Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Joel Pett entertained the Morning Forum of Los Altos audience Nov. 7 with a humorous presentation on “Real Cartoons in the Age of Fake News.”
Pett’s cartoons have appeared in hundreds of magazines and newspapers worldwide, including Time, The New York Times, The Times of London and the Sierra Club’s magazine. He has shared his provocative humor on NPR’s “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.”
The staff cartoonist for the Kentucky-based Lexington Herald-Leader, Pett said his job requires “having lots of ideas” and admitted that many of his ideas are bad. But, he added, “I just need one good one a day.”
To get those ideas, he said he needs “to watch lots of news – not good.”
Pett explained that political cartoonists depend on symbols, for example, the elephant, the donkey and the light bulb. To successfully draw public figures, cartoonists rely on strong physical characteristics.
To demonstrate how these features result in recognizable portrayals, he drew all of the presidents from Richard Nixon on, starting with a key feature – Nixon’s and Bill Clinton’s noses and Ronald Reagan’s pompadour.
As a Kentuckian, Pett started drawing U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell earlier than any other cartoonist, focusing on what he called “his vaguely constipated look.”
According to Pett, the role of political cartoons is “not to be funny, but to be provoking.” He pointed out that much of the humor found in newspapers is unintended and usually the result of poor or no copy editing.
Among Pett’s favorites are a headline remembering “Iowa Jima,” an ad for “Pot Tarts” and an item reporting that someone was wanted for “heroine trafficking.”
Pett shared a number of his favorite political cartoons as well as many of his own. Of the more than 7,000 he has created, the most successful appeared in USA Today right before the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference. The cartoon, pictured above, became a favorite at the conference, and requests to reprint it have come from individuals and organizations all over the world.
Pett was first inspired to become a cartoonist by Herbert Block’s editorial cartoons, which appeared in most major newspapers in the 1950s and ’60s. He put his talents to use when he became bored in school.
“I drew my teachers,” he said. “Of course, my mother thought I was wasting my time and disapproved of me poking fun at people through my drawings.”
To illustrate how he passed his time in class, Pett summoned Tim Farrell, Morning Forum vice president, from the audience. Within a minute or two, Pett created a caricature of the retired Gunn High School English teacher.
Unfortunately, Pett said, cartoonists, like copy editors, are “becoming dinosaurs,” victims of newspapers’ need to cut costs in the face of dwindling readership.
“Editors just don’t value us,” he said. “Some are irony challenged.”
Like many artists, Pett has mixed feelings about how technology has affected his profession.
While social-media outlets enable cartoons to spread virally and reach a larger audience than ever, as happened with his iconic climate change cartoon, he noted that “no one gets paid when that happens.”
Pett said many of the best political cartoons inspire hate mail and even demands that the paper fire the cartoonist. But in many countries, cartoonists risk far more than irate letters: they “get beat up, disappeared or killed,” he said, as was a Syrian cartoonist who used his art to criticize Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Knowing the dangers political cartoonists face in dictatorships, Pett concluded, makes him “grateful for the liberties we have in the U.S.”
The Morning Forum of Los Altos is a members-only lecture series that meets at Los Altos United Methodist Church, 655 Magdalena Ave. Subscriptions are open to new members. For more information, visit morningforum.org.