R. C. Harvey on Mallard Fillmore

Posted by on January 22nd, 2010 at 12:01 AM

FIFTEEN-YEAR-OLD SCREED

Mallard Filmore, the conservative screed masquerading as a comic strip in which a duck masquerades as a TV news reporter, passed its 15th anniversary last summer on June 1. In celebration of this unlikely event, cartoonist Bruce Tinsley concocted a special series of strips that ran through June 10. In each of them, one “of the very Washington liberal elite” appears in caricature to offer congratulations. “President Obama congratulates Mallard on celebrating his 15th anniversary, sniping that even though he’s only been featured in the strip for a couple of years, ‘it seems like longer’; Joe Biden unfortunately can’t tell Mallard what he really thinks of him, ‘until the President says I’m allowed to talk to the public again’; and to help celebrate the anniversary, Nancy Pelosi invites Mallard to her ‘posh Congressional office … for a free waterboarding.’”

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Tinsley did not, to my knowledge, say or do anything as a gesture of gratitude to Garry Trudeau, whose Doonesbury flung open doors to newspaper publication hitherto closed to the likes of Tinsley: without Doonesbury, newspapers have no liberal-leaning comic strip that they must counter by running Mallard Filmore for political balance. According to King Features, which distributes Tinsley’s strip, more than 400 newspapers feel the need to achieve that kind of balance.

Before achieving success as a perverse reflection of Trudeau, Tinsley suffered for his beliefs. His wife Doris, writing in Cartoonist PROfiles to celebrate the launch of the strip in 1984, said: “When the rumor gets out that Mallard Fillmore is a conservative journalist, his colleagues can’t believe their ears. ‘Isn’t that sort of like being an ethical lawyer?’ asks the anchorman at WFDR-TV where Mallard works. Of course, Mallard, a ‘reporter of the duck persuasion’ [or, as he is dubbed with satirical bile later in his career, ‘an Amphibious American’], and his creator have heard it all before.” Recalling his career in journalism, Tinsley elaborated: “When the reporters and editors met me, their reactions were always the same: ‘I didn’t know conservatives could write! I didn’t know conservatives were funny! I didn’t know conservatives wore trousers and walked upright!’”

Tinsley’s suffering began while he was a mere teenager, but it was divorced from any political tinges whatsoever. In his native Louisville, Ky., he worked at local fairs and similar gatherings doing caricatures for a pittance. It was not a happy career choice, he explained: “Things would be going along pretty well, and then she would walk up to my booth. My worst nightmare: a woman with a daughter who was about 10 or 12 years old and really ugly, like most of us are when we’re 10 or 12 years old. She didn’t really want a caricature of her daughter: she wanted a drawing of Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet with her daughter’s name under it. And she could get really nasty if you didn’t draw her that way.”

Politics, however, soon reared up. When a senior in high school, young Bruce entered an editorial-cartoon contest sponsored by a local suburban weekly paper that wanted to see who could draw the best cartoon about forced busing of public-school students, which had just been instituted. Bruce won the contest and a part-time job as editorial cartoonist for the paper. “Busing was, for me,” Tinsley recalled, “one of my first lessons in how the government can come along and force people to do things.” What really irked him was “when I read that the grandchildren of the Sixth Circuit Court judge who ordered the busing all went to private schools.”

The editor of the paper was liberal, but he and Tinsley worked out an arrangement: Tinsley didn’t have to draw anything he disagreed with, and the editor didn’t have to publish everything the cartoonist drew.

Tinsley graduated from Bellarmine University with a degree in political science and also studied journalism at the University of Missouri–Columbia. Tinsley realized he could not make a cartooning career in Louisville because, as a conservative, he knew he had no chance at a job on either of the city’s newspapers, both liberal. Eventually, after his various college forays, he traveled east in 1987 into the darkest heart of raving liberalism. Ironically, he was hired by the somewhat liberal Daily Progress in Charlottesville, Va. It was there that he concocted Mallard Fillmore.

He was asked to create a mascot for the paper’s entertainment section, and he offered three possibilities: a big blue hippopotamus, a big disembodied nose in a tuxedo, and a duck. The hippo wasn’t used because the editors were afraid of offending overweight people, Tinsley said. And the nose was axed because it would “offend people of Jewish and Mediterranean descent, not to mention Arabs and anyone else with a big nose.” Tinsley thought at first that his editors were kidding; but they weren’t. They risked everything on the wild supposition that no ducks would be offended by Mallard.

Tinsley’s approach was to tailor his new creation for the “conservative underdog—the average person out there, the forgotten American taxpayer who’s sick of the liberal media and cultural establishments that act like he or she doesn’t exist.”

Soon after Mallard got into full waddle, however, the paper fell into the clutches of an even more liberal publisher and editor, who wanted Tinsley to tone down the conservative bias in the strip. Tinsley refused.

“The last straw,” reported Harry Stein in City Journal four years ago, “was a strip that had Mallard musing about what might have happened if Michelangelo had applied for a National Endowment for the Arts grant. While the NEA would surely like all the naked people, the duck concluded, they’d also object to the depiction of God as male, worrying about its disheartening influence over little girls. The publisher, it turned out, was on NEA’s board.” Tinsley was fired.

But all was not lost. In fact, it was just about to be found. Tinsley had been freelancing cartoons to the conservative Washington Times, and now, with more time, he increased his submissions and sent cartoons around to other newspapers. Among his submissions to the Times were Mallard Fillmore offerings. After about a year or so, he was asked to produce Mallard as a regular feature in the newspaper, and when Editor & Publisher printed a piece about Mallard, the strip came to the attention of Jay Kennedy, the enterprising comics editor at King Features, who asked Tinsley if he wanted to get syndicated.

Said Tinsley: “I was impressed by the fact that Kennedy, a devout liberal who cherishes the memory of meeting Eleanor Roosevelt when he was a small child, nevertheless saw the need for a comic strip that came from ‘the other side.’” Kennedy was canny that way. Several years ago, he helped convert a funny-animal strip to a strip with mildly religious themes because he figured with all the born-again Evangelicals abroad in the land, there’d be a happy audience for a strip that spoke their language.

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