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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Editorial cartoonist Joe Heller expands horizons

From Green Bay, he connects to 375 newspapers.

PHOTO: Masks from around the world “oversee” the work of editorial cartoonist Joe Heller in his office in his home in Green Bay. Warren Gerds photo

GREEN BAY, Wis., (WFRV) – An editorial cartoonist is _________.

A good person to fill in that blank is Joe Heller, a veteran newspaper cartoonist who lives in Green Bay. His work reaches far and wide. He sparks comment far and wide. He has many admirers. And detractors, of course. Such is the life of an editorial cartoonist.

Heller says, “I see myself as a conversation starter. I take a topic and I add some humor and add some opinion and illustrate it out and hopefully the readers will get something out of that, a reaction. They’ll enjoy it. It might tickle them a little bit. They’ll clip it out and put it on their refrigerator. Other times, they’ll just make comments. Better still, if they would write a letter to me or their editor or their Congressman about the topic that I’m drawing about. That’s the basic gist of what a cartoonist does, kind of stir the pot a little bit, get the conversation going. Some days I hit a home run, other days it’s foul balls. But it all depends on the topic and how well it’s drawn and how readers react.”

Heller figures on any given day about 2 million readers look at his cartoons. To be able to say that takes a complex set of circumstances, plus a person with wherewithal.

He says, “My work is distributed – I’m self-syndicated – through about 375 newspapers throughout the United States. I’ve been published in the Washington Post, New York Times, Denver Post, L.A. Times. You know, those are big newspapers, but there are a lot of small newspapers like the Maui News. Every time all the snow birds go to Hawaii in the winter, they come back with the Maui News with my cartoon in it, and they seem to think that they can’t get away from me, you know, going to the islands. That kind of tickles me. Alaska. I’m kind of all over the place.”

Heller usually is at his desk at 8 a.m. He has company. Masks. Prominent among artifacts on his office walls are tribal masks he has collected over time. They are from such widespread places as Bali, Guatemala, South Africa, Japan and Mexico. Most look fierce, threatening and scarifying.

“They kind of remind me of politicians and the masks they wear and the characterizations I do. They’re looking at me over my shoulder and keeping me honest.”

Heller draws one cartoon a day, five days a week. That sounds simple enough. Try it sometime… one day. Then do it again. And again. Come up with ideas. Be clever. Don’t repeat yourself. Draw well. Be good enough to get newspapers interested. Connect with readers. Connect with newspapers and make them want to keep paying you to run your stuff as the newspaper industry strains for meaning. Manage the business side of drawing, the nuts and bolts that hold this pleasurable/infuriating livelihood together. Take care of family matters – wife, kids, a couple of dogs, household bills and the whole shebang.

Being an editorial cartoonist takes …

“Somebody with a different way of looking at the world, and I don’t know what that would be. I always think a critical eye, looking at the world. A certain sense of humor. The ability to laugh at oneself. Usually the ability to break apart something and then re-assemble it. The technical. To take complex issues and pare them down to the most simple element, building back up into a cartoon. Usually cartoonists are opinionated.”

But not weird-opinionated, I add.

“Weird, weird? Like R. Crum (a famous/infamous underground cartoonist). I don’t know editorial cartoonists that are weird, you know. They’re eclectic and opinionated, but they’re not (shoot from the hip). They’re thinking people. They have to think about these topics and issues and be able to turn them into a visual image. That usually does take a little bit of cognitive ability to do that.”

Generally, Heller says, a cartoon takes him six hours from beginning to end.

“I start out by reviewing the news, looking at what’s going on, taking notes, what has been in the news, various news organizations online, TV, newspapers, NPR. And beginning. Then I try to pick at least a topic or several topics that I think I might want to draw. Then it’s going back and researching that topic a little bit. Then after that, it’s spending time trying to come up with an idea. Sometimes it’s hard (coming up with an idea), and sometimes it just happens.”

Heller’s process isn’t entirely solitary.

“I have friends and former colleagues that I’ve worked with, editors across the United States, that enjoy looking at my stuff. I do a preliminary rough sketch using pencil and paper, scan it in and send it out to the various people and let them comment. Obviously, I’m not going to get instant feedback, but I have enough people looking at it that some people will respond right away. Others will take an hour or so. But I kind of like to get it from this point (rough sketch) to this point (finished product) as quickly as possible. So if there’s a problem with understanding or grammar problems or the way it’s worded or I’m just too far out there that it’s uncomprehensible, they’ll let me know. And they’re trusty people I’ve contacted and developed these relationships through the years.”

Finished cartoons are sent to subscribing newspapers, which choose to run a specific cartoon – or not.

“I get paid whether it runs or not. They still pay a fee.”

Some of the nuts and bolts: “I have a website that I have to maintain for the newspapers to download the cartoon. I have the emails that go out. But my joy is actually drawing. The other stuff is all business and just maintenance. But the actual artwork is the fun part, the inking in and coming up with the idea and making changes as I go along in drawing and trying to get the most out of this little 11 by 7 piece of paper.”

On the day of this interview, Heller looked up the results from the cartoon he posted on the previous day – “104 likes, 20 shares, just over night.”

