Personnel Profile: Charles Brooks Sr.

Charles Brooks Sr., edited the Pelican collection, Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year. One of the cartoons he picked for the latest edition was by Capitol Weekly cartoonist Dan Carino.

How did you get started working on political cartoons?
All of my life, I had been interested in reading the newspaper and keeping up with what was going on in politics. As long as I can remember, I have always wanted to draw. While other kids played at cowboys and Indians, I would draw and dream of being a cartoonist. I got my artistic leanings perhaps from my grandfather, who used to do detail work on horse-drawn coaches.

After I got out of service, WWII, I tried to get a comic strip started, but had no luck. Since I enjoyed reading what was going on in Washington and around the world, I thought about doing editorial cartoons, because there you had the whole world to talk about, whereas in a comic strip you had to stay with the same characters every day. As a student, I had studied art under the Birmingham News art director, Ernest Henderson, and had a chance to meet Hubert Harper, editorial cartoonist for the Birmingham Age Herald. The Age Herald was owned by the Birmingham News, which had the larger circulation of the two papers. The News had been running syndicated cartoons, and I applied with Harper’s suggestion to the Birmingham News. I got the job.

Tell me about the series.
I had a call one day from Dr. Milburn Calhoun about illustrating with cartoons a book he was publishing about vice president Spiro Agnew. After finishing this job, I suggested to him that he do an annual book of best editorial cartoons. For years, I had seen such a book of gag cartoons, but none of editorial cartoons. He agreed, if I could get the OK of editorial cartoonists, and they would have to agree not to charge for their cartoons. He explained that he could not make a go of it, if he had to pay large sums for individual cartoons.

I brought this up at an annual meeting of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists when I was president of the association. They voted unanimously to try the book. Dr. Calhoun had promised a check each year made out to the Association, which they could use any way they wished, instead of individual payments. We started the book, thinking it would be a good history of the year in editorial cartoons. It has proven to be exactly that, and is used widely in universities and schools as a teaching tool. The series has been going for 39 years.

Do you have any favorite artists?  
I have several. Probably the number one would be Vaughn Shoemaker of the Chicago Daily News, who won several Pulitzer Prizes and numerous other prizes. I was fortunate to have him teach editorial cartooning when I attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Chicago. Others are Daniel Fitzpatrick and McKutcheon of the Chicago Tribune, and Paul Conrad. I should also mention Herbert Block (Herblock) as one of the greatest cartoonists, though I disagreed with his politics. He was very liberal, and I am very conservative. One of the best compliments I ever received was from President Richard Nixon, who said that I was their Herblock.

Among modern cartoonists, I consider Michael Ramirez as probably the best. However Mike Luckovich of the Atlanta Journal, Ed Gamble of the Jacksonville Times-Union, and Nick Anderson of the Houston Chronicle are also very good. I have great respect for Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts. What he did was to make his characters part of Americana. Segar’s Popeye, Cy Young’s Blondie and Mort Walker’s Beetle Bailey are also worth mentioning.

What do you look for in a cartoon? What was it about the Carino cartoon?

I look for a pungent message, easy to understand and well-drawn, with humor if possible. I don’t like labels, unless absolutely necessary. Although I disagreed with the cartoon, describing the Arizona law against illegal immigration as Nazi, it said what the cartoonist wanted to say in a powerful, concise way, and it was well drawn. We always try to represent the complete spectrum of political opinion in the book, so the reader has a cross-section view of cartoonists nationwide and in Canada.

Have political cartoons changed over the years?
Oh, yes. To begin with, they had far too many labels. They were excellent during WWII depicting the mood of the country and showing the situation as it was. Bill Mauldin, of course, was another of my favorites, with his depiction of Willie and Joe. Many cartoonists now go in more for humor than trying to push political philosophies. The spot on the editorial page is too important for just humor; what is needed is a hard biting cartoon saying something about government.
It sounds like you wish political cartoons were more political/partisan, like they used to be?

Yes, that’s right. That’s when they are better cartoons, when they show what the cartoonist believes and wants the reader to believe. That is the essence of an editorial cartoon. It is an editorial in graphic form. The lead editorial on the editorial page propounds the opinion of the editor, and the editorial cartoon presents the opinion of the editorial cartoonist. When I believe very strongly in a certain issue, I would draw several cartoons showing three or four different reasons why I’m for it. I spaced them not too close together but days apart; I feel this is a good way of encouraging the reader to think as I do — by repeating the same message from different angles. I don’t think cartoonists should hesitate to make fun of politicians with whom they disagree. Looking back, some of my cartoons that I think were among the best was where I took words right out of a politician’s mouth and hung him with his own words. It’s a waste of space on the editorial page to just pat a politician on the back for doing the right thing. That’s what he’s paid for.

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