A new magazine arrived in the mail a few days ago that suited us perfectly. On the cover of volume one, number one of Bull’s Eye, “the magazine of editorial cartooning,” was a drawing done in 1920 by Daniel Fitzpatrick (Pulitzers in 1926 and 1955), the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch cartoonist we grew up with (a few decades later). Inside were several dozen of the best recent editorial cartoons from around the country, some curious World War II cartoons drawn by Saul Steinberg for the Office of Strategic Services, and an interview with Tom Toles, our (by far) favorite young cartoonist.
We called the publisher, Mitch Berger, in Lynbrook, New York, and asked him how this happened. Berger, who’s 32, said he’d grown up on DC and Marvel comics and Mad magazine and “was always fascinated by editorial cartoons.” A few years ago, his cartooning friend Robert Crumb sent him an old copy of Cartoons Magazine, which early in this century was the sort of review that Bull’s Eye intends to be now.
“When I saw that, it electrified me, but I had to forestall the dream to get through law school,” Berger said. Then he felt obliged to do some honest work. But a recent budget cut cost him his job with the District of Columbia’s Department of Consumer Affairs, and Berger decided the hour had come. Moving back in with his parents, he sent out letters last March to a hundred cartoonists asking for their best material. Back came about 60 batches of drawings. He was off and running.
“And there’s plenty more that I was unable to contact or didn’t respond to me who do equally fine stuff,” Berger said. “It’s amazing what’s going on out there. . . . There are so many people doing such tremendous stuff, and the fact it winds up as liner in a bird cage is disturbing.”
We asked Berger to account for such a bounty. He cited Mad’s infectious influence on his generation, and added the example of the “seminal” and “consistently satirical” Pat Oliphant (Pulitzer in 1967), who demonstrated, Berger told us, that editorial cartooning can be hilarious.
Berger sent five copies of Bull’s Eye to each of about a thousand comic-book stores, bookstores, and “specialty newsstands” along with postage-paid postcards asking the dealers if they liked the magazine enough to order it. The response, he said, is running eight or nine to one in favor. (The last time we checked, Larry’s on West Devon had a couple of copies left.)
Berger said the first issue set him back about $10,000. Number two will appear in September, and after that Bull’s Eye will appear every month. “It’ll probably take us six or seven months to crawl out of the hole. If the response I have from readers is indicative of how successful the magazine will be, we’ll be in the black in less than a year.” He said he thinks the market can support a circulation of 30,000.
One of the things we like most about Bull’s Eye is its sense of history. “I just came to an agreement with the New York Times,” Berger said. “The next issue is going to feature Edwin Marcus, the last editorial cartoonist of the Times. He retired in 1960. He started in 1910. He did some stuff in the 40s that was way ahead of his time in terms of the graphic devices he used. It just knocks your eyes out.”
We called Tom Toles. A Toles cartoon–he often appears in the Sun-Times–is immediately identifiable by its scrunched-up panels and dialogue balloons. And by its brainy, derisive wit. Toles’s Ronald Reagan is a lethal airhead.
“What interests me about political cartoons is not the cartoons, it’s the subject,” Toles told us from his office at the Buffalo News. “I have not seen a strong run of really good writing on the subject ever. Really perceptive writing. [The field] is changing so fast.”
How? we said.
“I’ll give you a completely self-serving answer,” said Toles. “I think the era of high-humor, low-politics content is sort of waning. We’ve been so flooded with gag cartoons they’ve run their course. I like to think I’m out on the leading edge of where cartoons are going. I might be all wrong on that. But if I’m not leading a trend I’m leading a one-man parade in that direction.”
Toles agrees with Berger that Oliphant was “the guy who made the break in style”–the cartoonist who started the big-gag trend that Toles is bucking. He also thinks that Jeff MacNelly (Pulitzers in 1972, ’78, and ’85), who now draws for the Chicago Tribune, took it one step further. “Therefore he has more imitators,” Toles said. (But “I don’t want to imply MacNelly is content-devoid, because he isn’t. His content is so subtle that some imitators may have missed the subtlety.”)
Toles told us he already sees too many editorial cartoons; he doesn’t need Bull’s Eye to keep up with his peers and he’s not sure he’ll buy it. Mitch Berger described the type of person he hopes will. “I’m looking for the person who grew up reading Mad and maybe the National Lampoon and maybe outgrew Mad and likes satire and visual cartoons and wants to see more of it,” Berger said.
