed away last year. A respected leader, a man of vision whose footprints are all over the province I call home, and whose death was mourned by many. But Lougheed ended his run as Premier in 1985. I was 14 years old, living overseas in West Germany and I didn’t even start following federal politics until my late twenties, let alone that of any province. I’ve never felt a connection to the man.
The same could be said for former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who passed away this morning at the age of 87. While her influence was definitely felt on my generation, I feel little connection to her. While it’s unlikely that I would have shared her obviously right wing views while she was in office, her legacy is undeniable. Her impact on the UK and the world is clear. Up at 5:00 this morning, I was working on a cartoon about her death by 5:30 as it was obvious newspapers would be reporting and editorializing on her life and times.
Both of these previous mentions are examples of situations where my profession dictates that I must observe the contribution of these two people even though I feel nothing for them on a personal level. So, how do I do that without being cliché, falsely sentimental or hypocritical. The simple answer is that I can’t, not completely. But I do my best.
Then there are the many more people who die whose lives are not of interest to the editorial page. Annette Funicello died today as well. Roger Ebert died a few days ago. I did not feel their deaths warranted the drawing of a cartoon. There was no money in it. That’s the distinction I have to make. Can you believe that?
Often there will be a natural disaster where a lot of people have died and I have to draw a cartoon on that because there is nothing else to do. Trust me, nobody is going to print something funny or political on their editorial page when more than 200,000 people have died from a tsunami on Boxing Day. It was horrible, a tragedy and a nightmare for so many. The last thing I wanted to do was draw anything about it, because I didn’t feel my illustrative voice could possibly make anything better. My solution was to guilt people into giving.
I also have a difficult time with Remembrance Day, which is an annual cartoon about death. I’ve drawn a cartoon each year for November 11th for more than a decade, and each year it gets more and more difficult to create fresh imagery. Poppies, cenotaphs, senior citizen soldiers talking with children, military iconic images, memorials, passages and quotes about 11:11, In Flanders Field, Lest We Forget, and We Remember. Each year, I do my best to summon up hackneyed images to appear genuine, but feel like a fraud doing it. What’s worse is that I come from a military family on both sides, I grew up a base brat, and spent five years in the Reserves. Heck, I even met my wife there. But saying ‘Lest We Forget’ feels like a routine, kind of like saying Bless You when somebody sneezes. We say it, but how many really mean it?
One of the all time cliché death cartoons is that of the pearly gates. Cartoonists the world over have been showing the deceased either talking with St. Peter or being greeted by somebody who has passed away before them. There are many variations on the theme. I can honestly say that I have never drawn a pearly gates cartoon and never will. It’s an image that has been done to death, pardon the pun. But that’s not to say that mine are terribly original, either.
When I approach this sort of cartoon, if you could call it that, I’ve now developed what could easily be called my signature ‘tribute’ image, examples you can see above. Usually a painted portrait, rendered as well as I can in the short amount of time I’ve got, with either a quote, the name of the deceased, the dates they lived, or anything else I can think of. Having done a number of these over the years, even this now feels trite. Give me a week or more and I might be able to come up with something more original, but that’s not how the 24 hour news cycle works. Because I have a knack for portraiture and people seem to like and publish them, I continue to do these cartoons when appropriate and then I move on as quickly as I can.
Regrettably, it’s part of this business of being a freelance editorial cartoonist in Canada. The bills get paid by getting that spot on the editorial page earmarked for images rather than text. If I choose not to draw these memorial or tribute cartoons, somebody else will and I’ll be out of a job. Most of the time, I get to draw and colour and make smartass comments for a living. It involves long hours, it’s competitive, and it’s non-stop, even on a weekend off in the woods on my birthday. I thrive on the pace, I enjoy the work and it’s rarely boring. But while it’s a great gig and a great way to make a living, no job is perfect.
From the tone of this post, you can probably deduce that drawing another death cartoon this morning did little for my mood, today. Drawing cartoons about people dying is part of this gig I could really do without.