Cartoonist Draws a Following

Published Friday, Sept. 28, 2007 in The Register-Guard.

The first time I met Jesse Springer, he struck me as too tall to be an editorial cartoonist. Today he’s in Washington, D.C., lunching with the best editorial cartoonist in the nation, Tom Toles. Jesse has Lane County residents and regular readers of The Register-Guard to thank.

Editorial cartooning is an aggressive hobby. It appeals to men — and it is mostly men — who lack the stature to play sports. Instead, they lampoon the powerful with a pen. Editorial cartoonists I have met are usually small, and when they’re not, they look small — slouching or stooping become the defensive posture of a person working too hard for too little. Being small made them a cartoonist or being a cartoonist made them smaller.

Editorial cartooning can only be described as thankless. Readers refer to cartoonists only when they’re angry. The nation has fewer full-time editorial cartoonists than major league baseball has starting pitchers.

Jesse knows this. Yet he soldiers on.

Jesse walks tall, always has. He’s affable, confident, easy to like. He’s raising his two children with his wife Julie in an updated bungalow in south Eugene. His art doesn’t make him suffer — much.

We first met over lunch at Adam’s Place in early 1996. I was assembling local talent to improve the Comic News. For many years after that first meeting, my work week would begin with a fax from Jesse, followed by a phone call. We’d look together at his four rough sketches, discuss local news and politics, tweak the concept or design, then choose one cartoon to be finished and published in the Comic News under the moniker “Eugenius.”

Several years ago, The Register-Guard recognized Jesse’s talent and persistence. He’s now published regularly here and in a dozen papers across Oregon.

Jesse has had 600 cartoons published in 25 different newspapers, some as far away as The Daily Oklahoman. He’s had cartoons featured in “Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year” (Pelican Press) for each of the last three years. But it’s still a hobby. He hasn’t quit his day job yet.

Meanwhile, a bunch of pinheads got to thinking about how their being smart was actually working against them. The Union of Concerned Scientists wanted to get others concerned about the bad things that can and do happen when politics and science meet. They wanted to reach people who wouldn’t know the difference between a slide-rule and a fly-swatter.

So they put out a nationwide call to editorial cartoonists to make their case. All 400 entries they attracted were reviewed by an expert panel that included Washington Post cartoonist Tom Toles and Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau, culling the best dozen cartoons. Taking another page from popular culture, the scientists decided to let people vote on-line. They also gave the contest its oxymoronic title: “Science Idol.”

Unfortunately, the scientists miscalculated. “Science Idol” chose not the twelve best cartoonists, but the twelve best cartoons. Jesse had the misfortune of scoring three of the final cartoons. His fans would split their votes between his three cartoons.

Jesse faced a cartoonist’s Sophie’s Choice. He picked the one cartoon he thought should win. He chose “Number 10,” portraying the White House as a mock-microscope. He sent e-mails to his friends, asking them to vote for Number 10. He posted these instructions on his Website. Register-Guard reporter Mark Baker helped Jesse get the word out with a news article. Euphoria Chocolate owner Bob Bury lent a hand in a letter to the editor.

Readers responded. They voted, but not for the cartoon Jesse chose. Number 10 came in second. Amazingly, another cartoon drawn by Jesse came in first. (His third best cartoon did well too, drawing over a thousand votes.)

Truthiness

As it happened, two on-line voting contests with local aspirants were happening at the same time. While Springfield and Mayor Sid Leiken were struggling to wrest the coveted opening for “The Simpsons Movie” from Springfield, Vermont (population 9,300), Eugene and Jesse were quietly lapping the field in “Science Idol.”

For once, the embarrassment of riches that Eugene offers when it comes to opinions didn’t embarrass. It was only rich.

So today Jesse is having a power lunch in another town known for putting strong opinions where agreements ought to be. He and Toles will swap stories about controversies that give them grist for their mill. I’m sure they’ll agree on one thing. It takes a village to raise an editorial cartoonist.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) owned Comic News from 1995 until 2005. Before that, he was a copy editor for the Pasadena Star-News. Readers may review and comment on past and future columns at his blog, right here.