The Salahi Sketch: How a pro cartoonist 'crashes' deadline like an uninvited guest
If journalism is the first draft of history, then a breaking-news editorial cartoon is, at best, history's first scrawled blueprint. And therein, sometimes, lies a great deal of fun.
While speaking recently at a national high school journalism conference, I was asked how I drew on extreme deadline. The short answer is: Not always well. The artwork can suffer, the craft can crap out and the ideas can get, well, suckier.
That said, the narrow window sometimes sparks a creative adrenalin surge, Plus, after drawing a few hundred cartoons on deadline, you devise shortcuts for doing the best patch-jobs you can under artistic-triage conditions.
So after mulling that conference question, I decided Monday to take the SIXTY-MINUTE CARTOON TEST. Specifically, that involves:
1. Coming up with a topical idea.
2. Sketching some crude composition; and
3. Inking it like the Dickens.
The main reason I share the outcome of this quick-and-dirty drill is to shed a little time-lapse light on some of the split-second decisions a daily cartoonist might be forced to make. And if any aspiring cartoonists can learn from the error of my daze, all's the better. So here we go:
STEP NO. 1:
I give myself a mere 10 minutes to seize on a serviceable idea. On a Monday in Washington, five of the most popular stories are: (1) the alleged White House gate-crashers; (2) the Redskins' latest loss; (3) the alleged gate-crashers; (4) Tiger Woods the tree-crasher; and (5) yes, those blessed alleged gate-crashers, Tareq and Michaele Salahi.
The Tiger Tale is guaranteed a longer shelf life -- plus, all the juiciest details were still just speculation -- so I go with one of the oldest tricks in the Editorial Cartoonists' Playbook: the Mash-Up over the middle. By combining the 'Skins and the Salahis, even a mediocre idea (yeah, I said it) is boosted by the juice of a two-fer.
Roughing it. (Cavna) .
Quickly, I click on the near-iconic pic of the Salahis meeting Obama for two main reasons: (1) This image has an of-the-moment currency that I want to cash in on; and (2) I need to sketch it to discover just what about it has a certain pictorial pulse. My quickie conclusion: The secret lies in Michaele's overeager eyes and her aggressively warm handshake. (The surface artificiality of the peroxide hair also has a certain metaphoric resonance here, I quickly note.)
STEP NO. 2:
Mississippi political cartoonist Marshall Ramsey recently noted the coinage of the term "cartoonify," to "describe" the conversion of features to caricature. Well, I break out a new piece of paper to "cartoonify" this whole scene. It doesn't take long to realize I need to turn the Salahis toward the "camera." And for this to best work as a sight gag, I need Coach Jim Zorn's speech balloon on the left, since most Americans read, and scan images, left to right. The satirical key here, though: How to convey the eagerness -- or "capture the crazy," you might say -- of their interaction.
STEP NO. 3:
Okay, I've got a half-hour to bring this all together somehow. Some snap judgments, hard calls and intuitive rulings must be made:
1. Punch up the wording: "Worried" is sharper than the comically weak "concerned"; do the tighten-up on the verbs; and "these days" adds a certain conversational touch that makes it ring a little more natural.
2. Hone the focus: It's too distracting to see QB Jason Campbell's face; it erroneously shifts the cartoon's focus. So I slap on a helmet to make him more symbolic -- which returns the Salahis as a couple to centerstage.
3. Sharpen the composition: I lightly sketch various "sight lines" to help the elements hang together in loose balance.
STEP NO. 4:
I've got about 15 minutes to render a semi-finished look. This requires speedy tinting and quickie cross-hatching, as well as a 30-second Googling of Zorn's face to sketch in a serviceable from-a-distance caricature. As I fill in gray and black shades, I'm always aware two things must come "forward" in the contrast: (1) the speech balloon; and (2) Michaele's face. All else is secondary at this point.
So there you have it: Like a football game itself, there is 60 minutes of rapid action -- some highlights, some ill-advised decisions under the heat of the rush. Had I even 10 more minutes, I'd clean up and sharpen some lines, as well as the barely legible (illegible?) bingo card and Tareq's questionable medal. Had I even more time, I'd edit out the word "porous" (slows down the wording's rhythm) and perhaps put a polo mallet in Tareq's paw --plus, clean up ALL the lettering.
Then again, that's part of the thrill of the SIxty-Minute Drill: There are flaws in the would-be beauty, and yet "beauty" in the flaws. It's an energetic stab at getting the first draft right -- because in journalism -- as in the NFL -- sometimes the draft is all you have time for.
And it also serves to remind: On deadline, a Mike Luckovich or a Tom Toles can be the Drew Brees or Peyton Manning of the newsroom cartooning world. Which is partly why both guys are bona fide MVPs.
| December 1, 2009; 12:01 PM ET
Categories: The Political Cartoon, The Sketchbook | Tags: Tareq and Michaele Salahi; Jason Campbell; Jim Zorn; Michael Cavna
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