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Thursday, Nov. 17, 2005 03:36 pm

True Britt

Springfield’s resident bomb-thrower is a sweetheart. Just ask his boss.

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The brush Chris Britt uses to draw editorial cartoons is so fancy, it can’t be bought in Springfield. It’s a Winsor & Newton Series 7, and the bristles come from the soft tail hair of the kolinsky sable. Britt buys one or two of these brushes a year from an art-supply house for $26 apiece. He dips one into a bottle of Higgins Black Magic, an India ink so utterly permanent and solvent-proof that it gives Britt the perfect excuse to avoid neckties — he’s ruined several just by leaning over his work.
He applies this ink to the design he has penciled on a piece of Unishade — a thick paper with a diagonal hatch design invisibly embedded in its fibers. When Britt dabs a clear chemical on the areas where he wants gray shadow, the little hatch lines magically appear. The chemical exposes more than shadows. It also reveals the secret behind Britt’s cartoons. “What is it? Probably something that’s killing me slowly as I’m breathing the fumes,” he says, squinting at the small print on the bottle. “Probably says, ‘Use in a well-ventilated area; never mix with ink.’ Probably something like that. “Oh yes. It says here, ‘If it gets on your fingers, go to emergency room immediately. Prolonged exposure will cause severe brain damage.’ ”
He pauses to look at the “cheater’s liquid” again: “Actually, it doesn’t say anything, which is kinda scary.”
How does it taste? “Good,” he says with a shrug. “I take a little shot of it in the afternoons.”
That’s the most necessary tool of his trade. No, not the magic shadow potion. All the splendid sable brushes, special inks, high-tech paper, and nameless chemicals in his cubicle would amount to nothing but greeting-card art were it not for Britt’s pungent perspective, his penchant for taking a kernel of truth and spinning out the most cynical scenario. There’s just something about Britt’s brain that gives him the ability to turn a nugget of reality into an arid, pithy riff, with just enough hyperbole to make you snort.
That’s what makes him a great editorial cartoonist, by whatever yardstick you choose. He has been staff cartoonist for such major newspapers as the Houston Post and Seattle Times, and he has won big awards, including the National Press Association’s Editorial Cartoonist of the Year. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Newsweek, and Time, and has been featured on CNN. Perhaps even more complimentary is the respect he has won from Barry Locher, editor of the State Journal-Register and Britt’s boss for the past seven years. “Many of his cartoons I don’t agree with,” Locher says. “I mean, many, many, many of his cartoons I don’t agree with — and he knows it!”
But the notion that such philosophical disagreements could outweigh the benefits of having “a bomb-thrower like this” on staff seems to amuse the editor. “It’s funny,” Locher says, smiling. “Every time Chris goes on vacation, people wonder if he’s been fired.”

Among Britt’s recent cartoons: Harriet Miers modeling a priestly vestment and a rosary — “the robe and collar she plans to wear as a Supreme Court justice.” A newly indicted Tom Delay perched atop a giant elephant with its tail raised, poised to poop all over President George W. Bush. And a CIA thug urging his battle-mace-wielding colleague to give the prisoner they’re bloodying “another taste of liberty and justice”; behind him, a sign on the dungeon wall has been amended from “God Bless America” to “God Help America.” It’s provocative stuff, and Britt is the first to admit it. “People say cartoons are biased, unfair, and mean-spirited — and they are,” he says. “Cartooning is not meant to soothe the psyche. It just stakes out a position, and that’s it. People want you to apologize for it — how do you apologize for an opinion? I wouldn’t expect them to apologize for their opinion.”
Mike Matulis, editorial-page editor of the SJ-R, says that Britt’s inky renderings draw more reader reaction than a written column, even if the column takes the same viewpoint as the cartoon. “It’s more visceral, I guess, on the cartoon side, and that’s why Chris catches so much more flak than I do,” Matulis says. “He probably gets 10 times as many phone calls, as far as people just being really upset at what he’s done, even though some days we may make the exact same point. I think that’s the nature of the medium.”
