• Courtesy Joe Fournier
  • Joe Fournier’s cartoons for the Tribune challenge readers to go beyond the surface. “It confuses the hell out of people when I don’t choose a side,” he says.

Joe Fournier is one of two cartoonists who appear regularly on the editorial pages of the Tribune, a newspaper that for a long time had no editorial cartoonist at all. But one reason he’s there is that he works cheap. The other is that he’s good. I like what Fournier does, but it’s hard for me to put my finger on what that is.

Editorial cartoonists of old drew cartoons that wouldn’t confuse a two-year-old. They drew donkeys and labeled them—DEMS. They stuck plutocrats in spats and vests and made them chew on fat cigars. The needy tended to be wide-eyed, emaciated little girls hugging dolls.

Scott Stantis, the Tribune’s number-one cartoonist since 2009, doesn’t draw that way, but he has a job to do: he works off the headlines and makes points that are hard to miss and usually echo what the editorials are saying. He also runs a caption-my-cartoon contest every week and draws a daily comic strip, Prickly City.

Stantis earns his keep at a paper that wasn’t sure it even needed a staff cartoonist—the last one, Jeff MacNelly, won three Pulitzers along the way, but he’d lived in Virginia and hardly ever bothered to draw a Chicago-oriented cartoon. He died back in 2000.

MacNelly was an indulgence—an indulgence the lean, mean Trib of the 2000s had no interest in repeating. I’d write occasional columns on the Tribune’s empty chair, which the cartoonists of America denounced as a disgrace and lamented as the ultimate evidence that no one gave a damn about their profession any longer.

When I started doing those columns, I called Stantis, then at the Birmingham News, because he was president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists and therefore a spokesman for his trade. Stantis had a lot to say and said it clearly: the Tribune needed a cartoonist and needed one now. “My position,” Stantis told me, “is get someone who kicks ass and takes names.”

In fact, the cartoonist the Tribune needed was him. After the paper spent years jerking around a lot of other cartoonists, Stantis eventually got the job.

And then they added Fournier. Fournier, who’s 51 and lives in Oak Park, was making a nice living as a caricaturist, freelancing drawings that Playboy, the Tribune, and other publications commissioned to accompany their stories. About five years ago that work collapsed—all the art directors he knew got fired, he says.

Fournier had to reinvent himself. If he could no longer survive by illustrating other people’s content, then he would originate the content. He tried some fairly elaborate ideas out on the Tribune, including caricatures of political figures that readers could cut out and assemble. But what worked best was simpler. And now that he’s hit his groove at the Tribune, he’s up to three cartoons a week.

Op-Art, which is what his space is called, is drawn as a series of panels, and it registers in a minor key. Fournier doesn’t kick ass, and he doesn’t mind confounding readers who can’t figure out how to respond. A lot of readers, he believes, don’t even try to understand what a cartoon says as long as they can tell whether it leans left or leans right. All they need to know is whether to applaud or dismiss it.

Fournier doesn’t make that easy. When a cartoonist chooses sides “you’re not engaging anyone,” he says. “You’re just appeasing the side you’re committed to. It confuses the hell out of people when I don’t choose a side.”

Last Sunday Fournier drew Barack Obama on the golf course.

Cartoonists who don’t care for Obama like to draw him on the golf course. It’s a lazy way of saying he’s lazy and out of touch. (Here, for example, and here.)

Fournier isn’t one of those cartoonists, and in his drawing Obama’s mind isn’t on his golf game. “What a lousy week,” he’s thinking. “Flesh-eating Ebola, on-again, off-again ceasefires in Gaza, Putin readying troops at the Ukrainian border.

“Ferguson, Mo., coming unglued. And air strikes in Iraq to stop genocide!”

Which brings us to the last panel: Obama, drawn from behind, in silhouette, stares into the sunset. “Shazbot!” he thinks.

It’s a reflection on the trials and tribulations of office—and how often do you see a cartoonist commenting on distraction? It’s also a quiet tribute to Robin Williams.

If you were to ask me what editorial position Fournier is taking on golf or anything else, I couldn’t say. But I know what I like.

