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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 09/ 9/2008

The Interview: Jim Borgman of 'Zits'

By Michael Cavna

He wins the respect of his peers. He wins the big cartooning awards, including the Pulitzer. And he most certainly keeps winning legions of fans. JIM BORGMAN, who co-creates the comic strip "Zits" with Jerry Scott, has accomplished much in his more than 30 years at the drawing board.

"A month from now, I fully expect to find the Sprite machine where my drawing board has been," says Jim Borgman, who come October will no longer draw full time for the Cincinnati Enquirer. (Mark Lyons)Enlarge Image

This month, though, Borgman will step down from his perch as the daily political cartoonist at the Cincinnati Enquirer (having accepted a voluntary severance package, he'll now create a weekly feature for the paper). His decision can't help but seem symbolic of larger shifts in journalism. We asked Jim to share his thoughts about his decision, his career -- and what the future of "Zits's" Duncan family might hold:

MICHAEL CAVNA: Given your prominence, it sends ripples through journalism and cartooning circles when you announce you're giving up your position as the Enquirer's daily cartoonist. Can you speak to what led to this decision -- why now? And was it a particularly difficult decision, or not?

JIM BORGMAN: The short answer is that a nice buyout was offered to all Enquirer employees as a way of reducing payroll. The deeper answer is that I've been looking around for a way to simplify my life for several years now. When I created "Zits" with my partner, Jerry Scott, 12 years ago, my hours behind the drawing board doubled and the weekends turned into workdays. I love every part of the work, but my body is telling me to go outside and breathe some fresh air. It's time. I've had my say.

MC: Did the Enquirer encourage you to stay, and how did you work out the new weekly arrangement? And might your new work resemble your cartoon "Wonk City," which the Post used to run?

JB: The Enquirer seems to have struggled with my choice, but in the end accepted it gracefully. I like to think I've helped protect the jobs of a few younger reporters who might otherwise face layoffs.

My editor asked if there was some way to continue our association and I came up with the idea of starting a weekly feature for the Sunday edition. I always liked Phil Frank's "Farley" -- a comic strip just about San Francisco, intimate and uninterested in pontificating to a broad audience. I'm picturing something along those lines, about halfway between a political cartoon and a comic strip.

Mike Keefe did something called "Cold Facts Avenue," too -- I've only seen a handful, many years ago. And "Wonk City" (you're the only one who would remember it!) was my attempt to do something like this for Washington, D.C. It was a spoof on inside-the-Beltway punditry featuring one or two ongoing characters, but I came to feel like a fraud because I did it from Cincinnati and never went to Washington at all while I was drawing it!

MC: Do you have any favorite memories from your three decades at the Enquirer? Any favorite controversies or anecdotes?

JB: When our Contemporary Arts Center brought a controversial Robert Mapplethorpe photography show to town in the '90s, the local prosecutor and his henchmen shut it down as pornographic. This was after their big victory chasing Hustler out of town, and they were gaining steam. I did a lot of cartoons on the showdown -- one of which was among my Pulitzer winners -- and I think I played a role in turning public opinion against them. The show eventually reopened.

But mostly, I liked the more day-to-day flow of events. I didn't savor the big moments as much as chronicling the smaller changes, how the news trickles down into everyday lives, how people adjust and cope. That's why that unofficial cast of big doughy characters came to be so prominent in my cartoons -- it was my way of talking about life at ground level.

MC: We greeted the news with a sense of the bittersweet -- you've long been one of the nation's preeminent political cartoonists, so we'll miss your editorial cartoons, but we're also glad you'll continue to create "Zits." How has it been, maintaining that dual responsibiilty for a decade or so?

JB: Mostly they've fit together like peanut butter and jelly. When I had something big to say, I had a platform in my editorial cartoons; and when I've had something closer to home to say, I had a platform in "Zits." Having a place to put every worthwhile idea you have is a beautiful construct, and I would maintain it forever but for the hours it takes to feed both beasts.

That said, I have had so many sweet nights alone in my studio after everyone else has gone to bed. Those few extra hours have made me feel mighty, like a bodybuilder hearing his weights echoing in the empty gym, knowing I was making the most of my gifts. I wouldn't want to have had it any other way.

MC: What's your sense of the landscape for staff political cartoonists now? Will we continue to see staff positions diminish as print journalism shifts? And are you optimistic about the role of political cartoonists, as newspapers try to grow their online offerings?

