Oliphant Down Under

Posted by on March 3rd, 2010 at 7:04 AM

As I mentioned last time (Monday, March 1), famed editorial cartoonist Pat Oliphant was a special guest at the annual convention of the Australian Cartoonists’ Association last November, and he consented to be interviewed on stage in front of the multitudes. We’ll get to an excerpt or two in a trice.

I first encountered the snowy-haired Oliphant in person during the 2001 Cartoon Art Festival at Ohio State University, where he made a presentation. Born in Australia, Oliphant began his talk by saying, “This is an accent not a speech impediment.”

He prefers to call his work “political cartooning” rather than “editorial cartooning” because, I gathered, the latter suggests a relationship with the editors that may or may not be an accurate reflection of his situation, particularly now since he has no home base newspaper and makes his way entirely through syndication with Universal Press.

He briefly traced his professional career, beginning in 1953 at The News in Adelaide (at the same time that young Rupert Murdoch acquired the paper) and continuing through The Advertiser (a name, he said, that more accurately reflected the paper’s principal concern than his previous billet) and then to the U.S. in 1964 and the Denver Post in Colorado until 1975, when he shifted to the Washington Star and stayed there until the paper folded in 1981.

Before he started political cartooning at The Advertiser in about 1955, his job involved, among other mundane chores, re-touching photographs. He illustrated how he did this by drawing a picture showing two ponderously endowed society matrons in conversation, a tableau that included a third personage, a wholly inconsequential one, who had somehow insinuated herself between the two luminaries at exactly the moment the photograph was snapped. Oliphant’s job, he explained, was to eliminate the inconsequential interloper, and to illustrate his function, he proceeded to tear his drawing, top to bottom, “cutting out” the intrusive nobody.

Holding up the torn fragment with the nobody on it, he said, “I often wondered what she thought when she saw the photograph in the next day’s paper.”

He applied his re-touching skills to photographs of livestock shows, too. The photos depicted prize-winning sheep and chickens and cows, but it was the photos of bulls that were problematical. To illustrate, Oliphant sketched a bull in profile, a perspective that revealed the bull’s ample sexual apparatus in stark outline. “My job,” said Oliphant, pausing dramatically for our laughter as we realized what he was about to do—and then, without saying anything more, he took out a small knife and cut out the offending parts of the bull.

This skill, he said, “stood me in good stead for what I did to politicians later.”

He rejoiced at the freedom he enjoyed at the Denver Post to express his opinions. Opinions were not as welcomed at The Advertiser, which, he explained, was unalterably in favor of good weather and ferociously opposed to bad weather.

It was at The Advertiser that Oliphant introduced his “dingbat,” the tiny penguin (named Punk) that lurks in the corners of his cartoons, usually commenting on the large scale atrocity taking place above him. Oliphant invented Punk so he would have a way of saying something pithy in the cartoon. Although the cartoon itself had to be innocuous in order to get by the editors, the cartoonist found that he could sneak an actual political statement into the proceedings by having the little penguin say it.

Asked who he envisioned as his audience, Oliphant said, “I draw for myself.”

After his talk, I tiptoed up to him and thrust my sketchbook at him; explaining that I’d grown up in Denver and that I signed my cartoons with a diminutive rabbit that suggested “Harvey” thanks to Mary Chase’s play and Jimmy Stewart’s movie of that name, I asked if he’d draw Punk next to my rabbit. He grinned and did so, adding the geographic note (click to enlarge):

And now, a couple excerpts from his interview on stage at the Stanley Awards convention in Australia last November (lifted from the “summer”* issue of ACA’s newsletter, Inkspot):

On O’Bama’s election: “I don’t like changes of administrations because I have all my villains in place, and then they are taken away and replaced with faceless wonders nobody knows. You need villains to get yourself angry.” His favorite villain? “Dubya without a doubt. He was the worst President the U.S. has ever hand. Everything he attempted was a disaster. He was always trying to impress his father.”

Are there any villains he regrets attacking? “Bob Dole. I wish I hadn’t, he’s actually a very nice man. I avoid meeting politicians because I’m liable to end up liking them [which is no way for a political cartoonist to function: “You’ve got to bring yourself to the boil once a day,” Oliphant remarked, “—it’s good for you”]. That’s one reason we moved to Santa Fe: you just don’t know who you’re going to bump into in the street in Washington.”

Does he still feel Australian? Deep down? Said his wife Susan: “He’s well and truly American now. People are surprised to learn he was originally from Australia.”

*That’s the current issue, mate: when it’s winter up here, it’s summer down there.


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