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Want cartoons? Try asking for them.

I'VE ALWAYS WANTED TO HAVE a good local political cartoonist on staff, but as is the case with most small-city daily editorial page editors, that's a luxury I can't afford.

So I subscribe to a handful of national cartoonists through the syndicates and pick up a couple of Florida cartoons each week from one of the larger state papers.

In other words, we've got the president and Governor Lawton Chiles pretty well covered. Still, there are times when I would kill for good-quality and funny cartoons that skewer local personalities and issues.

Last spring in particular was one of those times when Gainesville seemed like an editorial cartoonist's paradise. There was lots of fodder for a good pen-and-ink hit artist.

For starters, the University of Florida, Gainesville's main economic engine, had just lost about $50,000,000 in state budget cuts, and everybody was making jokes about professors standing out on University Avenue holding "Will teach for food" signs.

And then there was the matter of the city's new Taj-Mahal-sized public library, its spacious interior seemingly large enough to land a Piper Cub in, its domed roof all out of proportion with the city's otherwise modest downtown skyline. Taxpayers were not amused. Meanwhile, out on I-75, a new truck stop called the Cafe Risque was using nude waitresses to lure 18-wheelers, prompting the American Family Association to initiate a nationwide postcard-writing campaign to protest Gainesville's moral deterioration.

Oh, yes, then there was our chief of police, heretofore one of the most popular political figures in town and long considered a shoo-in come the next sheriff's election.

The chief loved to do Elvis impersonations at cocktail parties, but what finally did him in was the revelation that he never really did play football at Alabama for The Bear even though he had been bragging about his 'Bama gridiron exploits for years. Ultimately, the chief was literally laughed out of the sheriff's race.

No question about it, it was a cartoonist's paradise. But not a cartoonist in sight.

Oh, every now and then an aspiring local cartoonist would stop by the office with a few samples to show off. But those unsolicited submissions were usually of poor quality, and they tended to deal with the same subjects that the syndicated cartoonists were already sending us: Bush, Congress, and the like.

So last spring we decided to ask our readers to try their hand at political cartooning. I paid a local artist to do a house ad, a cartoon featuring George Bush's face on a drawing board along with the caption: "Can you draw this guy?" We included a few basic instructions and asked our prospective cartoonists to consider local and state issues as well as national ones.

At the outset, I wasn't expecting much. But if nothing else, it seemed a good way to further encourage reader participation on the opinion pages.

While the response couldn't be described as overwhelming, I was pleased and surprised at both the number of submissions and the generally good quality of the work. Ultimately, about 40 people responded with cartoons, and most of those were fair-to-good in both the quality of the art work and the sophistication of the humor.

An entire section full

There were cartoons about the university's budget problems, cartoons about the library boondoggle, cartoons about Chief Elvis, about the Cafe Risque, and much more. Ultimately, we used nearly an entire Sunday Issues section to show off the best of the submissions. In addition, we ran some of the others on a few of our daily op-ed pages.

In addition to the submissions from our regular readers, one middle-school writing class took on our invitation as a class project, sending along another 40 or so cartoons. Although those did tend to be more amateurish, we ran a few of them as well just to encourage the students to keep at it.

That Issues section became one of the most well-received and talked about of the year. And because the response to our first invitation was so positive, we have decided to repeat the contest on a regular basis, perhaps twice a year.

One other positive thing came out of the Sun's editorial cartoon contest: It brought us the next best thing to an on-staff cartoonist, a talented and prolific free-lancer.

Jake Fuller is a local graphic artist who had long harbored a desire to be a political cartoonist. His submissions to the Sun were among the best we received, and in the days and weeks after the contest he continued to submit several cartoons a week, most of them dealing with local and state issues.

Fuller was more interested in the exposure than in being paid, but we ended up using so many of his cartoons that I began paying him on a free-lance basis.

Free-lance or not, in my opinion, he is developing into one of the finest political cartoonists in Florida. His specialty is faces, and our readers have no difficulty in recognizing his depictions of Chiles, Gainesville's mayor and city manager, University of Florida president John Lombardi, Chief Elvis, and other prominent state and local personalities. He has been especially effective in his depictions of a local state senator who likes to throw his official weight around on behalf of his cronies.

I've talked about our experience in soliciting local cartoonists with a few other editorial page editors, and some have suggested that our success is because of the fact that we are located in a university community that attracts creative people. There may be something to that, but if you've never asked your readers for editorial cartoons, it's worth trying at least once.

At the least, you may end up with a handful of usable cartoons to run on a weekend op-ed page. At best, you might uncover a local talent who will be able to produce good quality political cartoons on a regular basis for a reasonable price.

And listen, I've run hundreds of cartoons poking fun at George Bush, and never once got a complaint from the White House. But ticking off the local chief of police can certainly make life interesting.

NCEW member Ron Cunningham is editorial page editor of The Gainesville Sun in Florida.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:editorial cartoon contest
Author:Cunningham, Ron
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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