Indiana University

Indiana University School of Journalism

Pett shares cartooning philosophy

Rosemary Pennington | Nov. 1, 2007
joel pett draws the world
Photo by Rosemary Pennington
Pett drew the world for J210 students Wednesday as he described his philosophy about editorial cartooning.
Before talking about how he creates political cartoons, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Joel Pett wanted to dispel a myth.
“Political cartoons are not supposed to be funny,” he told students in J210 Visual Communication Wednesday morning. “The funny things in the newspaper are the hidden things.”
The syndicated cartoonist, currently working at the (Lexington, Ky.) Herald-Leader, shared that nugget of wisdom and others as the School of Journalism’s Roy W. Howard Professional in Residence this week. Pett, whose work has appeared in hundreds of publications worldwide, has spent the last few days visiting classes as well as talking with faculty members. He’ll also visit IDS staffers, radio station WFIU and the (Bloomington) Herald-Times.
During his visit to J210, Pett started his lecture with a slide show of what some of those “funny” items are – marriage announcements, headlines, corrections – before moving on to what he does for his bread and butter, satirizing anything and anyone in his political cartoons.
“The Christian right is one of my favorite things to focus on,” Pett said. “No matter what I draw, they have to forgive me.”
Though it’s not usually forgiveness people are offering when they call his office at the Herald-Leader to talk about a cartoon. But Pett said he’s learned over the years to simply listen to what they have to say, answer, “You know, you’re right,” and the situation is over before it has the chance to get ugly.
The visit is a homecoming of sorts for the Bloomington native. Pett started his political cartooning career at the Herald-Times, his father taught at IU and Pett attended the school with limited success.
“I flunked out of IU. In fact,” Pett said after glancing at associate professor Claude Cookman, who’s teaching J210 this semester, “I think I flunked out of 210.”
That candor was present throughout Pett’s lecture. Whether talking about winning the Pulitzer (“I thought it was a joke before and now I know it is”), his political views or his feelings about the news (“I love the news business; every day one more bright spot”) Pett was bluntly honest and funny, doubly so when it came to editors.
“Cartoonists, most of us, hate editors,” Pett said.
One of the problems with editors is that they’re trained to approach news objectively, Pett explained. That’s not how political cartoonists operate and can cause some friction. Also, editors approach things too logically, he said. Pett made this point by showing a cartoon, by Birmingham News cartoonist Scott Stantis, that portrayed former Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun in heaven, confronted by a sea of aborted fetuses. The fetuses asked Blackmun, who wrote the Roe v. Wade decision, “What trimester were you?”
Joel Pett in J210
Photo by Rosemary Pennington
After J210 class, Pett chatted with students who questioned him about his work and the cartooning job field. Pett visited several classes during the week as well as talked to staffers at the IDS, WFIU radio and the Herald-Times.
Pett said an editor would probably look at that cartoon and ask why Blackmun was in heaven if abortion was a bad thing, missing the point entirely.
“Cartoons don’t have to make sense,” Pett said. “They lose their power if you start looking at them that way.”
And power they hold, at least in Cookman’s estimation.
“I think about the emperor with no clothes,” Cookman said, pointing out that political cartoonists hold those in power accountable for their actions by exposing their hypocrisies. “I think the true origins of the political cartoonist go back to the court jester or fool. They made fun of the king, but the smart king made sure to keep the jester around, to keep him in touch with reality.”
Reality is something Pett plays with everyday in his work. It’s not just the political or social realities he plays with, though. The reality of how someone looks is always up for grabs.
“Everybody knows George W. Bush’s ears aren’t bigger than his head,” Pett said while drawing a caricature of the current president. “But I draw him that way and, after awhile, people start saying, ‘Yeah, maybe he does look a little like that.’”
During a question and answer session, one student asked Pett if he ever draws a cartoon with the explicit purpose of offending someone.
“No,” Pett said, “although I do get a sort of glee out of offending certain groups of people, but that’s never the intent. I do want to get a reaction, though. I want to spark a conversation with what I draw. But I think the level of offense in this country is generally too high.”
“I do think he has a point,” junior Allie McKinney said. “I think we live in a society where people do get too easily offended.”
McKinney said she didn’t really pay much attention to political cartoons before she heard Pett speak. And, while she may not have agreed with everything he had to say, her curiosity has been piqued.
“He was very funny, if a little inflammatory,” McKinney said. “But I really think I’ll keep an eye out for his name when I’m reading the paper now.”
Cookman said having someone like Pett visit campus is good for students. He said it gives them an insight into the working world they won’t necessarily find in the classroom. Or, if it’s there, they often don’t notice.
“We’re like mom and dad,” Cookman said of the faculty. “We see them everyday. It’s another thing to have someone from the outside talk to them about his experience, especially when they’re as irreverent and entertaining as Joel Pett. It’s really important for them to hear the voices of people who have carved out successful careers.”
For Pett, being a political cartoonist has turned out to be more than just a career.
“I felt like it was a calling,” Pett said of first putting pen to paper. “I’m really lucky to be doing what I’m doing.”
Pett rounds out his week as professional-in-residence with a visit to WFIU, a presentation in Jack Dvorak’s J410 Media as Social Institutions class and a meeting with staff members of the IDS Friday.

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