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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 06/ 5/2009

The Interview: 'Mallard Fillmore' Creator Bruce Tinsley

By Michael Cavna

Bruce Tinsley (Courtesy of King Features Syndicate)

BRUCE TINSLEY, ironically, had no designs on becoming a comic-strip artist.

Nearly two decades ago, he was a political cartoonist, a practioner of the single-panel, non-continuity ever-topical format at the Charlottesville Daily Progress. Suddenly, though, an aquatic mascot that he created for the newspaper's entertainment section morphed into a right-wing political character. The Washington Times became interested. Then King Features Syndicate became very interested.

Fifteen years later, "Mallard Fillmore" celebrates its anniversary tomorrow. The liberal-bashing duck now inhabits at least 400 newspapers. And like nearly everything else about the oft-inflammatory "Mallard," that estimate may be conservative.

On its site, King Features has posted a retrospective, featuring some of the more controversial strips. Comic Riffs recently caught up with Tinsley to talk political correctness, the state of America's funnypages and whether "B.C.'s" Johnny Hart or "Li'l Abner's" Al Capp was the most conservative cartoonist ever to find mass comic-page popularity.


MICHAEL CAVNA: So, Bruce, true story about the whims of this business. About 1993, I submitted a strip to King Features in which a koala character was a reporter surrounded by humans. King Features told me: There's no need for your reporter to be an animal. About a half-year later or so, King launches your strip, with a duck as a reporter. Go figure.

BRUCE TINSLEY: [Laughs.] The funny thing is, I really wanted to change Mallard to a person. "Mallard" was in the Washington Times for a year or so; I was in the period when they have right of first refusal, and I wanted to get Mallard changed to a person. That would have provided for more facial expressions, because Mallard only has about two. But [former King Features comics editor] Jay Kennedy said people already knew Mallard as a duck. ...

Also, I begged and pleaded with Jay to let me do an editorial cartoon. He said: We've got three Pulitzer winners on staff and we can't give their cartoons away. ... This comic strip thing was an accident. [Jay] said readers want a continuing character to identify with. But I've never been comfortable with the comic strip medium. "Mallard" is often just a short and really wide editorial cartoon.

MC: I know Jay died tragically young a few years back. What was he like?

BT: Jay was, in my experience, one of those rare liberals who recognized that there are, and were, more liberal voices than conservative ones in the media -- in cartooning, in particular. For him, it was purely a business decision. Jay, by the by, was so liberal that he actually used to tell me with pride ... about when he was a little child at Hyde Park and his mom pushed him to the front of the crowd and he was patted on the head by Eleanor Roosevelt. Anyway, he saw my strip and contacted me about syndicating it. And that was ironic because I'd pursued syndication with editorial cartoons for years. He realized there was an imbalance out there.

MC: So did that work okay -- a conservative like yourself having such a liberal editor?

BT: It was great. Jay and I used to talk for hours. I've always surrounded myself -- not on purpose, I don't think -- with liberals. My wife, Arlette, is liberal. She's an attorney here [near Indianapolis] on a human rights commission. [We talk politics], but I don't think either of us has convinced the other of anything. But it keeps me sharp. She gives me lots of good ideas.

MC: Your strip angers many non-conservatives. Does reading your strip ever anger your wife?

BT: If she has a bad day at work, she'll defer reading the strip for that day -- or that week. She says: "I'll get too upset." All the time, she says: "I can't believe you drew or wrote that." My new Sotomayor cartoon has just infuriated her. ... My son, who's 11, is conservative, but my daughter, who's 9, is more liberal, so my wife feels like she has some support.

MC: Are there any other political cartoonists whose work you admire, regardless of ideology?

BT: Of course, I loved [Jeff] MacNelly's work. And I've been really struck by the work of Lisa Benson -- particularly her ideas. ... But Bob Gorrell and Dick Wright are two who really stand out. They would do things that nobody else would do. Now, they were among the few conservative cartoonists, which goes along with my idea that liberals have had control of the cultural status quo for 30 to 40 years.

MC: Johnny Hart often invoked politics and religion in "B.C.," of course. What did you think of that?

BT: I was awed by it. And applauded it. I met him shortly after my strip was launched [in the mid-'90s] at the Reubens in Boca. Along with Al Capp, he's my hero as far as comics are concerned. I also remember how kind of outrageous and off-the-wall Johnny Hart was. He could do straight funny stuff and conservative funny stuff. ... He would do talking clams. He was as outrageous as Gary Larson was [later]. I think he was a genius. ...

