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Posted at 12:01 PM ET, 12/ 1/2009

The Salahi Sketch: How a pro cartoonist 'crashes' deadline like an uninvited guest

By Michael Cavna

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:


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.

riffs1.jpg 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.)

riffs2.jpg "Cartoonify." (Cavna)

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.

riffs3.jpg (Cavna)

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.

riffs4.jpg (Cavna)

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.

By Michael Cavna  | 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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Next: 'Riffs Picks: From Tiger's 'Transgressions' to the Salahis' Confessions


Very nice! For me the cartoon was mostly done when you tightened up the wording. The heart of the humor is in the punchline.

Posted by: Ronbo1 | December 1, 2009 12:00 PM | Report abuse

Nice idea, and please keep the word "porous", since it nicely conveys the whole getting-through-the-cracks-in-the-system aspect of the gate-crashing that has made the Salahis' stunt become a genuine news story. And I didn't even notice the Bingo card until you pointed it out - that's a real zinger! Congrats, and I hope to see the finished version on the sports pages soon!

Posted by: seismic-2 | December 1, 2009 12:53 PM | Report abuse

Well done. I am impressed. You certainly captured those eyes. And thank you for the essay.

Posted by: AZrls | December 2, 2009 9:14 AM | Report abuse

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