Prior to The Bee publishing my cartoon on Gov. Rick Perry and his Texas regulatory policies (yes, that's what the cartoon was about, not mocking the victims of the West explosion), I often was asked around town what was the most controversial cartoon of my career.
Now, all cartoonists have controversies from time to time, and, honestly, most of these controversies are over sometimes minor points, or inadvertent offense. In my case, I will do a cartoon about the NRA or the Middle East, and there will be some minor dust up, but not something that becomes an internet meme.
My most controversial (and misinterpreted) cartoon went like this:
About 20 years ago, the Portland, Oregon city council passed a noise ordinance in response to street musicians. Some of these street musicians were highly competent people playing violins, saxophones, and other socially acceptable instruments. However, there was one poor soul downtown who played the recorder.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
In front of a business.
I remember him. It was torturous to listen to and he played all day in front of a stationery store. There were other musical miscreants as well who apparently had received low marks at Julliard.
So the city council passed the ordinance that required the musicians to be 25 feet away from the door of a business. This was kind of controversial at the time, so I did a cartoon called "The Portland Street Musician Distance Chart."
In the cartoon, I had violinists at 25 feet, bassoonists (don't ask why--I think I am remembering this right) at 50 feet, a kid playing Nirvana at 100 feet, and, at 75 miles away on the top of Mt. Hood, an accordionist.
Well, who knew there were so many accordionists in the United States?
Back then, it was a fax world, and things didn't zap around like they do now, but I recall getting many, many letters and faxes about the cartoon. I was on the phone all day. In addition, I got two letters I recall very distinctly: one from the Italian anti-defamation group, and one from the Polish anti-defamation group.
There is even a bumper sticker out there, "I'm pro-accordion...and I vote!"
And so on.
Among my peers, we seem to agree that my commentary on Rick Perry may have generated the largest internet reaction in the United States to a cartoon. (I exclude the Danish cartoonist whose images of the prophet Muhammad unleashed international outrage, obviously.)
A controversy that ranks right up there were a few cartoons that Ted Rall did on 9/11 widows, and a reference to Pat Tillman. I recall it was a huge outcry at the time, and by that time we had the internet, so it was massively magnified.
Last year, Joel Pett of the Lexington Herald-Leader did a cartoon about the University of Kentucky basketball coach's decision not to play Indiana and North Carolina.
This would have been another day at the office cartoon for Pett, but it somehow lit a fuse in the community. The next thing Pett knew, there were police cars protecting his house, his office phone was ringing continuously, and there were several death threats. Did I say this was over a basketball cartoon?
Mike Thompson from the Detroit Free Press, my old alma mater, once did a cartoon criticizing Fox News, which resulted in Bill O'Reilly posting his e-mail address on the air. The response was not fair and balanced, shall we say. Supporters of David Duke threatened Walt Handelsman when he was at the Times-Picayune in New Orleans.
I recall Jim Borgman, the brilliant former cartoonist for the Cincinnati Enquirer and artist for the comic strip Zits, once said a reader called him and threatened to move his house off its foundation with a bulldozer. Steve Kelley, of Creators Syndicate, said his most controversial cartoon was about a San Diego city councilman with an overly-lavish public expense account. He drew the beleaguered councilman, Uvaldo Martinez, as the "Freeload Bandito."
Matt Bors noted that the quicker the medium (like Twitter), the more intense the reaction has been to his work. By the time people get around to writing a piece of paper mail, they're ready for warm milk and a nap.
At this point, I am, too.