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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 08/ 8/2008

The Interview: Political Cartoonist Mike Luckovich

By Michael Cavna

Mike Luckovich: "If Obama wins, he's going to be difficult. Maybe he'll have an idiot vice president."

Politically speaking, this year has given much. From "Saturday Night Live" debate sketches to New Yorker magazine's controversial cover, political humorists have reveled in the stories and subplots of this spirited campaign. Everyone from late-night standups to literary satirists to the JibJab guys are getting in their licks. (And speaking of: If you'll be in Washington tomorrow afternoon, check out the DC Comedy Fest's "Politics Is Funny" panel, where we'll be surrounded onstage by some top-flight satirical talent.)

Then there are the nation's political cartoonists -- the artists who day-in day-out mine the headlines for visual material. Some of them -- including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's MIKE LUCKOVICH -- say 2008 has brought an embarrassment of riches. For Sunday's Style&Arts piece on political caricature, we talked shop with the Pulitzer-winning Luckovich. In this fuller interview, we also discuss summer jobs, excellence through rejection and why Bush is the perfect president to caricature.

MICHAEL CAVNA: Does caricaturing come easily to you?
MIKE LUCKOVICH: Yes, it always has. My dad worked for Atlantic Richfield and was transferred around the Northwest, so I would draw a caricature of each new teacher and have 30 new friends. Even in fifth and sixth grade, I knew how to get a likeness. I knew how to look at a face. It's a series of measurements: sizing up the bottom of the nose, ..... the top of the lip. I was always good at that.

So did you continue to caricature through school?
LUCKOVICH: Yeah, even while I went to the University of Washington. I needed a summer job in the early '80s. ... I got a job at the Seattle Center, near the Space Needle. I set up a booth and did caricatures. It was quick and was able to pay for college.

What are your preferred tools of the trade?
LUCKOVICH: I use tiny-tipped Copic pens and permanent ink and Faber-Castell artist pens. And I use Bristol board -- I quit using Duo-Shade board just recently.

So what's your workday like?
LUCKOVICH:Basically, I fart around all day till around 3 o'clock and then start coming up with ideas. I show around the first ideas I come up with and go through [a process of] rejection. I thrive on the rejection from my editors. Some people don't like that, but it pushes me. Then I wait till 5 to draw the final cartoon. And I don't pencil anything in first.

So what's your process for capturing a caricature?
LUCKOVICH: I go to Google Images and try to find the sort of angle that will fit my cartoon. I draw the caricature based on that photo. And I don't pencil anything in -- having no time really focuses me. I also go to Technorati and get video of the person talking, so you can understand how the face is working.

Size up McCain for us, if you would.
LUCKOVICH: McCain has a smallish nose around his nostrils -- it's a short nose that widens going up into his eyes. It's interesting, because his eyes are kind of far apart, and he's got some weird cheekbones -- they're not symmetrical. The one on his right is more bloated and goes right into his neck. And his bottom teeth are very pronounced. I'm starting to understand his face. ..... It's like messing around with a Rubik's Cube.

And what about drawing Obama?
LUCKOVICH: He's got a long, skinny face and a big smile. His eyes are expressive -- he's got a very pleasing face, and you're drawn to it. And he's a good-looking guy. Some people say, "If a person's good-looking, they must be hard to draw," but I can capture his likeness pretty easily. He's got the long face and the big ears.

And what about drawing their bodies? How do you see them?
LUCKOVICH: McCain is short and sort of barrel-shaped. ... Obama is lanky and the thing is, he's loose. He flows and he's got a nice cut to his frame. It's good because he's very slender and you can capture that. You wouldn't make him too rigid.

So what characteristics make up the political cartoonist's dream?
LUCKOVICH: You want someone who's a bumbling idiot to be a president. And Obama's not bumbling.

What did you think, by the way, of the recent New Yorker cover depicting the Obamas? Did the satire work for you?
LUCKOVICH: The New Yorker cover didn't work to me. They took the untruths about the Obamas without the twist -- it missed a step. In order for satire to work, there's got to be a twist. I've talked about this with my cartoonist friends and we're all in agreement over this. That's why it generated so much controversy.

Now, if they had drawn the 'hand' of a Republican elephant in the corner, as if a Republican were the cartoonist, there [would have been a twist]. Maybe they tried that or something else and it was too clunky, so they said, 'Well, let's just go with this.'

Now the Vanity Fair cover doesn't work, too. McCain is [drawn as] sort of old and Cindy has the pills, but there's no twist there, either. The Obama cover wasn't over-the-top enough. It just took those untruths and depicted them. Part of the problem they had was that so many of those rumors are so over-the-top. How do you make something absurd even more absurd?

Are there any other candidates you particularly enjoyed drawing this year?
LUCKOVICH: I liked drawing Hillary. She's got a slight overbite, and she's got that helmet-hair, and she has big cheeks. I always worked hard to capture her look. She was very expressive.

When you're caricaturing, is there anything that's just too cruel? Anything you won't do?
LUCKOVICH: Sure. Hillary has these wide hips, for instance, but I never drew Hillary in a disrespectful way.

Speaking as a cartoonist and not as a voter, whom would you prefer in office?
LUCKOVICH: McCain, of course. You watch him give a speech, and it's incredible because he's so bad at the teleprompter, and he's got that goofy smile. ..... And these gaffes are occurring often. ..... If Obama wins, he's going to be difficult. Maybe he'll have an idiot vice president. The family is so friggin' normal -- how can I mock them? ...
After Bush, it's going to be so difficult. What I like about Dubya is that he takes himself so seriously. You can tell by his body language, the way he holds his arms like a gunslinger. He's just so insecure. He can never admit it. For a cartoonist, this is the perfect politician.

By Michael Cavna  | August 8, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists, The Political Cartoon  
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