In a world dominated by male, left-leaning editorial cartoonists, Lisa Benson is something of a rarity: the Apple Valley, CA-based political comics artist is a woman, and a Republican to boot. Ann Telnaes, president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, says of her organization's 231-strong membership, only 10 are women, and only one of them, as far as she knows, leans towards the right.
Benson has been at her craft since 1992. Her work, syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group, appears in more than 100 newspapers in the United States and Canada.
“Lisa Benson is a rare talent who can illustrate a major news story in a single drawing and convey her ideas to readers in very few words,” says Alan Shearer, Washington Post Writers Group editorial director and general manager. “Conservative describes her politically. Brilliant describes her artistically. A combination of artistic talent, moral indignation and strong point of view mesh somehow to produce some of the finest work I have ever seen from a local cartoonist.”
KQED spoke with Benson about what it's like to create news-driven art in the Trump era, especially in a state that mostly voted for the opposition.
Great editorial cartoonists have a knack for seizing upon a very complicated issue and drawing it into a bold metaphor which they then present in a definitive way. How do you go about finding a simple way to illustrate a complicated issue?
It’s tough to boil down the thought process because there’s no scientific formula for getting from point A to point B. Basically, it’s just a matter of scribbling notes, keywords and phrases and trying to match them with a strong, recognizable visual. This stage of the process can last for hours.
The challenging part for cartoonists is taking an old, tired metaphor and presenting it in a fresh, new way. When John Kerry was negotiating the Iran Nuclear Deal, many experts feared that it would create an arms race in the Middle East and that some of those weapons could end up in the wrong hands. I chose to draw my cartoon in a cafe setting showing Iran ordering from the nuclear menu with Saudi Arabia and a evil-looking character telling the waiter, John Kerry, “I’ll have what he’s having.”
Another example is Jerry Brown’s struggle to rein in Democrats’ spending in California. When someone mentions runaway spending, you almost immediately visualize the kid in the candy store. Only this time, the candy store is stocked with rice and beans.
Have there been any issues of such complexity or nuance over the course of your career that you felt you couldn't fit into a single-frame cartoon? And if so, how did you go about solving that problem?
I try to avoid multi-panel cartoons, mostly because I’m too lazy to draw all those squares. In my mind, it’s not so much the complexity of the issue, but more about how you want to get the message across. When NASA’s funding was cut, I chose to draw three panels showing our space program fading away into space. The cartoon tells a sad story that would have been more difficult to illustrate in one panel.
You live in a state where Democrats win a lot of elections. To what extent have you had to deal with enraged feedback? Have you ever felt persecuted?
I think I felt persecuted once... for about five minutes. I try to ignore hateful comments because it’s mostly irrational ramblings from hot-headed readers. There’s no way to respond to that. All editorial cartoonists experience enraged feedback, especially these days when every little thing can tick off the masses. On the flip side, we also receive many compliments and words of encouragement from readers which makes it all worthwhile.
This interesting cartoon from Nov. 9 seems to depict Uncle Sam as having to move to Canada. Did you draw it the day before, under the assumption Trump would win? How do you feel about that cartoon today?
Like many voters, I wasn’t excited about either of the candidates and fully expected Hillary to walk away with the win. I did this cartoon on election day figuring, no matter who won the election, there’d be people threatening to leave the country. Predicting the future has never been one of my talents.
Does it feel immediately different drawing cartoons that are in support of the ruling/winning party, after eight years of having a clear-cut target in the Obama Administration?
I wish Donald Trump and the Republican Congress well and look forward to a conservative agenda. But I suspect that they will be dishing up just as much cartoon material as we saw during the Obama years. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that politicians make promises that are nearly impossible to keep. It’s disappointing that with each new administration, we’re still trying to solve the same old problems: national debt, affordable health care, tax reform, border security, entitlements, terrorism, etc.
Who are the editorial cartoonists you most admire and why?
When I discovered editorial cartoons in my teens, I enjoyed following Paul Conrad and Pat Oliphant. I had always admired the artists on the comics page, but editorial cartoons opened up a whole new world for me. Early on, Jeff MacNelly’s drawing style and sense of humor made a huge impression on me. I also enjoy Michael Ramirez’s work. He always seems to get the right balance of art, message and humor.
Why aren't there more conservative female political cartoonists?
You could probably count on one hand the number of female political cartoonists, both liberal and conservative. I’m guessing the talented female cartoonists choose to work for Disney rather than face an uncertain future in newspapers.
Find out more about Lisa Benson and her work here.
Funding for KQED Arts is provided by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Support is also provided by Yogen and Peggy Dalal, Diane B. Wilsey, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Helen Sarah Steyer, the William and Gretchen Kimball Fund, and the members of KQED