Mike Smith is a self-proclaimed “geeky artist.” He’s been drawing since childhood, and when he found his old sketchbooks in his mother’s garage, they proved that he was opinionated even as a boy. But his career as an editorial cartoonist was launched officially at The Los Angeles Loyolan during his junior year, when his friend, Mike Dunlap ’80, recommended he show his work to the newspaper staff.
Today, Smith draws for the Las Vegas Sun, where he has worked since 1983. Syndicated by King Features Syndicate, his cartoons have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek and USA Today, and he has won awards from the Nevada State Press Association. Smith also writes the newspaper’s NASCAR blog called “Bloggity, Bloggity, Bloggity,” for which he draws NASCAR-related cartoons, called StockcarToons. Smith was interviewed by Christelyn D. Karazin ’99, a frequent contributor to LMU Magazine.
LMU: I recognize imprint of a Jesuit liberal arts education in your work. Am I right?
In my case, having a Jesuit education was instrumental in becoming a cartoonist. I went to Bellarmine College Prep in San Jose, Calif., and then LMU. So for eight years, I listened to Jesuits telling me, “You need to take the road less traveled, question authority and be a person who practices critical thinking.” Those were all things that resonated with me. Questioning authority is a very important thing to an editorial cartoonist.
Were you always interested in cartooning?
I drew all the time as a child, from age 4 or 5. Even as a kid, I was drawing things that had a point of view. I was always interested in drawing cars. Now my drawing career has come full circle, because in addition to my editorial job, I draw cartoons about NASCAR.
At LMU, you majored in the humanities. Did you have any idea what you would do with that degree?
I didn’t really know what I wanted to do as a freshman. A Jesuit priest at my high school suggested the humanities as a way to get a good liberal arts education. It was a solid basis for my career as a cartoonist.
I got my start at The Loyolan. The environment allowed me to practice my art and begin learning to be a cartoonist. When I saw the reaction my cartoons were getting, I thought, hey, this could be a really fun thing to do for a living. But I had no idea how to approach it. At the time, I was a huge fan of Paul Conrad, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist at the Los Angeles Times. So I used to call him up and bug him to see me. Finally, he relented, and I drove downtown to the Times building with a little Xerox package of all these cartoons I’d done for The Loyolan. He went over every cartoon with a fine-tooth comb, and he criticized all of them artistically and from an ideological perspective. Then at the end of our conversation, he said, “Well, Mike, if you ever want to get into journalism, you’d better learn how to draw!” That was pretty harsh, but it was good advice, because it fired me up to improve my art and practice every day.
Another thing he said was editorial cartooning is really about reading. It’s about absorbing as much information as you can, because the spark to the creative process is information. So, I started reading as much as I could every single day, and then tried to draw a cartoon.
Your cartoons criticize politicians of all stripes. What are your personal political views?
I like to think of myself as an equal opportunity offender. My job is to poke fun and comment about people in positions of power with whom I disagree.
Do readers try to influence the content of your cartoons?
Sure. Sometimes people clip out my cartoon from the paper, cross out the words and put their own words in. With the advent of the Internet, people can instantly comment. I have a lot more interaction from readers as a result because people don’t have to sit down, write a letter to the editor, address it to the editorial page, find a stamp and mail it in. Now they can just go on the computer and instantly comment on something I’ve drawn.
Do editorial cartoonists face the same ethical questions as other journalists?
Although editorial cartooning is considered journalism, I’m not really sure that it is. A journalist has to follow some basic rules in terms of being objective, being accurate and showing balance in their stories if those stories are in the news section of the newspaper. An editorial cartoonist uses exaggeration, misquoting and the stretching of reality in order to make a point about reality. So it really doesn’t conform to the normal rules of journalism. As a result, a cartoonist has, in a way, a lot more freedom.
Nowadays, newspaper circulations are dwindling everywhere. Are you worried about that?
I’ve been fortunate because I’ve established a reputation at the Sun, and I get along well with the people who own and edit the paper. So I feel pretty secure. But it is not a good time for editorial cartooning. A lot of cartoonists have been laid off. When I started at the Sun, there were about 200 cartoonists nationwide. Now I believe there are around 85. It’s a strange trend. The media are becoming more visual, and editorial cartooning is such a unique form of visual communication that I would think newspapers would want to hold on to that.
If newspaper readership and cartoonist jobs are declining, is the impact of editorial cartoons declining, too?
No, I don’t think so. There are some very talented cartoonists in this country, and their work will still be important and still be read, and quite possibly more widely read because of the Internet.
What’s going on is a switch in the way readers obtain information. As people switch to electronic methods of getting news, there are probably more opportunities for editorial cartoonists to have more people see their work in an electronic form. It could be good for editorial cartooning. I don’t know that it will create more jobs, but in terms of exposure for the work, it could be better.
If a student cartoonist at The Loyolan today asks you for advice, would you advise him or her to switch to computer animation?
I would tell them that they need to be very versed in the Internet. They need to know how to use the Internet, how to create Web pages, how to disseminate their work online and, possibly, how to make their work more viable online. If that means animating an editorial cartoon or making sure that it’s in color, those are important things to do. I don’t know that animation is the key. There are some people who are animating editorial cartoons, but they haven’t had tremendous success in selling them to syndicates. I would caution the students that if they want to be an editorial cartoonist and get a job on a print paper, that’s going to be very difficult in this environment.
And what are some of the qualities an editorial cartoonist needs?
You have to question authority, have a sense of social justice and be a bit cranky. You have to be a bit of a malcontent who looks at the world for what’s wrong and needs to be fixed. You need to be opinionated. You have to be willing to take a side, have a good sense of humor and be a good draftsman.