Interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Walt Handelsman
Tracey Eaton: How did you get your start?
Walt Handelsman: I got into cartooning right out of college. I would say in 1982. I was working in advertising and really liked editorial cartoonists and thought I might try it, so I would go home every day after work and try and draw editorial cartoons. I did that every day for several months and that led to me building up my confidence and taking my work around and getting some freelance work in Baltimore.
Eaton: How long does it take to draw a cartoon?
Handelsman: Each cartoon is different, depending on if you’re drawing someone you’ve never drawn before and you need to do a caricature of them, that will take extra time. If you do a simple cartoon with a single person doing something, and something you’ve drawn before, it could take an hour or two. If you’re doing something more complicated with buildings and cars and various punch lines and word balloons, it can take several hours.
Handelsman: Well, I think, mainly that’s my job description, is to do political and editorial cartoons, and from a personal point of view, I find it fun to be able to comment on the news of the day and to be able to poke politicians and tweak folks that I think are doing something crazy or funny or offbeat. And it’s an opportunity, it’s an honor to be able to do that for newspapers and to be able to synthesize big events and have fun with them.
Eaton: What’s more important to you – the humor or the message?
Handelsman: It depends on the topic. I mean, if you’re doing something about pop culture, then generally it would be the humor. If you’re doing something on politics, I think, you know, you want to get your point of view across. If you get it across by using humor, then that’s a win-win.
Handelsman: No, I did not.
Eaton: So how did it develop?
Handelsman: I just, you know, I was from a family that talked about politics a lot. I just admired editorial cartooning. I thought it was really a cool craft and I liked the fact that they could synthesize news down and come up with clever ideas and clever ways to illustrate their points of view. And so I really started drawing editorial cartoons during Ronald Reagan’s first administration, and there was a lot – there’s always a lot going on – and I just thought it would be a great way to express yourself.
Eaton: So you weren’t a political activist?
Handelsman: No, you know I tend to hit both sides evenly. And I think that’s one of the fun things about my job.
That’s my approach. There are lots of cartoonists that are very liberal and some that are very conservative and that’s their point of view on almost all of their cartoons about politics. I try to look at this and say – there’s stuff being done on both sides that can be – that you can have fun with it and I think that’s a fair way to do it and that’s how I feel personally.
Handelsman: None of them, none of them have been very hard to draw. They’re all different, all interesting and so, no, none that have been… You know I think maybe the most difficult politician that I can thin of to draw has been Dan Quayle. He’s very good looking and has kind of vanilla features. You want somebody, you know, with features. George Bush had big ears. His dad had a high forehead. Ronald Reagan had the bouffant. Bill Clinton had the long chin and Barack Obama has big ears and a long chin. And so each of them have features that are caricaturable.
Eaton: Is there a foreign leader that’s fun to draw or that grabs your attention?
Handelsman: It was fun to draw Saddam Hussein. He was sort of the quintessential villain figure in cartooning. He had the big nose and the mustache. He had the beret. I mean he had all the features of – it was almost like Central Casting. I just think the more of a face someone has, it’s easier to draw a caricature of them that’s fun to look at.
Eaton: Have any of the presidents ever reacted personally to any of the cartoons?
Handelsman: You know, we went to the White House – we have an association, the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, was routinely invited over a period of years to go to the White House. And we went, I went once and we saw Ronald Reagan speak years ago. The only contact – indirect, but somewhat direct – I drew a cartoon about George Bush, the first president, right when we went into the first Gulf War. I got a call in my office from the White House. They said the president really liked your cartoon and he’d like the original. At first I thought it was a joke and it turned out it wasn’t. And I said, well, would he be willing to sign a copy that he has? And they said, yes.
So I ended up sending him the original signed and he ended up sending me the copy that he’d seen, signed.
And then he was known for sending out little index cards, like little thank-you notes, and sure enough I got an envelope from the White House with a hand-written thank-you note and his business card, which I have in a frame at home. It just says the President. There’s no address. It’s pretty cool.
Eaton: What cartoon that you’ve done has provoked the most anger among readers?
Handelsman: There have been a lot of them. This day and age when you do cartoons about anything, from immigration to tax reform to Obamacare, people get angry. So I wouldn’t say that there’s one that stands out the most. People like cartoons and they dislike cartoons. And in this modern era of the Internet, there’s lots and lots of commenting on the Internet. It’s not like back in the day when you’d get letters and phone calls. It’s a little more anonymous.
Handelsman: I’ve been asked a lot of questions. No, I can’t think of any that I think wow, I wish they’d really asked that. One thing that I would stress to students is to follow whatever your passion is. This is a very unorthodox job. There isn’t a cartooning college, per se. There isn’t a school where you learn how to do political satire.
So it was something that I personally was interested in. It was really quite of a long shot, but I was a kid and so to me it make perfect sense. And i’ve tried to instill that sort of willingness to try things to my kids. And I would say that’s important to college kids, that you don’t have to follow a strict route to wherever you think you’re going. I mean, things will change. You should follow the things that you’re passionate about. And that is, you know, in many ways the best way to either become happy or to be successful or both, rather than following the path that you think makes the most sense because life changes very quickly.
So I would say the career path and following that is something that I would strongly suggest to students to follow what they’re passionate about, that they wake up in the morning and say, I’m so glad I do this.
Eaton: Did winning the Pulitzer Prize change your life?
Handelsman: In some ways it does. You’re known as a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist. Of course, the next day you have to get up and draw a cartoon on deadline. So in most ways it doesn’t change your life. But it is something that follows you and it is something that’s a great honor.
It was still one of the great moments of my life in terms of, reaching out to my parents and letting them know I’d won a Pulitzer Prize. It certainly was a great moment.