The change became a gift

June 17, 2023

“‘I want to be a cartoonist’ is the weirdest thing an eight-year-old could tell his father at the dinner table. My dad looked at me and said, ‘You’re going to be the best one ever.’ That was the best answer he could have given me.

I grew up in Georgia while Jimmy Carter was running for president. I loved Mad Magazine and politics. I opened the magazine and saw the editorial cartoons of Jimmy Carter with big teeth. I had to do that. I was an awkward kid, and drawing cartoons that made people laugh made me a little cooler until I got big enough to play high school football. 

I went to the University of Tennessee and drew cartoons for the university newspaper. I couldn’t get an editorial cartoonist job out of college, so I became a school janitor at age 23. It was the parable of the talents, and I was burying mine because I was afraid to try. I thought that moment would last forever. But being a janitor was a good job, and I met a teacher who set me up with her daughter, Amy. We have been married for 30 years. 

I was finally hired as a cartoonist in Conroe, Texas, and was nationally syndicated when I was 25. In two years, I went from a school janitor to having cartoons in the New York Times and working for a newspaper in San Diego. I got a call from the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, MS about their cartoonist job. I thought no way, but I sent them a packet anyway. I started at the Clarion-Ledger on December 15, 1996, and expected to be in Mississippi for two years and move to a bigger paper.  I have been here for almost 27.

The first six months of my cartoons at the Clarion-Ledger were a bit tone-deaf. I was a southerner, but I wasn’t from Mississippi. I had to understand the people before I understood the humor. Mississippi has given me great people to cover, and filling the hole in the page of a newspaper with a cartoon was my dream job. Cartoon ideas are my specialty. I may not be the best artist, but the ideas come. I learned the way through writer’s block is to get started. Crappy ideas lead to better ones.

I had a job offer in Tulsa, but Gannett offered me the sun and moon to keep me here, so I stayed. Soon after that, the newspaper industry changed and in 2008, and I began to live in fear as my colleagues were laid off. The Clarion-Ledger cut me to part-time in 2010 – half of my salary and my dream job went kaput. I got a radio show at the SuperTalk station to keep my house.  

The outside praise and validation of being a cartoonist drove me for a long time, so going part-time felt like my identity was taken away. During those nine years, Dad got dementia and Mom struggled at the end of her life. I don’t know how I functioned. My work suffered, and my three sons grew up with me when I wasn’t my best self. 

Suddenly forced to reinvent myself, I juggled new balls in the air. I was bad at it for a long time, but the change became a gift. At the Clarion-Ledger, I didn’t think I could do anything more than draw cartoons. I realized my cartoons aren’t me, they are just one reflection. In 2019, I started working as the editorial cartoonist and Editor-at-large for Mississippi Today, opening a new audience and new skills. I still do the cartoons, but also have a podcast, paint, and write. I am a storyteller developing more ways to listen and share the stories of Mississippi. It’s a miracle I still get to do this. 

I joke that the editorial cartoons are the devil on my shoulder and storytelling is the angel’s side. Helping people share their stories makes up for some of the cartoons. I love listening to the people of Mississippi because they are such good storytellers. 

Mississippi is like an oyster with the grit and the pain that makes a pearl. That pain is poverty, racism, and the difficulties in our faces every day. Artists, writers, and musicians use that pain to create pearls. Mississippi is a paradise for creative people.

My cartoons come from legitimate feelings, or they wouldn’t work. I get what people are feeling because I have been there, too. I had the most beautiful, talented, wonderful mom who was also troubled with demons playing around in her head. As a child, I thought it was my fault when she had problems. I walked on eggshells because one minute she’d be a supermom, but the next she would be as scary as hell. Therapy helped to talk through the trauma and understand what makes me tick. I realize that reading my mom developed my superpower of reading the room and someone’s mood. This also allows me to make one and one equal three, shaping me into a good cartoonist. 

I found out on April 17, 2001, the day of the Mississippi flag referendum, that I had malignant melanoma. Two days later, a big chunk of my back was removed. Three doctors had missed it, so I was lucky someone finally caught it. It’s fun when your skin tries to kill you, and I was anxious for a year after that. Twenty years later, I had spinal surgery and still have metal in my back. I started walking in the hospital and now get up at 4 a.m. every morning to walk four miles. It’s a therapy walk that strengthens my back and mind.

The fallout from the pandemic, back surgery, and the political climate was a difficult time, but health crises and job changes taught me how to have humor and empathy in difficult times. This comes out in the cartoons about hurricanes, tornadoes, and traumatic events. 

My faith has become a verb, not just a noun. I grew up a Reagan Republican, and I still believe in pulling yourself up by the bootstraps. I also realize that some folks don’t have bootstraps or boots.

Ted Lasso was one of my favorite TV shows because it was about working through childhood trauma – it summed up and answered the angst in my life. Ted Lasso created a safe space for change to happen and showed that one flawed, struggling person can make a difference in the lives of others. 

During the second season, things weren’t going well for the team, and one of Ted’s biggest critics said ‘If my father had frozen up on D-Day, we’d be speaking German.’ Then he told Ted, ‘Do the work pal. You’ll be alright’ That message to ‘just do the work’ was meant for me. 

Writing, drawing, and painting are my ways of describing what I see in my head. Helping create safe spaces for change is the path to a better future. I want my art to be a part of that.”




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