JB: It feels like the editorial cartoonists' Rapture. I see all of our soft bodies being assumed into the heavens these days. Who could have imagined that our profession would evaporate like this? A cartoonist friend said that newspapers are burning their heirloom furniture to heat the house when they let go of their cartoonists and columnists. We are the brand, we are what make newspapers more than the Information centers they foolishly aspire to morph into. If I just want cold headlines I can find them plenty of other places.

From my seat in a medium-sized newspaper, I can only advise cartoonists to focus their work on their communities as newspapers focus more and more on the local. That's the franchise until the storm passes or until fresh minds figure out how to make the broader artform work again. The human need for graphic satire isn't going away, but the future belongs to the flexible and nimble.

MC: You and Jerry Scott seem to work so well together. Is that working relationship as rewarding as ever? And what might we see from Jeremy and all the Duncans in the days and months ahead?

JB: Our collaboration is seamless, better from the inside even than it looks from the outside. It has a lot to do with respect for each other's talents and a mutual willingness to pull more than our share of the wagon. I contribute more to the writing, and Jerry to the drawing, than any other partnership I've heard of. We each just focus on cracking each other up. "Zits" is an organic whole created by two guys thousands of miles apart who never see each other. Go figure.

MC: What will you miss most about your perch as a daily political cartoonist -- and what won't you miss at all?

JB: I can't yet say what I'll miss. I've probably taken this precious real estate for granted, but I'm a bit weary of the view. I do look forward to reading the newspaper without a highlighter in my hand. Sometimes lately when I watch the news, I feel like a butcher looking at a field of cows. I don't see the animals anymore, just the hamburger. It's a hazard of the profession. That's a good sign that it's time to shake myself off and go do something else for a while.

I won't miss being in the public eye, to the extent that I'm laying that aside. I was always proud to have my work speak loudly, but I hated the spotlight personally. I'll surely miss the newsroom camraderie, and I'll miss that rare feeling of uncorking a great cartoon that I got exactly right.

MC: Will you miss responding to the rest of this presidential campaign? And do you know whether the Enquirer will hire a staff cartoonist to replace you?

JB: Agreed, the timing could be better. I leave Sept. 26 and watch the rest of the campaign from the sidelines. It's just the way it worked out.

It's not my call, of course, but I doubt the Enquirer is in a position to think about hiring anyone for any position for a while. I left a list with my editor of people whose work I like and some local people who could contribute a cartoon on occasion. But a month from now, I fully expect to find the Sprite machine where my drawing board has been.

MC: Any advice to current or future political cartoonists?

JB: It's the advice I've given aspiring cartoonists for a while: Make yourself indispensable. Become such a unique voice, so in tune with your town and its vibe that you become synonymous with the experience of reading your newspaper or visiting its Web site. Forget about syndication for now -- soon that will all belong to [Atlanta's Mike] Luckovich -- and provide what no one else can provide. Talk to your readers about their lives.

By Michael Cavna  | September 9, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists  
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He's the master. Sounds like a nice guy, too. Thanks for this, Mike. And thanks for everything, Jim Borgman!

Posted by: whosis | September 9, 2008 3:20 PM | Report abuse

Zits is a GREAT comic strip! I especially get a major kick out of Pierce, he's my favorite character.

Posted by: Alex | September 9, 2008 3:22 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Borgman, you are among a small handful of the very best political cartoonists of the past 30 years. Thank you for your creativity and smart commentary. But, with all due respect, we have to be realistic that the reason you are well known, the reason your work has reached such a wide audience, the reason you received a Pulitzer Prize is because of your work on national and international issues. Local artists dealing with local topics remain local. Big newspapers are not dying because of a lack of local topics. That's what small newspapers are for. As Norma Desmond said, "I AM big. It's the pictures that got small." Newspapers will survive only by aiming higher. The best we can encourage among current and aspiring cartooning, reporting and editing talent is to aim large, not local.

Posted by: Brendan | September 9, 2008 9:26 PM | Report abuse

Hey, Jim. Best of luck to you. I miss those big doughy characters myself.

(now at Newsday)

Posted by: Anne Michaud | September 11, 2008 4:58 PM | Report abuse

Your Zits series is on the mark but your children must now be grown so give us hope, do they stand straight, stop mumbling and actually think you have something to offer?

Posted by: kathy | September 12, 2008 4:51 PM | Report abuse

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