But Britt doesn’t dodge criticism or debate. In fact, his wife, Nicky, reports that he relishes a good argument. “Chris really appreciates and respects another person’s opinion when they can articulate it well and will stand up for their beliefs,” she says. Locher, after having his ears scorched a few too many times, decided to channel outraged callers straight to the cartoonist by publishing Britt’s contact info on every drawing. “Early on, I got smart — fast. Yessirree! I said wait a minute, put Britt’s phone number on there. Call him directly! That’s helped me a lot,” Locher says. “And he talks to everybody. He can always defend his position — always, always, always.”
To stay informed, Britt stays tethered to the news like a heart patient to an oxygen tank — listening to National Public Radio as he drives to work, then reading the SJ-R, the Chicago Tribune, USA Today and maybe the New York Times over coffee. A small TV in his cubicle is on at all times, tuned to either CNN or MSNBC. He doesn’t rely solely on his own interpretation of the news. Before he puts pencil to paper, he confers with Matulis, his immediate supervisor, in the neighboring cubicle. Britt then makes a pencil sketch and shows that version to Matulis, as well as to Locher and associate editorial-page editor Matt Dietrich. Occasionally he’ll run it past a few reporters, just to see whether people get it. Throughout this process, all Britt is trying to gauge is how effectively the cartoon communicates what he’s trying to say. He’s not looking for endorsement. “I basically take the standpoint that I don’t kill cartoons,” Matulis says. “I will give advice, but I don’t kill cartoons.”
Locher, who frequently finds himself reiterating that Britt’s cartoons represent Britt’s opinions — not the editorial stance of the SJ-R — takes a similar approach. “I probably have let more things go than I should have, being sensitive to just central-Illinois readers in general,” he says, “but I don’t feel like it’s my place to say, ‘Oh, Chris, you can’t say that!’ It’s just not my place.”
Locher estimates that he’s nixed perhaps a dozen Britt cartoons over the past seven years.
In the bottom drawer of a file cabinet, Britt keeps a folder full of messages from irate readers. Though the SJ-R has published scores of anti-Britt tirades in its letters section, the notes in the folder were deemed too extreme for even the opinion page.
A man offended by an April 2004 cartoon in which Britt implied that militant groups were preventing democracy from taking root in Iraq wrote this: “Chris Britt, I mean this from my heart. You are a fool. Worse yet, you are a fool spreading ignorance. I don’t know of many things that should be considered a higher crime.”
Another man, miffed by a January 2004 cartoon showing prison guards escorting a juvenile to the death chamber, sent this e-mail: “Perhaps if [Britt] or a loved one were robbed, raped, had their throat cut, various objects shoved up their alimentary tract and then dumped into the woods, he would change his mind about capital punishment.”
A NASCAR fan upset over Britt’s cartoon showing a hearse as the pace car — just after the death of Dale Earnhardt — sent this e-mail: “I will find a way to forward this to someone in NASCAR and the magazine NASCAR Illustrated. I hope you get thousands of NASTY e-mails and phone calls. YOUR [sic] AN [sic] BIG IDIOT & A MORON!!!!!”
Then there’s this classic: “You are the biggest sissy little bleeding-heart liberal I’ve ever even seen! Why don’t you move to China, you bloody Communist!!”