By the way, I run into the same [issues] when I want to do a particular cartoon that's religious or affirms the existence of God. ... But my mail, when I do a religious strip, is overwhelmingly positive. It's an example of how far apart the mainstream media and the culture are in general.


MC: "Doonesbury" came under fire this week from the Anti-Defamation League, which contended that last Sunday's strip maligned Judaism. Can you speak to that, given that you've drawn your share of charges over the years that this "Mallard" strip or that one was anti-Semitic?

BT: I didn't see the cartoon in question, but I have no reason to think [Garry] Trudeau was being anti-Semitic. And you're right: Once, for example, I was accused on "The Colbert Report" of being anti-Semitic. ... I think one thing that people who aren't very smart have learned is that calling someone a racist or a sexist or a homophobe, in the latter 20th century and early 21st, is the equivalent of what I heard calling someone in the '50s a "communist" was like. You have to prove you were innocent -- there's no way to prove that you weren't [guilty]. ... That doesn't mean there aren't genuine instances of racism, or sexism, but they're trivializing the real [instances] by belittling what a true instance is. It's become the new communism -- people have abused it to [deleterious effect].

MC: So what was the Colbert incident, exactly?

BT: He was going after a caricature I drew of Jon Stewart. Apparently [Colbert] thought it was an anti-Semitic caricature. Honestly, I didn't even know he was Jewish. This was after his "America: The Book" [satirized my work]. Now, a guy who changes his name to Jon Stewart from [Jon Stuart Leibowitz] -- now that's the real issue.


MC: You do a number of less-than-flattering caricatures of popular figures in your work. Do you have favorite people to caricature?

BT: I try to work Bono into cartoons even when he has no business being there. Al Sharpton is one of my favorites. I'll miss Bill Clinton. Forever. ... Now, Joe Biden is really hard for me to draw. I'm as upset with Obama for picking Biden as anything else he's done. I just can't draw him.

MC: You say you think liberals control the media and much of culture. What about the perches of a Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity -- do you think they have an impact?

BT: They're doing a great job. But it's really funny that a lot of liberals are upset about Limbaugh and Fox News. We're still on the outside looking in. ... And talk radio is limited by the nature of the medium.

MC: So as a political cartoonist yourself, in effect, do you prefer when a Democrat or Republican in the White House?

BT: I hate to say it, but when the president is a Democrat, especially a liberal Democrat,
It's a lot more fun. Usually my numbers go up, too -- my circulation. It's unfortunate, though, that readers focus on who's president [and not] Congress. ... But I am resigned to the fact that I'll never have another Clinton, especially with his supporting cast.

By Michael Cavna  | June 5, 2009; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists, The Political Cartoon  
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Liberalism's many foibles beg for clever satire and caricature, but Tinsley offers everything besides that. His cartoons have hackneyed and shallow ideas, and often he can do no better than wallop straw men, such as supposedly lazy federal employees (a group I don't belong to).

Posted by: Alex7171 | June 6, 2009 9:45 AM | Report abuse

Good article. As a Libertarian, I don't always agree with Mallard, but I ALWAYS read the strip (in the Ft. Myers News-Press). It's right next to Doonesbury and provides the other side of the coin.

Posted by: larrybush | June 7, 2009 5:44 AM | Report abuse

"I wanted to get Mallard changed to a person. That would have provided for more facial expressions, because Mallard only has about two."

Yes, Mallard only has two. After all, who could possibly draw a variety of facial expressions on a duck.

-- MrJM

Posted by: MrJM | June 8, 2009 2:36 PM | Report abuse

i am a liberal and enjoy reading mallard this comic cracks me up and is better than pricickly city

Posted by: mikecrachiolo1 | June 10, 2009 5:03 PM | Report abuse

Bruce--Thank you for your kind words about my brother Jay. He thoroughly enjoyed his conversations with you, and was a great conversationalist with a keen, inquisitive intellect. In addition to yourself, he also broke ground by syndicating women and African-American cartoonists, both out of a good business sense and a sense of the potential of comics. He loved cartoons as an art form accessible to all people - an art form that is multi-leveled and yet capable of being appreciated at whatever level one chooses. Should I add that he was a lover of the 60s counterculture (though not of it, being slightly too young)? I see his support of you and your strip, however ironic it may appear to some, to be in harmony with the artistic freedom sought,expressed and nurtured at that time period in our history. Best wishes.

Posted by: brucekennedy | June 10, 2009 6:09 PM | Report abuse

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