With his assault on the Georgia flag, fast-rising political cartoonist Mike Luckovich made a lot of people mad. He also made them think.
Atlanta Magazine | October 1992
In the midst of rising concern over Atlanta’s Olympic image last spring, Atlanta Constitution Editorial Cartoonist Mike Luckovich drew two panels. The left one showed a German coliseum flying the Nazi swastika flag, with the caption 1936 BERLIN OLYMPICS. The right panel showed a modern stadium flying the Georgia state flag, with the caption 1996 ATLANTA OLYMPICS.
The next morning, the Constitution’s editorial secretary fielded the first phone call. “Some guy was threatening to beat up everybody at the paper, including me,” she says. “I didn’t even know what he was talking about. Then I picked up the paper and saw Mike’s cartoon and said, ‘Oh.’ ” Nearly a hundred readers jammed the switchboard with threats, tears and rage. In the first week, the Constitution received nearly 60 letters, with at least that many more to come, the vast majority in vehement protest. Luckovich himself answered two calls that could be loosely interpreted as death threats, one from an anonymous man who vowed to “take appropriate measures.”
Of course the cartoon’s premise that slavery equals genocide was by definition a contradiction. Luckovich had also assigned to most supporters of the state flag extreme motives that probably do not exist. The cartoon was not fair, accurate, or logical; and it aspired to none of the tenets of good journalism, save one.
It was true.
Much of the world does immediately associate traditional Southern symbolism, from the Confederate flag to the word Dixie, with racism. To that end, Luckovich’s aim was, as Western marksmen say, dead nuts.
Several weeks later, Gov. Zell Miller, who had long dismissed the debate over whether Georgia’s state flag presented a racist face, called for legislation to change the flag back to its pre-1956 version—without the Confederate emblem that was added by Georgia lawmakers as a symbol of opposition to school desegregation.
IF THE NATURE/NURTURE theorists ever conduct a study on meanness as a human trait, they would do well to define political cartoonists as the control group. They might determine, once and for all, whether there is some seed of contempt picked up like beggar’s lice along the path of personal development or if, in fact, some folks are just born ornery.
Of course, in science, as in art, there are always anomalies: in this case, Mike Luckovich. He is too nice to be a political cartoonist. He is humble, he is likable. He has freckles. A quick smile. He wears quirky vintage clothes—all very endearing, but somewhat disappointing in a profession where subversiveness and misanthropy are worn like badges of honor.
It’s in his work, in print, that Mike can be nasty. He wasn’t born with acid in his veins; he had to learn his anger. Now, as the fastest rising editorial cartoonist in America, at age 32, he is beginning to master it.
In recent years, acerbic old-guard cartoonists such as Don Wright, Mike Peters and Doug Marlette have bemoaned a generation of “yuppie” cartoonists who are more concerned with being funny than expressing editorial opinion. For the cartoonists who developed out of the Cold War, Vietnam or Watergate outrages, conventional wisdom had it that if you want to get people to think, you have to spit in their cornflakes.
“I tend to disagree,” says Luckovich. “I think political cartoons mostly have to be humorous. You can’t always be drawing dead bodies or starving babies or people with bullet holes in their heads. People will stop reading you. But there’s something about making a point with humor that you just can’t ignore,” says Luckovich, even though he has struggled in his career to avoid being labeled a mere gag cartoonist.
Nonetheless, last spring many Georgians did not think that this hired gun from Seattle—who had previously delighted them with drawings like that of Tom Murphy sporting a G-string emblazoned PROPOSED ETHICS LEGISLATION and saying, “If you ask me, it covers too much”—was funny at all.
HUMOR, BELIEVE IT or not, is still Luckovich’s forte. Funny drawings have been his creative outlet since he was a kid, moving with his family from Idaho to Oregon to Washington at the whim of his father’s employer, mining mega-interest ARCO.
Ludicrous drawings of teachers meant instant popularity in each new setting. He took his first art class at Shoreline Community College in Seattle; while other students scratched away at classical renderings of nude models, he gave them jumbo feet and ears.
“This poor guy could not draw [formal] nudes. That just wasn’t his way of expressing himself,” says his wife, Margo, who met Mike in an art class. “The first thing I remember about Mike was him walking into class, hopping up on a stool and looking around. And I said to myself, now this guy is going to be funny.”
But not yet funny enough. After eventually graduating with a degree in political science from the University of Washington, where he won some national collegiate awards for his drawings, he took a desperation job selling union insurance.
He looks young now. But 10 years ago, with his freckles and high-swept black pompadour, he must have come off as altogether juvenile—Howdy Doody with Ronald Reagan’s hair—as he called on underinsured ironworkers and bricklayers in their rural Northwestern homes. At one point, he even went to a wig shop and bought a fake mustache and glasses to make himself look older. He wore the glasses a few times, but opted out of the mustache. It was too obviously fake.
Mastering the art of selling is like learning to swim. You almost have to drown before you get it, and having his head held just above waterline proved a great motivator for Luckovich.
He continued to draw, peddled a few cartoons to Washington state papers, and sent out more than 300 resumes. In 1984, he was hired by The Greenville News. Then, after only nine months, he was picked up by the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Two years later, at age 26, he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Luckovich was hired by The Atlanta Constitution in 1990 to replace Doug Marlette, a predecessor of legendary ire who had brought the paper its first Pulitzer in a quarter-century. Marlette resigned under protest when reformist Editor Bill Kovach, who had recruited him, left the paper.
Luckovich won this year’s National Headliner Award for Consistently Outstanding Editorial Cartoonist. Last year’s recipient, Jim Borgman of The Cincinnati Enquirer, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.
