The Funny Pages

Nick Anderson’s Second Act

The Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist is reclaiming his voice, outside of newspapers.

By Emma Schkloven February 2, 2021 Published in the December 2020 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Seated at his desk at The Houston Chronicle in July 2017, Nick Anderson was neck-deep in research, searching for the subject of his latest cartoon, while mentally packing ahead of his family’s impending move to the Riverside Terrace house he’d closed on only six days prior when the phone rang: his boss needed to see him in his office.

What happened next is something of a blur, even three years later. There may have been arguing. He’s certain there was a handshake with the publisher outside HR, but the end result was the same. “Pure hell,” Anderson says.

Anderson was the very last of the Lone Star State’s once formidable cadre of staff editorial cartoonists. His abrupt pink slipping marked the end of an era, and left Anderson himself adrift. The Pulitzer Prize winner’s dream job, spending his days drawing sharply observed cartoons poking fun, pointing out failings, and puncturing hubris on all sides of the political arena in local, state, and national politics, was gone. “My entire identity was wrapped up in being a journalist, being a cartoonist, and working in newspapers,” he says. “Having that suddenly taken away, it was like part of me had died.”

A Pulitzer-winner editorial cartoon by Nick Anderson.

Image: Nick Anderson

Anderson’s love of newspapers began where it does for most youngsters: in the brightly colored panels of the funny pages. His family regularly parsed through the latest in world events, business, and sports in their local Toledo, Ohio, paper while Anderson, the youngest, flipped straight to the comics. “But to get through to the comics, I went through the rest of the paper and just happened across the editorial page,” he explains.

It was there in the work of nationally syndicated artists like the Chicago Tribune’s Jeff MacNelly, Dick Locher, and the legendary Pat Oliphant that Anderson became fascinated with editorial cartoons. “I was just smitten,” he says. “I loved the idea of communicating an opinion with a drawing.” He loved to draw so he started sketching out funny takes on whatever was going on in his world. By 15 his high school newspaper had published his first cartoon, and by the time he matriculated to Ohio State University his award-winning panels were occasionally being picked up by major papers. “My first reprint, The Sacramento Bee, called me and asked if $200 was okay for a reprint fee,” he laughs. “I said, ‘Oh my God,’ and they ended up sending me $100 instead, because they realized I didn’t make that much.”

Eventually a Louisville Courier-Journal summer internship turned into a full-time position—one created specifically for him—after graduation, and just under 15 years later, he took home the Pulitzer for his fully colorized political takes on health care, partisanship, and, most notably, the Iraq War. Fresh off his win, he brought his pioneeringly graphic style (“sloppiness and real loose lines,” as he describes it) to the Chron in 2006. “It was odd being here where George W. Bush is from and where George H.W. Bush lived and constantly trashing them,” he chuckles. “I got a lot of negative reaction from readers, as you can imagine.”

One of Nick Anderson's Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoons.

Image: Nick Anderson

Being an equal opportunity critic, Anderson also doled out takes on everything from Houston sports to Obamacare to Texas oil to Starbucks’s red holiday cups (the conspiracy theory surrounding them, anyway). He always had a viewpoint, of course. The whole idea was to get reactions, to make people consider an issue, even if they didn’t agree with it. He loved that dialogue with people, the rare journalist who actually welcomed angry feedback. Whether the reader agreed with the cartoon or not, it made them examine their own opinions. “It’s bizarre to me that people still think that a political cartoon should be objective or unbiased,” he admits now. “If it was, it would be completely dull and boring.”

After his job was eliminated, that connection with readers was cut. Anderson tried to make the best of it, even tapping into dark humor by drawing an unceremonious exit panel (a pen left dangling mid-stroke by an out-of-frame artist whizzing through trapdoor in front of his drawing table) that he used to share the news. But freelancing syndicated cartoons didn’t come close to covering the bills—let alone the unexpected costs of burst pipes, a rotting drywall, and collapsed ceiling insulation in the recently purchased house—and the lack of that daily exchange with Houstonians that he’d had for more than a decade was palpable, he says. The burden was so great, he actually considered putting down his pen for good. “I felt like I was drowning and just could not get to the surface.”

Image: Nick Anderson

Of course, if you’ve clicked through a recent roundup of political cartoons online, you already know that this wasn’t the end of Anderson’s drawing days. He continued sharing his cartoons to his Facebook page and soon he was getting so much positive feedback—and the occasional snarky response—on social media that, six months later, he set up a Patreon account. When his patronage on the site skyrocketed after another one of his cartoons went viral, he had a burst of inspiration: perhaps there was a place for editorial cartooning in a direct-to-consumer market.

The result of this brainstorm, Counterpoint, a political cartoon-packed e-newsletter, launched last year with Anderson at its helm. Suddenly liberated from a media enterprise’s strict guardrails, he began testing the boundaries, dropping the occasional f-bomb and popping a middle finger. “I had gotten risk-averse to some degree,” he admits. “You start to go, do you want to waste time on a line of thought if you know it’s going to get killed anyway? It’s nice to know when you want to do something outrageous it will likely be published.” One notable panel comparing President Donald Trump’s comments on swallowing bleach to the Jonestown cult that drank poisoned Flavor-Aid (the cult leader didn’t spring for name-brand punch mix) even earned the wrath of the president’s re-election campaign this May.

Image: Nick Anderson 

Anderson’s e-blast isn’t just for him. Now artists from all political leanings are providing takes on today’s biggest headlines as contributors. Of the 18 satirists, 10, like Anderson, saw their jobs cut. It’s too soon to know if Counterpoint will hit it big (at the moment it has more than 170,000 subscribers), but if it does this could be a way to ensure that his art form doesn’t just die out. “It’s both exhilarating and terrifying,” he says. “It would leave a massive legacy beyond just my cartoons.”

Meanwhile Houstonians can still see his stuff a little closer to home; he started working for the city’s government relations department in 2019, a role that even involves busting out a Bayou City-themed panel every once in a while. Anderson has been the artist behind the city’s series of “social distancing cartoons,” spoofing some of our athletic heroes, a few of our local landmarks, and even one of our famous nicknames while reminding Houstonians to stay six feet apart.

Anderson had one caveat he had to agree to when he switched sides. None of his cartoons for Counterpoint or syndication could tackle local or state issues—after all, it’d likely be difficult to get state aid if one of your communications guys just dissed one of the region’s major politicos. Luckily, the national political landscape has provided him plenty of fodder to work with—in the lead-up to Election Day he churned out 15 cartoons in a single week instead of the standard three. 

Tapping into our political conversations today is exactly the same as it was in Anderson’s newspaper days, he says—well, except for one slight difference.Some days I write letters to Pelosi and McConnell for the mayor during the day, and then at night I’m doing editorial cartoons of them. It’s a weird double life.”

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