Actually, I can say. The cartoon isn’t about golf at all. Fournier set the first version at the White House, but when he turned on the TV and discovered the president was on vacation at Martha’s Vineyard, he thought uh oh and drew it again. The superimposed golf angle simply ratchets up the elusiveness of the message.

“I don’t like those hard landings,” says Fournier, meaning cartoons whose points you’d have to be dead to miss. He likes to “sidle up” to his characters and catch them thinking out loud. “If I do them right the characters kind of exist in people’s minds,” he says. “I kind of like the idea of a piece that only exists in the mind like that. It’s kind of cool.”

It’s an approach that requires a degree of empathy, not the big club that most cartoonists use. A recent cartoon found Secretary of State John Kerry pondering his campaign in the Middle East. “I’ve been working tirelessly,” he broods. “Now I find out that the only thing both sides can agree on is . . .

“Somehow, this is all my fault!”

Last panel:

“Which is a kind of diplomatic victory, I suppose.”

There’s nothing unusual about an op-ed page taking aim at a foreign policy that isn’t working. But we usually find the commentator sneering at its architect as an incompetent boob. Fournier offered a note of compassion. How strange is that?

  • Joe Fournier
  • A Joe Fournier cartoon from January 2011.

Scott Stantis calls Fournier “one of the very best caricaturists in the country.” My question to Stantis was whether Fournier signals a revitalization of cartooning in daily papers. His tone and multipanel format are both unusual—I associate them with the more elaborate and oblique cartooning of alt weeklies—but he’s not out there by his lonesome. Notably, the New York Times, which always took itself too seriously to give anyone the position of staff cartoonist, now has Brian McFadden producing The Strip—more complicated and snarkier than Op-Art—in the Sunday Review section.

Not once have I wondered why the Times was giving me a mere cartoon when it could have offered the deep thoughts of an Ivy League professor in need of a platform. The Strip is fun and the Times gets its value.

So does Bruce Dold, editorial page editor of the Tribune. A few weeks ago when Dold was touting his lively mix of op-ed features to me, Fournier was the one contributor he mentioned by name. He knows what Fournier gives him.

Unfortunately, Stantis doesn’t see much evidence that cartoonists like Fournier and McFadden herald a renaissance. Neither does Jack Ohman of the Sacramento Bee, current president-elect of the AAEC. “My analysis is we’re not dead yet,” says Ohman hopefully, though he counts fewer than 50 full-time editorial cartoonists in the country, half as many as there were ten years ago.

Yet he can point to some major hires by important papers—hires on the order of Stantis by the Tribune five years ago. And he sees cartoonists who used to saunter in late and leave early if they showed up at the office at all now working their patooties off trying to be too useful to be axed. For example, he calls Stantis “a very clever media personality,” what with the caption contest, comic strip, blog, and radio work (and for a while a podcast) he does on the side. And Ohman himself writes editorials and columns and of course draws cartoons, and on Sunday they’re as multi-paneled and intricate as McFadden’s work in the New York Times. He also writes books on fly fishing.

Ohman admires Fournier’s “very distinctive style” and is a little surprised it’s not more widely copied. “What I thought was going to happen in cartooning didn’t really happen,” Ohman says. “I thought the editorial editors around my age would be more open to cartoonists like Joe, or Matt Bors, or Ted Rall, and cartooning would develop along more alternative lines. And I think when this generation came to power they stuck with the more traditional approach.”

That said, the lame old tropes—”eagles and American flags and Uncle Sam”—don’t cut it any longer. Ohman’s audience is older and smarter than it was back in the day when it was bigger, and Ohman says they’re not interested in Uncle Sam. “I do smarter cartoons because I can and they demand it,” he tells me.

Fournier does smarter cartoons in order to make what he calls “a bad living” freelancing for the Tribune. His life’s a patchwork: he also dabbles in animation and fine art, makes some music—”a little of this, a little of that,” he says.

Fournier belongs on somebody’s staff; but then again, so do lots of journalists; who knew how much love there was in the world until we saw journalists keep on doing their work for virtually nothing because they loved it? What might be most appealing about Fournier’s work for the Tribune is its quiet assertion of being exactly what he wanted to draw. The artist is enjoying his license.