Even after the Internet made viewing the world's editorial cartoons a mere matter of mouse clicks, I liked to pick up the Portland Oregonian anytime I was in the vicinity, mostly to see Ohman's latest cartoon.
(Cartoons are best read in your lap or at the breakfast table, your nose to the ink, examining the work.)
He has a distinct painterly style and a fierce voice. He knows precisely the power of the editorial cartoon; he knows not to waste his space and your time with the visual equivalent of a Jimmy Fallon topical toss-off.
Ohman joined my neighborhood newspaper, The Sacramento Bee, this year, after his best friend, cartoonist Rex Babin passed away. Ohman said he made the leap to help raise Babin's young son.
Babin had a spare, reductive style, as if he was carving away his cartoons from blocks of wood or linoleum. His voice as well was understated and circumspect, with occasional pointed jabs.
Ohman has brought a wealth of explosive devices to the job.
Last week he lit up the sky with the cartoon above.
In the wake of the explosion of the fertilizer plant in West, Texas, so horrible and vast and somehow swallowed up in the sensational Boston Marathon bombings, Ohman blamed the explosion on Texas' lax industrial regulations, touted as a benefit to California businesses looking for cheaper operating locales.
The 'toon went viral, major newspapers reporting that Texas Gov. Rick Perry got mad. Perry told The Bee:
“It was with extreme disgust and disappointment I viewed your recent cartoon. While I will always welcome healthy policy debate, I won’t stand for someone mocking the tragic deaths of my fellow Texans and our fellow Americans.Other letter writers said they failed to see the humor in Ohman's insensitivity.
“Additionally, publishing this on the very day our state and nation paused to honor and mourn those who died only compounds the pain and suffering of the many Texans who lost family and friends in this disaster. The Bee owes the community of West, Texas, an immediate apology for your detestable attempt at satire.”
Damn right it's insensitive — but not for its own sake. Ohman's job is not comic relief; it's sardonic dyspepsia. Ohman upholds editorial cartoons on the same serious level as editorials and columns, and uses the directness with which the written word can't compete.
The Bee stands by Ohman, who defended his work in a newspaper blog:
… what normal person doesn't mourn those poor people fighting the fire and living by the plant? I certainly do. What makes me angry, and, yes, I am driven by anger, is that it could have been prevented. I guess I could have done a toned-down version of the cartoon; I am not sure what that would have been, but I think many readers' objections just stemmed from the fact that I used the explosion as a metaphor, period. The wound is fresh, the hurt still stings.Texas hadn't inspected that plant since 2006, Ohman pointed out.
To be fair, having to explain oneself in a blog defeats the purpose of a cartoon, but it's helpful in its expansion. Good cartoonists such as Ohman count on informed readers to know the issues, and then stomp around in the playgrounds of their minds, splashing ink.
A toned-down cartoon wouldn't have been worth publishing, much less drawing.
Ohman also gets a Sunday comic-sized space to satirize California politics, particularly the musings and meanderings of Gov. Jerry Brown and his corgi, Sutter, who comments on the lunacy a la Pat Oliphant's Punk. Ohman has an interloper's view of California, without any cows to hold sacred.
Here's a recent one, with entertaining riffs on art history:
*to borrow from the colorful patois of kids (or at least TV commercials) these days …