These people might be shocked to meet the cartoonist in person. If you’d never seen Britt but had to pick him out of a lineup, he would be the guy you’d dismiss as a Boy Scout leader. He’s got a military haircut, a habit of wearing field boots, and an entire wardrobe of cargo pants and earth-tone button-down shirts. At 46, he’s similar in size and shape to an action figure: 5-foot-8, with muscles built during four visits to the gym each week. He attends church every Sunday (he’s a Presbyterian) and has coffee every Tuesday morning with an elderly friend. Holding a degree in art, he has a series of abstract oil paintings on display in a small gallery in Scottsdale. It’s not that Britt’s a different person in person; it’s just that the debate readers might fantasize having with him will not be nearly as rude and raucous as they expect. He says things like “That’s OK; they’re entitled to their opinion, even though they’re wrong!” — but chuckles when he says it. “Is there a nicer guy? No. Is there a guy more willing to talk about his views and his opinions? No. Chris is, like, such a sweetheart!” Locher says. Britt’s wife says that’s why she almost doesn’t mind his frequent unpaid speaking engagements — PowerPoint presentations that Britt spends hours customizing, selecting the most current cartoons on the topics he knows will be of greatest interest to a particular group. “I don’t know if people realize how much time it takes him to prepare,” Nicky says, “but it’s exciting for me because I know there’s that many more people out there that, once they’re able to meet him, they can better understand where he’s coming from. I think people expect him to be a mean old ogre, and I think he surprises people.”
Britt says he’s just trying to follow his late father’s example. The cartoonist’s favorite story about his dad, Richard Britt — an architect of some renown in Phoenix — involves a church he designed, Church of the Beatitudes. A nearby congregation launched a new building project by purchasing a set of plans drawn years earlier by Frank Lloyd Wright, and they kicked off their building campaign by erecting a sign saying that the church was “designed by the world’s greatest architect.” The Church of the Beatitudes responded by putting up a sign announcing that their building was “designed by the world’s greatest living architect.”
The Beatitudes congregation meant it as a supportive gesture, but his dad, Britt says, was “just mortified.” He remembers his father swerving to the curb, yanking up the sign, and tossing it into the back of his pickup. He took pride in letting his work speak for itself. “He was very well-read, very smart, very gentle, kind, and immensely talented, but he would never tell you that,” Britt says. As a child, Britt spent Sundays reading the funny papers with his father, and for a while Britt thought that he wanted to draw a comic strip. But as he got older, he gravitated toward his dad’s Washington Post magazine, which featured the best columns and political cartoons of the week. “I used to look at that and go, ‘Wow, that would be a great way to make a living, drawing political cartoons’ — having no idea just how tough a road it would be,” he says. No college offers a degree in cartooning, and the reason is obvious: no jobs. The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists lists fewer than a hundred members gainfully employed by media outlets. Even cartoonists who have won the Pulitzer Prize can’t find steady gigs. Just last week, the Los Angeles Times fired Mike Ramirez, a Pulitzer-winner who had been staff cartoonist there some 15 years. Britt wormed his way into the business through sheer persistence. In the 1980s, he started badgering the editorial cartoonist at the Arizona Republic — Pulitzer Prize-winner Steve Benson for advice. “I’m 51. I don’t know how old Chris is — 12? Forty-six! Whoa! He’s grown up on me!” Benson quips. He now considers Britt a close friend. “He was an obnoxious little child with a flattop haircut who used to badger and harass me, but in a pleasant way. He has this, you know, this warm smile, and he’s kind of quiet, but he’s very persistent,” Benson says. “He was like a bad rash that just wouldn’t go away. He’d call me; he’d want to come to my office, just to see what I did: What kind of brushes did I use? What kind of paper? He was just soaking it all in.”
Britt sold some freelance pieces to the Arizona Business Gazette, then took a job there selling ads to legal firms. “I just wanted a job at a newspaper, just so I was going to work every day,” he says. “I thought at least it would be a springboard; I would meet people — and that’s what happened.”
By 1990, he had sold enough cartoons to the Sacramento Union to get a job there. The Union publisher recommended Britt to Copley News Service — the Copley chain owns the SJ-R — and the news service added him to its small cadre of syndicated cartoonists. He celebrated by marrying Nicky, to whom he’d been engaged for two years. “I went from selling ads and doing one cartoon a week to, six months later, I’m working in a capital city and being nationally syndicated. My head was spinning,” Britt recalls. “The stars were aligned.”
