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Posted at 11:45 AM ET, 07/28/2010

From Pekar to Callahan: Why a town's 'favorite son' cartoonist is good for the civic soul

By Michael Cavna


"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 was the advice of the Cincinnati Enquirer's longtime cartooning legend, Jim Borgman, speaking once to Comic Riffs about how the modern newspaper cartoonist might best survive. I'm reminded of Borgman's words today not because of the current state of political cartooning, but rather a side rumination: How vital and fortunate it is that some cities, some towns have an adopted cartoonist to call their own.

Whether you are Portland mourning John Callahan in recent days, or Cleveland missing Harvey Pekar far more than LeBron James in recent weeks, the regional embrace of these two nationally famed cartoonists reminds how much having a cartoonist who has deep local roots and visibility is good for the civic soul.

The political cartoonist and the gag cartoonist and the comic-book writer are all different beasts with differing creative missions, of course. One shared trait, though, is that each can become a consensus touchstone and a source of inspired town pride in a place so often rife with polarizing "official" voices. Through ink, the cartoonist can be a crucial connective glue.

In writing about Callahan this week, Comic Riffs trawled the comments and remembrances of hundreds of proud Oregonians. It was affirming that so many residents warmly recall seeing Callahan whizzing along "NW 21st" or popping into Silver Dollar Pizza or on the campus of PSU. It's no easy feat to become so beloved that when a cartoonist dies, some commenters are moved to write simply: "We've lost a great Portlander. RIP." A man of national renown was always, until the end, their own.

When Pekar died just weeks earlier, the civic outpouring and collective mourning was similar. "What a real and significant loss for this grey city we call home. RIP HP" read a typical Clevelander comment.

Pekar help spark the healthy autobio-comic and graphic novel industry we have today. Yet as daily newspapers and alt-weeklies alike cut many cartoon features -- or it simply becomes less financially viable for some cartoonists to turn to their local paper for a paycheck -- Comic Riffs wonders whether the "favorite son" or "favorite daughter" cartoonist, the fine-line laureate, is becoming an endangered species.

My hope is that the hyper-local comic strip, at least, will prove forever enduring. I recall the San Francisco strip "Farley" and the devoted audience the dearly departed Phil Frank had. When I spoke to Borgman, he, too, fondly remembered "Phil Frank's 'Farley' -- a comic strip just about San Francisco, intimate and uninterested in pontificating to a broad audience."

(In Washington, the Style fixture that was Richard Thompson's "Richard's Poor Almanac" naturally seemed to have a similarly local appeal, though it reached a national audience.)

Yet when stepping back to appreciate Pekar and Callahan, perhaps the truest thing to acknowledge is that both were utter and absolute originals who not only never forgot their civic roots. Rather, these two great cartoonists (and huge music aficionados) also seemed to tap these very roots, directly or indirectly, for strength and inspiration and creative authenticity. They sprang from their respective soil and it seemed to fill their very pens.

When true cartoon bards keep both their panels and civic profile real, the loss and legacy resonates all the greater.

Long live the "favorite son" cartoonist.


By Michael Cavna  | July 28, 2010; 11:45 AM ET
Categories:  The Riffs  | Tags:  Harvey Pekar, Jim Borgman, John Callahan, Phil Frank, Richard Thompson  
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