Retired Eagle cartoonist reflects on craft of visual commentary
PITTSFIELD — Three flag-draped military caskets against a white background. Stripes and stars. It was one of the simplest editorial cartoons Chan Lowe ever drew.
But in his four decades of producing cartoons for newspaper opinion pages, the last two years from his base at The Berkshire Eagle, this work from 2009 remains Lowe's favorite, because its message must stew in a reader's mind.
The hand-lettered caption: "WHICH IS THE GAY ONE?"
Coming after years of debate about gays in the military, the line can be read as petty bias. Or, as Lowe anticipated, as a gut check. Here, plain evidence of a soldier's sacrifice says everything.
A cartoon's impact must happen in the reader's mind, Lowe, 66, said April 26, after retiring from his job as deputy editorial page editor for The Eagle. "You can lead a reader to water. You have to let them do the drinking. If it goes on inside them, they love the cartoon."
As with all the cartoons Lowe produced — three a week for the Tribune Content Agency over 34 years, more than 5,000 in all — the one showing military caskets went out to media subscribers across the country. For a few seconds at countless breakfast tables, Lowe's work prodded the American psyche.
That's the job Lowe performed for years, sitting at a drafting table wielding a sable brush, and countless bottles of India ink, to give people who follow the news the shock of insight — or indigestion. Lowe's longest run was at the Sun-Sentinel in Florida, where he also created local cartoons above and beyond the works shared nationally. He was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize at the Sun-Sentinel in 1990.
While at The Eagle, Lowe contributed a rare twofer: Sunday columns accompanied by his own editorial cartoons.
"He sure hit the nail on the head." That, Lowe says, is what he'd like a reader to think. "That they see something so compelling they're forced to think about it. Whether or not you laugh doesn't matter. Humor is one of the arrows in the quiver."
In promotional material, his longtime syndicate says Lowe likes to get to the point in his cartoons. It notes his "matter-of-fact perspective that relies more on thorough analysis than knee-jerk reactions, giving his finely crafted cartoons an extra stroke of gravitas."
A National Press Foundation award in 2000 noted that Lowe "has it in for people who are a little too full of themselves and social movements smacking of hypocrisy."
"So a couple smooching in a parked car and criticizing same-sex marriages turn out to be married — to other people," the citation reads. "President Clinton waxing on about `values' during investigations of his personal conduct can't help but say, `for a REALLY good time call ' "
Though his job as a cartoonist was to make people think, the art of getting that message across requires bridge-building, often in the form of an appeal to the Everyman.
"They have to open their hearts to receive your message before you can deliver it," Lowe says of readers. "What's the point of ticking people off for no reason?
The best cartoons, he says, get their messages across almost instantly. "In a flash to the reader, before they have a chance to be skeptical, or be bogged down in a column. Your message will at least stick to the wall."
"The message is instantaneous. It's an incredible power they give you," he said of the cartoonist's role.
He began producing cartoons while a student at Williams College in the early 1970s, encouraged by faculty members. "I just had an affinity for it. It was the way I expressed my own sense of satire."
Though he entered the business as a staff artist and cartoonist, with a stint at the Oklahoma City Times before moving to the Sun-Sentinel, Lowe considers himself a "columnist who draws."
Lowe's retirement removes a celebrated nail-hitter, further depleting the ranks of nationally known editorial cartoonists. Lowe estimates that while as many as 250 full-time editorial cartoonists were at work when he joined the field in 1975 at the Shawnee News-Star, in Shawnee, Okla., there are now fewer than 50.
In his time at The Eagle, Lowe produced local cartoons on top of his three-pack for the syndicate.
Lowe admits that he's walking away from a rich subject for commentary — the administration of President Donald Trump.
But walk he did, after a newsroom send-off from colleagues at The Eagle. Lowe stood in the afternoon hubbub, near the requisite sheet cake, as Executive Editor Kevin Moran praised a career spent "sticking up for the small people in the world." Moran said that Lowe's cartoons have appeared "in all the newspapers that matter," a tally that includes The New York Times and The Washington Post.
"It's nice to go out upright for a change," Lowe told the newsroom crowd, noting that he had seen four colleagues at other papers leave on gurneys. "It's the first job I've left on my own volition."
One promise continues to bind Lowe to The Eagle: a pledge to come out of retirement to create a cartoon commenting on Trump's departure from office, whenever that comes. Lowe will continue to live in the Berkshires.
"I was damned if I was going to let him control my life after three years," Lowe said of the president.
It took some time, Lowe says, for his caricature of Trump to jell. "At first, he was hard for me to draw. I just wanted to soak in the essence of Trump. I was trying to immerse myself in Trumpiness."
Lowe put up photos of the president around his drafting table at The Eagle — showing Trump laughing, angry, in repose, in a pout. The challenge of caricature, he says, is to show the essence of a person, filtered through the cartoonist's commentary.
Lowe leaves never having drawn Vice President Mike Pence or Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend, Ind., mayor who is a Democratic candidate for president. He thinks both would be hard to capture in a cartoon.
Lowe did draw former Sen. John Kerry — plenty of times — and found that relatively easy. "The guy actually is a caricature."
He retires able to draw the White House and the Capitol from memory.
"If you can't do that, you shouldn't be in the business."
Only late in his career did Lowe begin to use software tools to complete cartoons, relying on brush and ink for decades. He finally switched to a pen.
"I got tired of the ink bottle exploding in my luggage all the time. That was my one last concession to modernity," he said.
Last month, after it emerged in the Robert Mueller report that White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders had lied at briefings with reporters, she became the subject of one of Lowe's final cartoons. It was his first time drawing Sanders, and it meant taking stock of her features. Lowe found them surprisingly off-kilter, lifting the left side of his face to dramatize it.
"Her face is in conflict with itself. When I look at her, I think, `Catch the dichotomy, catch the schism — the difference between the good side and the less-than-good side.' She's a lot of fun to draw."
In the cartoon, Sanders sits in a sort of "kissing booth" of the kind made famous at county fairs of old. But the sign says, "Lies. $1."
A man looking on says, "Being a typical Trump staffer, she figured out a way to monetize it."
As with the caskets drawing, Lowe believes that the best cartoons are the simplest — those with few visual distractions.
"It took me decades to figure that out," he said. "Know when you're finished. And stop. Everything has to be directed at the point you're trying to make. The best cartoons have no words at all.
"Pictures are so evocative to people — much more than words," he said. "It's like having a loaded weapon in the house. You have to be responsible when you start waving it around."
Larry Parnass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.
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