And you find this type of grown-up in a comic-book store? “Surveys show a third of comic-book readers are over the age of 20 and 15 percent are over 25,” Berger said. “The average comic-book reader today is 18 or 19 years old.”
Every so often editor Jim Squires plays 52-pickup over at the Tribune and a lot of people land in curious new jobs. It’s happening again, and while there is the usual large portion of fear and loathing, some of the scrambled cards are pretty happy.
One of them is Bruce Buursma, the religion writer who was just moved at his own request to sports (where next week Dick Leslie, now associate managing editor for news, takes over as editor). Buursma tells us he’ll still be covering rituals, sacraments, and devotions. “The cheerleaders perform a kind of vestal virgin role,” he points out. Another new face in sports will be making an even more remarkable leap. After the ’88 elections are over, Washington correspondent Jon Margolis is coming back to Chicago to write a sports column.
“The whole thing was entirely my decision,” Margolis told us. “I initiated the idea more than a year ago that this was going to be the last campaign I covered, and for a while the editors wouldn’t believe me. They said you’re a junkie, you’ll do it forever. And I said I’m a junkie but I’ll be 48 years old when the election’s over.”
Margolis knows he’s doing things backward. The classic career–James Reston’s, for example–starts out in sports and moves relentlessly toward the thin air of Washington eminence. “Somebody said to me, there are only three important subcultures in this country–politics, movies , and sports,” Margolis explained. “You’ve done one–now you’ll do another. I sort of have that attitude toward it.”
This is Margolis’s fourth presidential campaign. “You want to quit doing something you love the last time you love it rather than the first time you don’t,” he said. “Another reason I decided to do this, as opposed to other options I had, was it seemed like the most fun. My wife said if I don’t do it I’ll look back in 15 years and wish I had. Also, this is the one I’m not sure I can do well.”
We asked him if he expects the company of athletes to measure up to the company of politicians.
“It’ll be a different kind of egomania, I suspect,” Margolis reflected.
A Writer, Not a Lover
“Some write biographies,” wrote Leon Edel, “because they have fallen in love with their subjects.” We asked Carol Felsenthal if she is one of these. “I enjoyed Alice and I found her amusing,” said Felsenthal, a Chicago writer, whose Alice Roosevelt Longworth hit the bookstores a few weeks ago. “And I admired her intelligence and photographic memory and creativity and wit.”
“But there were too many ugly incidents in her life. So I didn’t love her. In the 40s and 50s I found her particularly hard to take. In the 60s and 70s she somewhat redeemed herself in my opinion. . . . I admired the way she handled her old-ladyhood.”
Felsenthal’s three years of research and writing do sort of sound like marriage, though: the desperate hours, when you wonder what you ever saw in such a deadbeat, followed by a fresh dose of the old charm. “I sometimes panicked,” she said, “and thought, who’s going to care about reading this book? In the end she didn’t do anything! But then I’d get absorbed again. For a compulsive sort of researcher like me there’s a certain pleasure in knowing so much about a person, in ferreting out details and adding to the picture.”
Alice Roosevelt Longworth led a sensational, wicked, and endless life–Washington’s reigning hostess was 96 when she finally died in her gloomy house, to which presidents had scampered for tea as eagerly as puppies. Felsenthal’s biography has already been optioned out to a TV producer, and it looks like a natural. We can see Stacy Keach as Alice’s father, Teddy Roosevelt; and there would be juicy roles in–among many, many others–her half-brother Teddy Jr., who was supposed to inherit his father’s mantle but wasn’t worth a damn as a politician; her cousins Franklin and Eleanor, in her mind a twit and a drudge, respectively; her rummy husband, Nick Longworth; Senator William Borah, the probable father of her only child; Paula, the child, whom she drove to suicide at the age of 31; and her son-in-law’s buddy Putzi Hanfstaengl, who once saved Adolf Hitler’s life and was the apple of the fuhrer’s eye.
It sure sounds like a docudrama to us, we told Felsenthal. And we asked about her new project. She’s wrapping up a profile of Jim Thompson for Chicago magazine.
Were you in love this time? we wondered.
“No,” she said.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Susan Grayson.