Bee cartoons: How times change and how they stay the same

12/30/2012 12:00 AM

01/03/2013 1:46 PM

Readers of The Bee probably raised a few eyebrows when they examined the front page on March 11, 1893. Headlines were arranged in a way that they spelled out a message to state lawmakers: "THANK GOD THE SESSION NOW IS ALMOST OVER."

Although not exactly a cartoon, this message demonstrated the paper's willingness to use both words and images to lampoon politicians and the powerful. It has done so with editorial cartoons since its founding in 1857. That is especially true over the last century, as The Bee has continuously employed staff cartoonists to comment upon affairs of the day.

Arthur Buel was the first of these regular cartoonists, and his work was interspersed with that of Harold J. Wahl from the 1910s to the 1930s, according to The Sting of The Bee, a 1982 book by the newspaper that memorialized 125 years of editorial cartooning.

"Without fanfare, the cartoons of Newton Pratt, then an engineer at the State Division of Highways, began appearing intermittently in The Sacramento Bee in 1938," the book states.

Pratt worked for 32 years as The Bee's cartoonist, gaining a national following and becoming a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize at least three times.

When Pratt retired and The Bee hired Dennis Renault as his successor in 1971, the times had changed but the modus operandi of staff cartoonist remained the same – to be fiercely independent. Renault, like Pratt, would draw up a sketch each workday and present it to the editor or editorial page editor before completing a more polished version.

"I carried on Newt's relationship with the editorial board, which was to not have much of a relationship with the editorial board," Renault joked, when I reached him by phone last week at his home in Monterey.

Renault's first editor was Walter Jones, he said, who would often look curiously at a sketch and say, "Well, Dennis, if you think this is funny, then we'll publish it."

Renault retired in 1999, and The Bee hired Rex Babin, then a cartoonist at the Albany (N.Y.) Times-Union. Barely had Babin started when a letter writer trashed his work, calling him a "mediocre political cartoonist."

"One of his biggest problems is that he is following in the footsteps of one of the best, Dennis Renault," the letter writer stated.

Babin went on to become a Pulitzer finalist in 2003, and gained national attention with his 2009 cartoon, "Hands on the Hudson," which depicted a pair of hands descending from the sky and gently cradling US Airways Flight 1549 and its passengers. After Babin passed away on March 30 at age 49, hundreds of people attended his public memorial and purchased copies of his cartoons from The Bee's website.

Over the last century, Buel, Wahl, Pratt, Renault and Babin produced tens of thousands of cartoons for The Bee. What is remarkable (and a bit deflating) is the similarity of targets over the decades – partisan squabbling; the power of vested interests; inaction on protecting our environment or protecting our children from crazed gunmen.

Babin's successor, Jack Ohman, will join us next week, becoming the paper's first cartoonist hired in the 21st century. Like his predecessors, Ohman will surely spark controversy and provoke responses, at times, that his cartoons are "tasteless" or "over the line."

As his boss, I will push him to find that edge and be willing to cross it. As Babin once wrote, "When you take risks with boldness of imagery and opinion, you come up with powerful cartoons."


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