Thursday, June 2, 2011

Singing Pat Oliphant's praises

Go gaga over Gaga, palpitate for Palin, if you must. I'll obsess over Pat Oliphant, the Ted Williams of editorial cartooning, as in: "Look, there goes Pat Oliphant, the best there ever was."

You'll soon tire of my admiration of Oliphant, if I have anything to do about it — such as how I think he should just win the Pulitzer every year, or how that particular award should be named after him — so I'd better get started:

1. The man has been drawing editorial cartoons in the United States for 47 years (and for nine years before that in his native Australia), and never phoned one in. He gets better.

2. He's one angry dude (can't picture having a coffee with him), and the cartoon is his hair-trigger weapon. He is the true Keeper of the Editorial Cartoon, the unwavering artisan of the idea that editorial cartoons should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. No one escapes his wrathful humor; sometimes even I get mad at his viewpoint. I'm not sure whether he really wants to change the world, or derives twisted delight in the truth that corruption and stupidity continue unabated, and only the faces change.

He also walked his talk, upholding the treacherous ideal of what Voltaire may or may not have said: "I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it." I just read that Oliphant filed as a friend of the court to defend Hustler publisher Larry Flynt against libel charges; I also remember that Oliphant lampooned Flynt mercilessly for pushing the free-press envelope.

3. The guy … can … draw! So many cartoonists simply eliminate backgrounds to focus on their salient points. Oliphant draws  entire worlds boldly, in perfect perspective and in working order, creating symphonies to support his brutally acid opinions. He draws with authority; I think that's an art geek term for knowing what to draw and how to draw it well, and it puzzles me how he knows how to draw so many things; his morgue (what art geeks call their visual reference collection) must take up a room or two, pre-computer.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about, which came at the exceedingly pleasant surprise of a gift from my friends David Middlecamp (our friendship survived being college roomies!) and his wife Linda Kramer Middlecamp. This is from a collection appropriately titled Oliphant!, covering the Carter years (man, Oliphant hated Carter!):

I'm immediately taken by the weight and dominance of the U.S. ship, and then dynamism that the  ship and the nimble junks create. Then I notice Oliphant's craft of rendering the junks, their weight established by the just-so shading, how they sit in the water and sail away. Finally, I notice the U.S. flying deftly in the background, just a subtle reminder of the parties involved in this particular lunacy. Juanita Kreps was Carter's secretary of commerce.

Here's another one, from the same collection, that skewers me and everyone else who don't do enough, not by a long damn shot, for our veterans:

Simply insert add Iraq and Afghanistan on the sign, and you have the last Memorial Day weekend. See David Middlecamp's recent and excellent photos, in case you don't feel guilty enough and need prodding to do more for those who sacrifice for you.

Oliphant can make his brush line dance, pushing it brutally to create weight or finely to create the ideal completion of a devastating caricature. And every line just so. I spent years trying to achieve that.

From time to time, I'll show you my own examples, and readily refer to my slavish devotion to Oliphant's inspiration. At least I didn't copy his penguin alter-ego, Punk, who always presents a rim-shot aside (Tom Toles uses himself as Punk in his cartoons; he can't draw nearly as well, but if he didn't have such gut-punching viewpoints, I'd rag him for stealing Oliphant's ideas).


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  2. I remember his cartoons from his early days in America at the Denver Post. Oliphant is a master of visual and verbal vocabulary. Somehow his work has remained as sharp and timeless the day it was drawn.