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Jack Zaleski, Published January 28 2012

Zaleski: Great year to be editorial cartoonist

Oh, to be an editorial/political cartoonist as the presidential election season cranks up. The material is uncommonly rich and seemingly endless. The players on the political stage are out of central casting: ready-made for caricature and the punditry of the sketch pad.

I work with two of the best editorial cartoonists in the nation: Trygve Olson of Moorhead and Steve Stark of Fargo. Each brings a different style to his work, but both have the news sense and drawing ability to create sketches that weave together the bite, humor and message that make for good political cartoons. They are having a lot of fun this year.

If it’s not scarecrow-skinny President Barack Obama – he of the wing-flap ears – it’s Mister Mean himself, Newt Gingrich. Can it get any better?

Gingrich in particular brings to the cartoonist’s sharp eye a wealth of characteristics that beg cartoon parody. For example, as much as Newt smiles that phony smile, his I’m-smarter-than-you disdain shines darkly from his cold, beady eyes. He is incapable of hiding it. As much as he grooms his boyish fop of white hair, he can’t shake the image of the mean fat kid who is trying to get back at all those popular kids who bullied him on the playground.

Cartoonists love it.

Obama is no Bill Clinton, a bulbous-nosed philanderer who couldn’t keep his hands off Big Macs and chubby interns. But when it comes to cartoon fodder, the president’s short-cropped hair and wider-than-wide smile makes cartoonists grin.

And what of Mitt Romney? Cartoonists have a hard time with him because he’s, well, dull. Blow-dried, dressed like a Ken doll and stiff as vanilla pudding in January, Romney is lousy material for the sketchers. Maybe he’ll loosen up as Gringrich dances all over his presidential aspirations, but maybe the passion, meanness and liveliness that make a good cartoon aren’t in the Massachusetts moderate.

Cartoons generate the most comments, complaints, anger and praise from readers. That’s good. A political cartoon is supposed to be one-sided, pointed and, yes, unfair (at least to humorless readers who see an issue differently than the cartoonist). It is, after all, an opinion expressed in a drawing. One need not agree with it to appreciate the cartoonist’s talent. And if a cartoon drives you to curse the cartoonist, the editorial page editor and “that rag” in Fargo, the cartoonist has earned his pay.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at (701) 241-5521.