Sunday, Nov. 4, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Mike Smith has been the Sun’s editorial cartoonist since 1983, and after Tuesday, he will have weathered eight presidential elections during his tenure.
Smith was interested in drawing from an early age and started crafting editorial cartoons while in college at Loyola Marymount University. With a good dose of youthful enthusiasm and naivete, and some sage advice from Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Paul Conrad of the Los Angeles Times (“If you ever want to get a job, you better learn how to draw”), Smith sent cartoons to newspapers across the country until he finally got a bite.
For a year, he sent cartoons to the Sun on a daily basis, some of which were published and some were not, until the paper added him to its staff.
Smith’s cartoons are syndicated and can be found in USA Today, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and many other publications.
Smith took time before the election to reflect on his career, the challenges of drawing President Barack Obama’s ears versus Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s hair, and what the results of Nov. 6 will mean for him.
What is your basic process from coming up with ideas, and how do your editors factor in?
It’s all about absorbing information. I’m moving more toward the Web for information, but I still read four newspapers a day. The information is the spark for the creative process. You need to have that information in your head in order for the creative process to start, and once you’ve done that homework every day then it’s a matter of looking at the blank piece of paper until something starts to come into your head.
But the closer you get to the deadline, the more creative you become. I need that pressure to be creative. I really need to be under the gun. It’s the thing that keeps me motivated and makes the wheels of my brain turn. ... (The editors) don’t usually give me topics to draw about, but people suggest things all the time, and sometimes I’ll even ask somebody what’s going to be the big story tomorrow.
But I don’t work in a vacuum. I maybe get two to four ideas a day, and then I show those to some people here in the newsroom to get their reaction. I need to know if my idea works — just because I think it works doesn’t necessarily mean it will.
When it comes to political cartoons, are you conscious of striking a balance and making fun of both parties or do you let the news dictate the subject matter?
I’m just going with what’s going on in the news and, based on reading and researching, trying to formulate an opinion about what I think about that event. I think with editorial cartooning, the drawing board is just a substitute for the keyboard. Somebody who writes a column, someone who writes opinion, they’re using a keyboard and computer to express their opinion. A cartoonist is doing it with pen and brush.
Having said that, though, I’m not sure that editorial cartooning is really journalism. I think it’s more of an art form than it is journalism simply because what I do doesn’t conform to the rules reporters or columnists have to adhere to. Journalists want to get the facts, they want to quote directly, and they’re trying to search for the truth. It’s not that I’m trying to not use facts or not search for the truth, but a cartoonist has more leeway because he’s drawing a caricature first of all, and a caricature is an exaggeration of the person you’re drawing.
As the campaign season comes to a close, will you miss the circus or welcome the break?
Every four years when there is an election, it is the greatest time for any editorial cartoonist. I’ll hate to see the election cycle end because there is so much information to use for cartoons. The political season always makes my job so much easier. ... There’s so much news about the campaigns, it’s difficult to decide which campaign topic you want to draw about.
What have been your favorite topics or events to draw about this campaign season?
Romney’s gaffes. Some of them were difficult to improve upon. Some were cartoons in and of themselves, so it was difficult to find something to say about it that was funnier than reality.
Who has posed the most challenges for drawing: Obama or Romney?
Romney was easy from the start, but I don’t know why. Somebody once said to me I have Romney hair. So, maybe subconsciously, because I have Romney hair, it’s easier to draw Mitt Romney. Romney is definitely easier, but Obama has better features to work with in drawing caricatures.
When you’re doing caricatures you pick certain features and exaggerate them to make them recognizable or to poke fun. Obama’s ears are a treasure trove, and that’s what I concentrate on when I’m trying to capture his face in caricature. It’s almost gotten to the point where you could just draw his ears and he would be recognizable.
Romney has fewer physical attributes to work with, but for me, he is easier to draw. Over time my perception of the candidate affects how the caricature develops. Over time I’ve begun to draw Obama smaller and smaller. It’s not necessarily conscious, but I’ve noticed it in my work. It’s probably due to my changing attitude toward his performance and ability as president.
Do politicians depicted in your cartoons appreciate your work?
Bill Clinton asked for some of my work, and other politicians have asked for some of my work. It’s kind of interesting, I would say that more of my cartoons are critical of Republicans than Democrats, but it’s always Republicans who call and ask for the cartoons. They seem to have a bigger sense of humor about themselves. But one of my favorite people to caricature was Oscar Goodman. It’s really too bad he’s not mayor anymore. I really had a lot of fun with him, and I think he enjoyed it, too. He has a large sense of humor, and he’s a fan of cartoons.
So, will the results affect you one way or another as a cartoonist, or is it all the same to you?
Depending on who the president is, it will have a large effect on the direction I take in terms of my point of view in the cartoons. I’m probably, on some of the key issues, more in agreement with Obama than Romney. So, if Romney were to become president, there would be more issues I can draw about regarding policies I won’t be as in agreement with as I would be with the president.
That said, there are always things that go wrong and always things that I disagree with regardless of who the president is. There is always fodder for good cartoons.