Pat Oliphant, who can only be described now as not only the dean of modern American political cartooning but also the founding father, was honored by the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists last Saturday.
Somewhat frail at 77, but entertaining in a manner that can only be described as charmingly bawdy, Oliphant is revered by cartoonists here as someone who revitalized a craft that was flagging somewhat in the early 1960s. I have often said that Oliphant was Elvis, Jeff MacNelly was The Beatles, and I was the Lovin' Spoonful.
Maybe Tony Orlando and Dawn. I'll think about that.
Anyway, it is impossible to understate the extent of Oliphant's influence. Without a doubt, he too had his own stylistic fathers: Illingworth, Low, and Searle come to mind, but Oliphant managed to keep a fresh approach going for, no kidding, almost 60 years. Imagine a television program running since 1955 and everyone still thinks it's the best.
Oliphant was never what I would describe as overly engaged with his peers in the profession, which I viewed as kind of tragic, in a way. It's kind of like having a distant father whom you adored. But on Saturday, Oliphant was gracious and engaging, standing for endless photos and letting everyone tell him small anecdotes.
In 1964, when Oliphant first came to the United States after replacing Paul Conrad on the Denver Post, he created a sensation here because he combined a brilliant writing style with a very accessible, bold line stroke that shattered the standard cartoon tropes of elephants, donkeys, ticking time bombs, and furrowed-brow Uncle Sams. Oliphant threw stones when a lot of his peers were throwing sponges.
His stylistic heirs include such greats as Jeff MacNelly (whom Oliphant initially detested--long story), Mike Keefe (who succeeded him at the Post), Jeff Danziger, Dwane Powell, Doug Marlette, Kevin Kallaugher, Jim Borgman, Jim Morin, Tony Auth, Ben Sargent, Steve Sack, and dozens of others who have made their mark in this very challenging profession. I am sure I am forgetting many more: my apologies to them. The fact is that there are dozens of cartoonists who are all so damned good that it's difficult to sort out who is better than who.
Rex Babin and I would discuss for hours various Oliphant cartoons and approaches. In fact, when Oliphant judged a national cartoon contest a few years back, he judged Rex the winner.
If Oliphant gives you an award, you deserve it. Period.
Oliphant's presentation, given sitting down at a projector, showed his hands in black and white on a screen while he drew, like that M.C. Escher drawing of the hands drawing each other. He drew with charcoal and discussed early career highlights, like his job at a paper in Adelaide where he was tasked with removing bull testicles (sorry, it's true) and unwanted background society matrons from photos.
I have always thought Oliphant's premier talent was his ability to adapt his style when he grew bored with it; this is a major creative challenge when you get older, and his work now is really just as interesting now as it was in the 1960s. His next skill set was doing whatever he wanted despite the prevailing winds in cartooning. Finally, he is truly someone who can do whatever he wants artistically; he now lives in Sante Fe turning out stunning paintings and sculptures.
Oliphant was presented with a bag of stones at the end of the evening, each with an engraving of his signature penguin, whom he named "Punk." Every person in the room walked away with one.
I got two. He signed one of them. I'm keeping that.
In his honor, I'm going to use one of them to throw.