Local editorial cartoonists hold mirror to Mahoning Valley, world

By GEORGE NELSON |METRO MONTHLY ASSOCIATE EDITOR

For editorial cartoonists like Dan O’Brien and Rick Muccio, working in the Mahoning Valley means rarely having to look hard for source material.

“In an area like this, it’s hard not to have a lot of material,” said Muccio, an editorial cartoonist for the Tribune Chronicle since the early 1990s. One of his early efforts, focusing on the Warren mayor’s race, portrayed incumbent Dan Sferra as a baseball player taking swing at a baseball-headed Polivka, who was accusing of collecting workers compensation funds while apparently still playing for a local baseball team.

O’Brien, who began contributing editorial cartoons to the Business Journal in 1987, has taken aim at a variety of local and national subjects over the years, from former Democratic Party chairman Don Hanni Jr. to Saddam Hussein. He is probably best known for his portrayal over the years of James A. Traficant Jr., until recently the Mahoning Valley’s representative to the U.S. House of Representatives.

“I’m not talking about locally, I’m talking about nationally or internationally – I don’t think you could find a better subject than Traficant to draw,” O’Brien said. “He’s certainly been a treasure trove of cartoons,” he added.

Part of Traficant’s appeal as a subject, he acknowledged, is that he lends himself to caricature visually.

“That’s very important,” he explained. “I started immediately drawing him as a pointy-headed creature that just evolved over the years.” O’Brien’s Traficant cartoons have included placing him on an “unwanted” poster and casting him as a U.S. president – in negotiations with then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev – during his short-lived campaign for the office in 1988.

“It became so formula to draw Traficant. Now with that gone you can concentrate on other things possibly that should be concentrated on for a cartoonist,” he said. “Certainly Traficant in the last few months has just dominated the news – actually in the past year.”

He acknowledges that purely from a humorist’s standpoint it may be difficult to replace Traficant – he’s done a couple of cartoons on Tim Ryan, one of the candidates running for the 17th District Congressional seat, but is still trying to become familiar with Ann Womer Benjamin.

“We’ll have to see what’s going to happen with this election,” he observed. “It’s still going to be Traficant-dominated. The man is running from prison so I do get one last shot before I give him a rest.”

Muccio said he really doesn’t have any favorite topics as a cartoonist.

“To me, Traficant is like the broad side of a barn. He’s like hitting a blimp with a bow and arrow,” Muccio observed. “The jokes on Traficant basically write themselves.”

Muccio’s cartoons often include a pair of observers at the edge of the panel who will offer an additional observation about the topic.

“It really is an opportunity, like Oliphant’s penguin, to get a comment in there, an aside,” he explained. “Sometimes those comments don’t come until the drawing is actually completely finished.”

After they get an idea, both O’Brien and Muccio said actually drawing the cartoon can take anywhere from about an hour to four or five hours, depending on the complexity of the drawing or, as O’Brien observed, “whether or not I like the character.”

O’Brien, who said response to his work overall has been “very positive,” added that “sometimes you tick off the people who don’t like being ticked off and their response is predictable – but actually those are few and far between.”

“I have done cartoons about people that were taken completely out of context, interpreted in a way that [they were] never meant to be interpreted, and that’s the danger,” Muccio said. “You have 10 people look at a cartoon, they’ll walk away with 10 ideas of what you were trying to say. So there’s a beauty in editorial cartoons in that it’s open to all this interpretation. It’s also one of the things that can get you in trouble.”

Both O’Brien and Muccio are concerned about trends they see in editorial cartooning.

“If you look at the syndicated cartoons that are coming out now they’re really sanitized,” O’Brien said, with many newspapers afraid to take on serious subjects. It also may be why newspapers are not replacing cartoonists when they retire. “Either they think it’s a luxury or the could buy these ‘safe’ cartoons from the syndicate,” he added. O’Brien noted that while he sees quite a few cartoonists just doing gag panels, a lot of the top editorial cartoonists, such as Pat Oliphant and G.B. Trudeau, are still doing good work.

Muccio acknowledged that while editorial cartooning has changed somewhat since last year’s terrorists attacks, the trend had started earlier. “A lot of good cartoonists, they all believe that editorial cartooning was changing before Sept. 11,” he observed.

“We’ve become a society that doesn’t think,” Muccio said. “Editorial cartoons, they use humor, they sometimes use drama, sometimes they make you laugh or cry or whatever, but any good editorial cartoon makes you think.”

“I would not like to see cartooning revert to a low point as I thought it did by World War I,” O’Brien said. “That was when you had a lot of anti-cartooning bills actually passed by the Congress saying that you could not draw certain political figures during this period.”

While the trend may be toward syndicated panels, Muccio said it is healthier to have locally produced content.

“Just trying to look at it from the point of view of an average citizen, I think that there’s an element of pride when you look in the paper and the opinion, even when it’s on a national issue, is coming from a local voice. I think that matters,” Muccio reflected.

© 2002 The Metro Monthly. All rights reserved.

 

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