Last Friday, I was out for a long weekend at a buddy's cabin in Golden, BC. Just beginning to relax in the sunshine, I got an email alert on my phone. Former Premier of Alberta Ralph Klein had died.
I opened a beer, sat in a chair on the deck and went to work. My buddies gave me grief that I was supposed to be relaxing, but I told them I needed a half hour and I began sending emails to daily newspapers across Canada. You see, the editorial cartoon was already done. The files had been on my phone for about a week, ever since the news came out that Ralph Klein was close to the end of his debilitating illness.
Yes, it's morbid that from time to time, I make my living from a product that is derived from someone's death. When someone of note, whether political or cultural, is close to death or has died, I often feel like a vulture, sitting on a fencepost, waiting to take advantage of the situation. It's not a great feeling. And it's very difficult to be genuine and not come across as maudlin. There's a lot of bandwagon grief and crocodile tears on social media these days and I try to walk a fine line between honest respect and false sentimentality. There are few things I dislike more than hypocrisy and social media is ripe soil for that particular crop.
What's even more morbid is that when I find out somebody has died, I have to decide if it's cartoon worthy or not. I must ask myself if the media will find it newsworthy enough to write stories or editorials on this person.
Ralph Klein was one of the most charismatic and popular provincial Premiers in Canadian history, beloved by many. Personally, I was saddened by his death, largely because the way his life ended seemed so unfair, given how he lived. I felt the same for former NDP leader Jack Layton when he passed, one of the few politicians I genuinely liked, despite not always agreeing with his politics. Those cartoons aren't as difficult because I actually feel something for who the person was, for the life they lived. While I wouldn't call it grief, there's a small connection and a desire to honour them, to do right by them in the cartoon.
Then there are the death cartoons that are newsworthy, but are about people for whom I feel little. This is not a comment on their character, their impact, or their value as a human being. It's simply that they are strangers to me. Former Premier of Alberta Peter Lougheed passed away last year. A respected leader, a man of vision whose footprints are all over the province I call home, and whose death was mourned by many. But Lougheed ended his run as Premier in 1985. I was 14 years old, living overseas in West Germany and I didn't even start following politics until my late twenties. I've never felt a connection to the man.
The same could be said for Margaret Thatcher who passed away this week. While it's unlikely that I would have shared her right wing views while she was in office, her legacy is undeniable. Her impact on the UK and the world is clear. Monday morning at 5:30AM, I was working on a cartoon about her death. It was obvious newspapers would be reporting and editorializing on her life and times.
My profession dictates that I must observe the contributions of these two people even though I feel nothing for them on a personal level. So, how do I do that without being cliché, falsely sentimental or hypocritical? The simple answer is that I can't, not completely. But I do my best.
What of those whose final days are not of interest to the editorial page? Annette Funicello and Roger Ebert died this past week. I did not feel their deaths warranted the drawing of a cartoon. There was no money in it. That's the distinction I have to make. Can you believe that?
How about a natural disaster that kills a lot of people? I have to draw a cartoon on that because it dominates the news. Trust me; nobody is going to print something funny or political on their editorial page when more than 200,000 people have died from a tsunami on Boxing Day. It was horrible, a tragedy and a nightmare for so many. The last thing I wanted to do was add my illustrative voice to a situation that was not going to be improved by one more opinion. My solution was to guilt people into giving, providing a comparison of Boxing Day shopping and donations to relief agencies.
Then there's Remembrance Day, an annual cartoon about death. I've drawn a cartoon each year for November 11th for more than a decade, and each year it gets more and more difficult to create fresh imagery. Poppies, cenotaphs and graves, old soldiers, passages and quotes from Flanders Field, tired captions of Lest We Forget, and We Remember. Each year, I do my best to summon up hackneyed images, trying to appear genuine, but feeling like a fraud. What's worse is that I come from a military family on both sides; I grew up a base brat, and spent five years in the Reserves. Heck, I even met my wife there. But saying 'Lest We Forget' has become routine, kind of like saying 'Bless You' when somebody sneezes. We say it, but how many really mean it?
One of the all-time cliché death cartoons is that of the pearly gates. Cartoonists often show the recently deceased either talking with St. Peter or being greeted by somebody who has passed away before them. There are many variations on the theme. I have never drawn a pearly gates cartoon and never will. It's an image that has been done to death, pardon the pun. But that's not to say that mine are terribly original, either.
When I approach this sort of cartoon, if you could call it that, I've now developed what could easily be called my signature tribute image. A painted portrait, rendered as well as I can in the short amount of time I've got, with a quote, the name of the deceased, the dates they lived, or anything else I can think of. I've done enough of them that even this now feels trite. Give me more time and I might be able to come up with something more original, but that's not how the 24 hour news cycle works. Because I have a knack for portraiture and people seem to like and publish them, I continue to do these cartoons and then I move on as quickly as I can. My Thatcher cartoon ran in daily papers across Canada on Tuesday, likely a benefit of being first on the editor's desk on Monday, the day she died.
Regrettably, it's part of this business of being a freelance editorial cartoonist in Canada. The bills get paid by securing that spot on the editorial page earmarked for images rather than text. If I choose not to draw these memorial cartoons, somebody else will and I'll be out of a job. Most of the time, I get to draw and colour and make smartass comments for a living. It involves long hours, it's competitive, and it's non-stop, even on a rare weekend off in the woods. I thrive on the pace, I enjoy the work and it's rarely boring. But while it's a great way to make a living, no job is perfect.
Drawing cartoons about people dying is a part of this gig I could really do without.
Previous work by Patrick LaMontagne.