Luckovich is best known for his consistent insight and wit, and the ability to combine abstract topics: comparing abortion limitations to airline reservations (“No changes. . . Must stay over on a Saturday”); likening a cancer patient’s right to sue tobacco companies to the lottery (“You may already be a winner”).
Lately he has pursued a greater number of hard-hitting, more pointed ideas, partly to shake the comic tag, which can be deadly in a business where he with the meanest streak usually wins, and also because he is maturing. On the emergent end of what he calls a “midlife crisis” that peaked at about 29, he has confronted former beliefs and traded up from the self-indulgent ideals of the ’80s to a ’90s kind of consciousness.
Beginning about 1988, Luckovich, a Catholic, scored a dramatically different mark on the touchstone issue of American politics. He became an advocate of a woman’s right to abortion. Margo, his wife, says, “That was one of our biggest arguments from the time we were going out. He could not justify abortion in any case. I would cry and cry because I wanted him to see my point of view.”
At about the same time, Luckovich also reversed himself on capital punishment. In New Orleans, a close neighbor of the Luckovichs’ was kidnapped and driven around to automatic teller machines all night. He was then abandoned in his car about a mile from their neighborhood, shot through the head.
Ironically, Luckovich has since opposed the death penalty. “After they caught the guys, I felt—and I know this sounds goofy—but he’s gone. Killing them isn’t going to bring him back. This just made me have to think about it. I had previously supported the death penalty, but had not confronted it on a personal level until then.
“When I first got into this business, I thought that if people failed in society, we didn’t have a responsibility to them. Basically, I’ve changed in that.”
Today, he does not think in terms of liberal or conservative, preferring to use common sense instead. And although he considers himself independent of the Constitution’s editorial agenda, he usually is in sync with its left-of-center step.
“In order to do this job you have to have a certain amount of anger in you.”
Editorial Page Editor Cynthia Tucker says it would be difficult for the paper to have a right-wing cartoonist. In fact, the only Luckovich cartoon Tucker distinctly remembers vetoing in her first six months on the job was a Bush-vomits-in-Japan number that she claims crossed the line, wherever that is for a satirist, of good taste.
That does not mean, however, that Luckovich always reflects the editorial board’s mood. During the primary season, while the paper had officially endorsed Paul Tsongas, Luckovich supported Bill Clinton by ridiculing his own support system, the press. “I always try to look at it this way,” says editor Tucker. “If on any given day a cartoon doesn’t offend somebody, at least whoever it is lampooning, then it is not a very good cartoon.”
LUCKOVICH’S WILLINGNESS to attack institutions of which he is a part does not end with the press. “Mike is Catholic—and we should talk,” says Margo, “we have three children—but he has a hard time with some of the church’s positions on population and birth control. . . Our priest knows who he is.”
So, despite the obvious attraction of getting paid to spout off, the job does have a downside. Opinion is a one-man show. The deadline pressure is intense. The priest knows who you are. And it is the unfortunate, albeit ultimately profitable fate of an editorial cartoonist that as his political awareness grows, so does his cynicism.
“In order to do this job you have to have a certain amount of anger in you,” says Luckovich, his left wrist snaking around the top comer of his sketch board. And he finds particular catharsis in flaying America’s commander in chief, matching Halcion visage to glazed vision.
“Bush has this very high forehead and crooked smile. You know, he says, ‘Read my lips.’ But he actually has no lips.”
Luckovich squints at the page, seeming to close his eyes-completely, and in a flurry of willowy strokes has produced a hundred irate women gathered on the steps of Congress.
“NO! It’s not Avon calling!!!” they shout. Luckovich, huddled above the scene, is sneering.
PERHAPS BECAUSE cartoonists are so adept at pointing out the rest of the world’s faults, they have a tendency to snipe at each other.
“When I went to my first convention, in 1985, I thought, This is great, all my heroes will be there. Then as you go along, you find out that there is a lot of rivalry. All cartoonists are basically commenting on the same topics and competing for reprint space,” says Luckovich.
“One cartoonist started the rumor that my college roommate chooses the cartoons for Newsweek, things like that,” says Luckovich. He has been reprinted in the coveted space of that magazine more than any other cartoonist in the last three years.
“Mike is among the very best,” says Rick Newcombe, president of Creators Syndicate, which carries many of the nation’s top editorial cartoonists, including Luckovich, who is reprinted in more than 150 newspapers. “Anyone who is among the best is always going to be the target of envy.”
But even the best can improve. “It’s kind of like being a pole vaulter,” Luckovich says. “If I get another half-inch, most people won’t notice, but I can see the progress. About every year and a half, I feel like I shift into another gear.”
The flow of his line continues to evolve, with better shading and depth perspective. And where some used to claim that Luckovich’s style resembled that of Chicago Tribune cartoonist Jeff MacNelly (creator of Shoe), others now compare the work of a few new artists to Mike Luckovich’s.
His political voice is fast gaining thunder. That voice can carry humor or meanness, often both. Now, like the best of the genre, Luckovich’s anger has a voice of purpose.
“Sometimes there is an urge to tune it all out,” he says. “But there is no happiness there. As my syndication has grown, that has really pushed my feeling of responsibility with my work, to say something, to have an impact and maybe make the world a little better.”
His coverage of local events is likely to shift gears as well, and is the area in which editor Tucker would most like to see him become more active. “He’s not been in Atlanta long enough to know a lot of the local political figures well,” she says, although there is no lack of likely targets.
Undoubtedly then, he could pose even more challenge to local foible, pretense, ineptitude—and even tradition. Of course, if he draws many more like the Georgia-flag-as-racist-propaganda cartoon, he might yet get to use the old fake mustache and glasses he once bought to make himself look like an insurance salesman. ✦