Eric Millikin: Talking lifestyles of the semi-retired editorial cartoonist with Larry Wright

Posted by on January 13th, 2010 at 1:01 AM

On Christmas Day, 2009, conservative political cartoonist Larry Wright ended his long career as an editorial cartoonist with The Detroit News. His last cartoon for them? Santa Claus standing in the unemployment line.

Among his accolades while at The News, Wright had won the National Cartoonists Society’s Reuben Award for editorial cartooning in 1980 and 1984.

Larry Wright's final editorial cartoon for The Detroit News

I caught up with Larry to look back at his career, including how he helped build one of the first newspaper websites back in 1994, and what it has been like to work in one of the last two-newspaper cities, and at one of the last two-editorial-cartoonist newspapers.

Eric Millikin: You’ve been a fixture in newspaper cartooning in Detroit, at both The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press, for decades. Tell me about how you got your start and how newspaper cartoons are different now vs. then.

Larry Wright: I’ll turn 70 in about three weeks and I’ll have to admit that I’m glad I entered the business in 1961 instead of recently. My first cartoonist job was as a free-lancer for the Okinawa Morning Star, an english language newspaper on the island where I was serving in Army ASA intelligence. Once I got called into my base commander’s office and ordered to stop doing a series I had been drawing for the paper on JFK and his pal Eleanor Roosevelt, who was trying to make a deal with Cuba to release prisoners from an invasion attempt. The Lt. Colonel told me JFK was my commander-in-chief and I had to be nice to him. Luckily the newspaper dealt with a full-bird colonel in the office of the general that ran Okinawa until we gave it back to Japan. He told my commander to leave me alone, but I did pull a couple of toons out so I wouldn’t get busted before I got discharged.

I took my discharge on Okinawa and went to work full-time as a cartoonist at the Morning Star. After about 6 months their night news editor stole some money and jumped on a plane back to the U.S. and they offered to train me to take his job. I ended up as cartoonist and night news editor and worked four years for the Morning Star before I came back to the States with my wife and kids and went to work for the [Detroit] Free Press in 1965.

EM: I’m pretty familiar with your editorial cartoons and daily single panel comic, “Kit ‘N’ Carlyle,” but let’s talk about your other comic, “Wright Angles,” from the 1970s and 80s. I’m looking at a Detroit News from 1977 where they’re running “Wright Angles” huge on the back of their comics section, bigger than any of the other comics, taking up two-thirds of the width of a huge 1970s newspaper page. How did that come about? Was that type of big showcase for the local cartoonist a common thing in newspapers then? It seems like quite a contrast to what we see today.

LW: I originally began “Wright Angles” in 1968 while I was an assistant news editor at the Free Press. The title wasn’t my idea but I was so anxious to get started I didn’t fight it. I think I first started at three a week as 6 panel toons and gradually become a daily 3 panel toon on the Freep‘s feature page. It was editorial and political from the start but I added regular characters who dealt with the issues. The News hired me away as a full-time cartoonist in 1976 and put me on the back page right next to columnist Pete Waldmeir, who was one of my favorite people in the business.

At about the same time I signed a “Wright Angles” syndication contract with United Media. This meant I wouldn’t put so much local stuff in it so I started doing a one-panel cartoon that ran for awhile in the first section but eventually got me moved into the Editorial Page department as op-ed cartoonist five times a week. I have to admit I felt much more comfortable at The News, which was still owned by the Scripps family and was a much more conservative paper than the Free Press. They did stay a little conservative after Gannett took ownership but the circulation went way down and The News no longer was the biggest paper in Michigan and the 4th or 5th biggest in the country.

EM: The Detroit News, which featured editorial cartoons by both you and Henry Payne up until recently, and before that both you and Draper Hill, has to be one of the last major metro dailies to have two editorial cartoonists on staff.

LW: The News only had Draper Hill and me as full-time editorial cartoonists from about 1977 to 1994. The first Gannett publisher, Bob Giles, called me into his office and told me The News could no longer afford two full-time cartoonists and suggested I try to join a team to develop an internet edition of The News, that at that time was pretty rare. He did say I could work out a deal with then Editorial Page Editor Tom Bray and continue op-ed cartoons but in an addition to the full-time internet thing. Since I’d been a Mac user since they first came out in 1984 it turned out to be a pretty satisfying job.

Draper lost his job several years later and even though I was no longer in the Editorial Page dept. they asked me to help find a replacement. I’m pleased I had a hand in helping to hire Henry Payne, and I still drew cartoons on the page across from him till recently.

EM: Let’s talk a little about the lifestyle of the semi-retired editorial cartoonist. Many comics artists in other parts of the industry (like in self-published art comics an even corporate super hero comics) don’t have the same type of employee benefits that come with unionized newspaper staff positions like I understand you’ve held at The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press. Should we be worried about artists like yourself making ends meet in retirement? Or do you have good pensions and benefits from either or both of the papers?

LW: Again, I’ve been lucky with my age. I turned 65 just in time to qualify for a full Gannett pension and full social security pension. Gannet sold the News [in August 2005] right after I qualified and it allowed me to continue working full time and collecting both pensions. The new owners did offer a buy-out less than a year later and I decided to take it. I was also able to negotiate a free-lance cartoon job and some of the auto collector stuff I had designed for the internet edition more than 10 years ago. They did end my cartooning for the edit page as of Christmas day but Daryl Cagle talked me out of giving it up. I’m now doing one cartoon a week for caglecartoons.com but I’m still doing the autos photos work for Detnews.com. In fact, I’ll be at the [North American international] Auto Show in Detroit this week.

I’ve been doing “Kit’n’Carlyle” 6-days a week since 1980 and recently signed another three-year contract with NEA.

EM: Anything else you’d like to say?

LW: By the way, comics.com shows reruns of “Wright Angles” on their website. Only they changed the name to “Motley.”


Eric Millikin is an artist and writer from Detroit, whose work has been published in both The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press.

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One Response to “Eric Millikin: Talking lifestyles of the semi-retired editorial cartoonist with Larry Wright”

  1. […] Millikin, interviews cartoonist Larry Wright for the The Comics Journal: EM: The Detroit News, which featured editorial cartoons by both you and […]