Cartoon Rock: A Word With Tom Toles - Animation/Cartoon Week on BTR


Tom Toles, photo courtesy of Tom Toles.

There may not be a better way to end Animation and Cartoons Week here at BreakThru Radio than a conversation with Pulizer Prize-winning political cartoonist Tom Toles of The Washington Post. If there are any aspiring, young visual artists who just so happen to be frequenting the site today, they would do well to pay credence to Mr. Toles’s story and words of wisdom.

Tom Toles began his career at The Spectrum, the college newspaper of his alma mater, the University of Buffalo. After working for The Buffalo Courier-Express for nearly a decade until the paper folded, he moved to The Buffalo News in 1982. It was with that publication that he won a Pulizer Prize in 1990 for his work in editorial cartooning.

Since taking the place of the late, great Herbert Block (or ‘Herblock’ as he was famously known) for The Washington Post in 2002, Mr. Toles provided Post readers with hilarious and scathing illustrated commentary on both the W. Bush and Obama administrations. In his conversation with BTR, he minces no words when it comes to his beliefs and admonishes any aspiring, young cartoonists and social commentators to do the same.

BreakThru Radio: What began your interest in political commentary via illustration?

Tom Toles: I actually was heavily interested in illustration alone. The form of newspaper art seemed to suggest some attempt at political commentary, and I tried a bit of it, but my skills and inclinations at the time pointed elsewhere. My editor at The Buffalo Courier Express pushed me toward editorial cartooning pretty relentlessly. I resisted for a long time.

BTR: At the time you were interested in illustration, what were the job opportunities like for that line of work?

TT: I don’t think they were super-abundant. Newspapers had staff artists, but the turnover was low.

BTR: What was the level of your interest in politics or political commentary when you first considered newspaper illustrations at The Spectrum?

TT: I’d say at the time I started doing work at The Spectrum, my interest in politics and policy was moderately high, though not particularly sophisticated. My interest in doing commentary of my own was close to zero.

BTR: Did it ever occur to you at the University of Buffalo that this could be a career?

TT: No. During my senior year a friend suggested I might be able to get an actual job at an actual newspaper. That alone seemed like a revelation.

BTR: You had already won your Pulizer when you left The Buffalo News for The Washington Post in 2002. Did you still feel like you had big shoes to fill in replacing Herbert Block?

TT: I knew Herblock was a huge presence in Washington, so as far as shoes went, I decided to bring my own. I never attempted to imitate Herblock, and had no interest in doing so, other than his dedication to doing the best work possible. My cartoons are quite different from his, so I thought comparisons would be muted. People made them anyway, initially to my detriment. I think I’ve won over most of his fans, or at least outlasted them.

BTR: You mentioned in The Washington Post article upon being hired by the publication that “like all other liberals [your views have] been tempered somewhat by experience.” Care to elaborate?

TT: I came to understand that good intentions are insufficient, and can even be counterproductive at times. I saw how liberals were not always rigorous in measuring results of their endeavors. I saw that bureaucracy tends to grow in size and cost and can backslide in effectiveness. I saw how constituency politics is not always outcome-focused.

Courtesy of The Washington Post

BTR: Were you surprised at all when you received the letter from the Joint Chiefs of Staff in protest to your illustration of then-Defense Secretary Rumsfeld in a doctor’s outfit standing over a quadruple amputee American soldier? [See image above.]

TT: I certainly didn’t anticipate it, though I wasn’t surprised in the sense that in political cartooning you understand that outrage can materialize without warning, and from any direction.

BTR: Do you feel as though you’ve drawn more possibly controversial or dangerous (for lack of a better word) illustrations?

TT: Oh, probably. I certainly bore down on President Bush Junior about as hard as I could. That controversy, in my opinion, was largely manufactured as a way of pushback on my Iraq War cartoons in general.

BTR: As a self-proclaimed liberal, have you found it challenging at all in the last two or three years to cover President Obama from a humorous angle?

TT: Cartooning is primarily a negative art-form. It is always more satisfying in cartooning to be on the attack. I do not attack just to make an effective cartoon. I tend to not heavily lampoon people who I think are moving things in the right direction.

BTR: When you first began, were you influenced by any political cartoonists in particular?

TT: Not really. I admired Pat Oliphant a lot, and Jules Feiffer. But I did not attempt to emulate them. I did eventually adopt the marginal commentary Oliphant uses, but only after I discovered he did not originate it.

BTR: Are there any political cartoonists today in particular who you greatly admire?

TT: Current heroes? No. I do think a lot of cartoonists working now are doing a lot of terrific work.

BTR: Lastly, what advice do you have for any aspiring young cartoonists and artists?

TT: Believe in something. Work out of conviction and take a lot of risks. Work toward creating a personal style but swerve all over the road, and off, on your way there. Look for editors who encourage this. You won’t likely find many. Avoid the others as much as possible.