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Posted at 1:00 PM ET, 12/ 1/2010

Exit Interview: Buyout in hand, Star-Ledger cartoonist DREW SHENEMAN plans a career 'reinvention'

By Michael Cavna

sheneman2.jpg (images courtesy of Drew Sheneman)


Speaking recently at Georgetown University, Mark Fiore reflected on his path from staff newspaper cartoonist to freelance political animator -- a redirected journey that led to his winning the Pulitzer this year. Fiore, 40, said his brass ring had long been a staff perch, yet when he landed the coveted spot about a decade ago at the San Jose Mercury News, he realized that he needed to chart a new, better course to thrive long-term as a cartoonist.

The moral: In his early 30s, he needed to reinvent himself.

Last week, the gifted political cartoonist DREW SHENEMAN accepted a buyout offer and left the Newark Star-Ledger. Although he had been at the paper for more than 12 years, Sheneman is 35 and, like Fiore, needed to smartly survey what his best options were for longer-term professional prosperity.

"The way I feel now is that it's time to start the reinvention process, for better or worse," Sheneman tells Comic Riffs. "I would be more than happy to have editorial cartooning remain a part of my life and career for a good, long time."

Then Sheneman quickly adds, with his signature wit: "Ask me again in a year when the buyout money is gone and I'm waterproofing my parent's basement looking for the perfect spot to put my Xbox."

shenemanmug.jpg

As the number of staff cartooning slots dwindles into the dozens, some younger newspaper cartoonists try to plot career paths well into midcentury when they face the question: When it is time to jump ship and reinvent?

"I was at the Ledger for about 12 1/2 years," says Sheneman, who at 23 became the nation's youngest full-time staff political cartoonist, after winning top collegiate cartooning awards. "They were foolish enough to hire me before I'd even graduated college and ended up being stuck with me for more than a decade. It was difficult leaving the paper, but it felt like now was the time to go."

Sheneman's decision came the same month that Pulitzer winner Matt Davies was pink-slipped by the Journal News (N.Y.) and Pulitzer finalist Marshall Ramsey was reduced to part time by the Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, Miss.). Both Davies and Ramsey are in their 40s.

Sheneman notes that the decision was entirely his. "I wasn't pressured either way to stay or leave," he tells Comic Riffs. "It was completely my decision based on the fact that I didn't feel like I would be able to survive as an editorial cartoonist for the rest of my career. ... It seemed like a good opportunity to move on with the next phase of my career, whatever that might be."

The cartoonist, who says he loved his job at the Star-Ledger, emphasizes that the easiest part of his decision has been the support of his family. And the most difficult aspect?

"The hardest part was making the choice to pull the trigger and start the clock ticking toward unemployment," Sheneman says. "I'm a fancy man. I like things like food and shelter. It's both scary and exhilarating leaving a job you've had for a long time to pursue something new and different. Kind of like the first time you try sushi. You might love it or you might get violently ill."

Sheneman will continue to draw for the Star-Ledger, on a limited freelance basis. "I will continue cartooning," he says. "I'm still syndicated [by Tribune Media Services] and the Ledger was kind enough to offer me the opportunity to draw two local cartoons a week on a freelance basis. That ought to keep me from getting the shakes due to Jersey-politics withdrawal."

He also says that he "will be updating my blog with local cartoons on a weekly basis." Noting how much digital vitriol he'd grown accustomed to from Star-Ledger readers, he quips: "Feel free to drop by and tell me how much you hate me. I probably won't read it anyway."

And beyond that, professionally, what's next for Sheneman?

"Good question. I have all sorts of ideas about things I'd like to do," he says. "The problem is, as always, convincing someone to pay you to do them. I'd love to write and or illustrate a children's book. I'd love to try my hand at film and video-game concept art. You'll notice my fallback careers are more difficult to break into than the Israeli embassy. I might as well add astronaut to the list.

"For the time being, I'll continue drawing editorial cartoons and a bit of freelance writing while I look around for other opportunities. You wouldn't happen to know the head of Pixar, would you?"

Sheneman believes the editorial cartoon, be it animated or static, will continue to be a vital and valid form of satire and commentary -- but he says choosing that field comes with a caveat. "They've been around for hundreds of years and they're not going anywhere. However, with the state of the news business, I think cartoonists will increasingly have to treat editorial cartooning as just one of a few things they have to do to earn a living behind a drawing board. As we move toward a freelance-based economy, doing other things -- commercial art, publishing art, animation, etc. -- will just be par for the course."

And in that freelance-based economy, what advice might Sheneman have for the next generation of satirists hoping to make it as a political cartoonist? As it turns out, four simple words:

"Get a business degree."

sheneman1.jpg


By Michael Cavna  | December 1, 2010; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists, The Political Cartoon  | Tags:  Drew Sheneman, Mark Fiore, Marshall Ramsey, Matt Davies, Newark Star-Ledger  
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