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Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 08/ 5/2008

The Interview: Political Cartoonist Steve Breen

By Michael Cavna

Steve Breen.

For Sunday's Post piece on political caricature, we talked shop with STEVE BREEN, the San Diego Union-Tribune's Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist. Here's the full interview, in which Breen also shares his thoughts on his artistic idols, reader complaints, and why he thanks the cartooning gods daily for blessing him with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger:

MICHAEL CAVNA: In terms of cartoonists, whom do you admire, and whom were you influenced by?
STEVE BREEN: My favorite caricaturist is Al Hirschfeld. I'm always trying to give my caricatures that streamlined quality -- and I often fall short. I think there are a lot of great caricaturists working today. I like [Mike] Luckovich's loose but dead-on caricatures. And there's something about [Tom] Toles's caricatures that crack me up. He's so smart, but his caricatures have this simple, goofy look, like they're made of Play-Doh. You could see them animated.

Do you have a favorite political person to caricature, past or present?
BREEN: Probably Schwarzenegger. He has a great smile, with his chin and his teeth and his lips all working together. He's got a really goofy, toothy grin, and his head is like an hourglass. It's sort of bulbous, and he's got jowls and that neck and stuff. He's also got defined lips and a thick brow -- but his hair is difficult.
I also liked drawing Bill Clinton. He became so easy to draw by 1999 that I could draw him in my sleep. At first, [my caricature] was too studied and I was thinking about him too much. By the end, it was looser and freer. At the beginning the caricature was kinder and serious, but [after the Lewinsky scandal], you felt like [showing] more disrespect in the caricature was appropriate.

Caricaturing -- is it an inborn talent or a skill painstakingly developed?
BREEN: It came naturally. When I look at someone's face, there's something in my brain that just clicks -- that breaks down their face into the elements that go into a caricature. It might be like the way a chef tastes a dish and can break down into elements what went into it. ..... When I see someone's face, I can always envision it as a caricature. But I still had to study the art of caricature from masters like Hirschfeld and [David] Levine I still feel I have a ways to go.

What are your chosen tools of the trade?
BREEN; I use a quill pen dipped in India ink. I also like Faber-Castell brush pens and Pigma Micron pens. And I work on Duo-Shade board.

When doing a caricature, what's your process?
BREEN: For some reason, photos work best. Video is helpful, too, because the more familiar you are with the subject, the more easily the caricature comes -- until it becomes like drawing your Uncle Frank.
When I'm doing an editorial cartoon and I rough it up, I always like the composition and style of the rough. I love everything about it when I go to do my final version. I just trace the exact composition of the rough -- sometimes when I try to redraw it, it doesn't capture the same energy.

Any cartooning bugaboos when it comes to caricature?
BREEN: Women are more difficult to caricature than men -- partly because beauty is more difficult to caricature. John Edwards is a good-looking man and at first he was tough to draw. Over time, [I could work with] his eyes, which were a bit squinty, and he had a nice head of hair, so I could play. I was a little scared that Edwards would get the nomination. ... If we had our druthers, all politicians would look like [Leonid] Brezhnev. Bring on the ugly!

How's it been, developing your Obama?
BREEN: Obama's a good-looking guy, too, but you study. He has a long, skinny chin. He has heavy eyebrows and lines around his mouth and his lips are a darker pigment. And of course there are his ears, so you can zero in on them.

Size up McCain for us.
BREEN: McCain is a weird animal because he's been around for a while but he's still a bit of a struggle. He's an old, white guy, which should be easy, but he's not. I can't put my finger on it. There's something with his chin and his neck, so you can have fun with that, but he's challenging for some odd reason.

What would make McCain easier?
BREEN: Facial hair is something you can hang your hat on. ... At least you've got the beard. If we could talk McCain into growing a beard, that would be a huge help. And I would want him to dye it black.

Were any of the other candidates a particular fave to draw?
BREEN: Hillary. Something about her overbite lends itself to a good caricature, especially when she smiles. I thought some [cartoonists] got too mean with how hip-py they would draw her and make her look grotesquely fat. I don't like being cruel in my caricatures.

Where's that line between cruel and kind caricature?
BREEN: If Hillary has puffy ankles, I'm going to do the puffy ankles, not give her shapely ankles. But if you're too cruel in a caricature, then it takes away from the message of the cartoon and [readers] will say: "This guy is just out for blood and being a jerk."
It's also either funny or sad that I'm getting complaints on my Obama caricatures. One [reader] said I'm racist because my Obama looked like a sock puppet. Go look at any cartoon by Toles or [Jim] Borgman or Luckovich -- the caricatures are pretty much the same. [The reader] said my caricature is racist because of the big ears. ... I'm as racist as Obama is conservative. It's our duty to go there.

So of the two, whom do you prefer to do?
BREEN: McCain is a little on the boring side, so as a cartoonist, probably Obama -- because I'm getting into his caricature. But no matter who wins, I feel that God has blessed me with a great [California] governor.

Speaking strictly as a cartoonist, whom would you prefer to draw for the next four to eight years?
BREEN: I want Nader to be president. He's the strangest-looking of all of them!

Breen discussing his work at this year's San Diego Comic-Con:

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By Michael Cavna  | August 5, 2008; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists, The Political Cartoon  
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