From his basement office, Heller connects to the world. “It’s very strange,” he says.

Anybody with a computer can do the same, which gives rise to this question: “What can an editorial cartoonist do that nobody else can?

“Everybody has the liberties to make comments and say what they want. The Internet is proof of that. No matter how stupid you are, you can make some idiot comments. But I think it’s the ability to make people think over a visual image. It’s taking apart very complex issues of the day and reassembling them with a sense of humor and opinion and hopefully getting people to think about the issue a little differently.”

Fodder abounds. Providing the most:

“Whoever is president. Loved the Clintons, you know, when they’re running. Look forward to Hilary, if she’s going to run again. If she’s going to be president, there’s going to be a lot of material there. Obama has been pretty consistent as far as giving me material, especially during the second term with all the scandals – the NSA scandal, the IRS scandal, the Obamacare website failure, Guantanamo Bay. There’s always something to draw about nationally. Congress has been really good, too. I read recently that this Congress is the least productive Congress ever. So, really, the do-nothing Congress is the do-nothing Congress.”

Certain things are off limits.

“I try to stay away from potty humor, that kind of stuff. If I have an idea that I really need to – just an idea – I draw it out on paper in pencil to get it out of my head, to be funny. But it wouldn’t be published because of some kind of humor or what it says or whatever. I do have to think about editors and readers and how people are going to react. But that is one of the aspects of a good cartoon – to actually know how people are going to react to it.”

Has Heller drawn anything draw in the past that would be politically incorrect today?

“Ooo,” he says with a pause to think, “no, I’ve never had to apologize for a cartoon that was misread or the symbolism was in the wrong way or that the humor was too bad. I’m pretty good at reviewing myself and making sure that there are no red flags or things that sneak up – misinterpretations of the cartoon.”

The art of Heller’s editorial cartooning ranges from pencil and paper to pen and ink and paper to hand-on-screen electronic manipulation.

“I kind of like the pen and ink. Just the feel of that. I could switch over to all electronic, but it just seems so cold. In the electronic age, I use the old crow quill pen and dipping ink. And then when I colorize it I use the Wacom tablet and digitalize it that way and clean it up with Photoshop. But I still enjoy drawing by hand with that old, you know, the tactile sensation of pen tip on a piece of paper. I enjoy that.”

Some of the artistry is necessarily exacting.

“I like to be very illustrative in my work. I use a lot of symbolism and, of course, the characterizations I do of political figures have to be spot-on. I can exaggerate certain features with Obama or the Clintons or Scott Walker, but you have to recognize them as an individual. So I do take liberties with their faces, but it still has to be recognizable.”

Some of the artistry is finish work, crosshatching and filling in, which Heller finds is relaxing enough that he can tune in music ranging from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Heller is part of a great tradition. One of the most famous American editorial cartoonists, Thomas Nast, took down the corrupt political machine of William Marcy Tweed in the late 1800s AND popularized the image of the mythical figure we identify as Santa Claus.

Heller is a source of all kinds of editorial cartoony stuff, such as: “For the most part, the U.S. cartoonists are very wordy. If you look at cartoons in other countries, there’s still the visual image. A lot of the Arabic and Persian and Indonesia, that whole sector, they do more of the visual art. Where Americans use more words.”

Joe Heller and I share some things.

He and I are products of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

He and I worked for the Green Bay Press-Gazette.

I retired from the newspaper in November 2012 (soon released my third book, wrote a forth and was hired by WFRV in June). I had a chance to write a farewell Press-Gazette column.

Joe Heller was laid off after 28 years at the newspaper, and he had no chance to say farewell in the Press-Gazette.

“I was let go due to budget considerations… I don’t have any animosity. It’s their decision. They’re the ones that let me go. I have regrets that I didn’t get to finish-finish my career at the Press-Gazette, but it’s just a matter of they made that decision, and I am kind of sad that they did that.”

Joe Heller’s work continues to run in such area newspapers as The Appleton Post-Crescent, Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter and Door County Advocate that are owned by the same corporation as the Press-Gazette, but the cartoons are not printed in the Press-Gazette.

“The anxiety level was up here (in his home office) the first two months – August and September. It was just horrible, trying to coming up with my routine, worrying about if I still had it, drawing. Had a difficult time drawing. Staying up ’til like 11 o’clock at night doing simple cartoons that should have been snap, snap – like that. And then all of a sudden, at the end of September or so, things calmed down, started smoothing out, and feeling really comfortable and coming down here boom, boom, boom, boom – the ideas are popping out just like they used to. I’m drawing, getting done at 5 o’clock. Some days are a little longer than others. I’m having a little more free time, getting really good feedback. I’m getting people saying that I’m drawing better or wittier or have sharper wit or more biting satire. I’ve been doing well. The syndication has grown about 50 newspapers since my layoff. And that’s a good thing. Not many cartoonists even have 50 newspapers.”

You may contact Joe Heller at joe@hellertoon.com.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV at 6:45 p.m. Thursdays and every other Sunday between 6 and 8 a.m. (usually around 7:45 a.m.)

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