In 1990, after less than a year in Sacramento, Britt got a call from Benson, who told him that the Houston Post was looking for a cartoonist. He got the job — but there were persistent rumors that the Post was on the verge of collapse. In 1991, when he got a job offer from the News Tribune, in Tacoma, Wash., he had to decide whether to stay in Houston, where he and Nicky were building a house. “I called my dad, on the verge of tears, and he said, ‘You know, Chris, that’s not a home yet. That’s just a house.’ So I ended up taking the [Tacoma] job,” Britt says. “I think I spent one night in the house we built.”
In April 1995, the Houston Post did indeed collapse, so the decision to move to Tacoma turned out to have been a wise one. Britt’s next move, though, wasn’t so smart. He heard about an opening at Washington’s largest newspaper, the Seattle Times. The job was available because the Times had just fired Brian Basset, the man who had been the paper’s editorial cartoonist for 16 years. But Britt was interested in the job — even though he considers Basset a close friend — because the cartoonist would report to then-associate editorial-page editor Jim Vesley, who had given Britt his first job years earlier at the Sacramento Union. Vesley, Britt says, is “a really good guy, one of the best guys I know in the business.”
After an extensive interview process, the Times offered Britt the job, and he phoned Vesley to say that he would accept. To this day, Britt can recite his phone conversation with Vesley. “I remember calling him, and Nicky was in the kitchen with me, and I said . . . the only thing I’m worried about is, you know, Brian is a really nice guy, and I just don’t want to get in a position where they wouldn’t like me and they’d fire me,” Britt recalls. “And that’s what they did.”
Vesley, now editorial-page editor at the Times, says that Britt wasn’t exactly fired; he just didn’t survive his six-month probationary period.
“I think, in looking back on it, it was not Chris Britt; it was a time when the Seattle Times was really trying to figure out what it was or what it wanted to do,” Vesley says. “Cartooning is so subjective, and you give up so much of your editorial page — we give up one-fifth — there just has to be a symbiosis there, and I just don’t think it ever clicked.”
Britt kept drawing cartoons for the Copley syndicate, but he worked from home, taking care of his then-infant daughter, Emily. “She and Chris bonded so greatly, she remembers Daddy being home with her,” Nicky says. Then, in 1999, Britt joined the SJ-R.
Larry Locher, then the managing editor of the SJ-R, was deluged with submissions for the cartoonist job. “You wouldn’t believe the number of applications I had,” he says. Some came from people who could draw, some came from people who made keen political observation, but few, he says, came from people who could do both. Focused on skill rather than political persuasion, Locher ended up hiring a liberal whose cartoons tick him off just about every other day — which, he says, is fine. “It contributes to the interest on the editorial page,” Locher says, “and, love him or hate him, you’re gonna go there and see what he’s got to say. He very much drives readership to our editorial pages, and I’d be kidding myself if I didn’t say how important that is to me.”
The fact that he finds about half of Britt’s opinions galling doesn’t matter. “At any newspaper, I think you get into real trouble when the editor and the owners and publishers exert so much influence that it’s only their view that shows up in a newspaper. It’s not the way to run a railroad,” Locher says. “So, no, I don’t agree with everything — but as long as it’s within the bounds of reasonable commentary, I let it go.”
Britt claims to have been as tough on Bill Clinton as he is on Bush and says that at his previous posts he beat up on Washington’s governor — a Democrat. He admits gravitating toward liberal causes, supporting women’s rights (including abortion rights), gay marriage, and an increased minimum wage. He believes that global warming is more fact than fiction and says that Bush’s No Child Left Behind law has been counterproductive. He aspires to follow the tradition of such legendary cartoonists as Herb Block, Paul Conrad, Pat Oliphant, and his mentor, Benson. “Chris believes that it’s important to make a statement every day to contribute to the rumble,” Benson says. “One of our colleagues says a cartoonist’s job is to throw the first punch in a bar fight and then stand back and watch everyone else join in. “That’s what Chris has been doing his whole career.”
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