On Pulitzers and peppers flipping the bird

Updated: 2013-01-13 08:30

By Mike Peters (China Daily)

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On Pulitzers and peppers flipping the bird

Cartoonist Joel Pett shares a few stories about his craft with a university audience in China. Pablo Alcala / Lexington Herald-Leader

When American political cartoonist Joel Pett toured China in 2012, the highlight, not surprisingly, was the chance to meet fellow cartoonists.

"There is a very special bond among cartoonists around the world, which is difficult to explain. It trumps nationality, language and ideology," the 59-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner blogged from Shanghai.

"Somehow we all feel a collective mutual affinity, probably because of our shared labors of futility, railing against injustice. Or maybe it's just something in the ink."

Pett spent two weeks in China on a speaking tour sponsored by the US State Department, meeting with business, media and academic groups to talk about his art.

Pett says he was interested to find that there are more English-speaking Chinese than Americans, some 400 million.

"When I arrived, my Chinese was limited to 'tai chi' and 'Yao Ming'. But I now know Chinese for 'super PAC donor', 'friend of coal' and 'pepper spray,' which translates approximately to 'perv remover.'"

At home in Kentucky, where he has been the editorial cartoonist for the Lexington Herald-Leader since 1984, the US presidential election kept him busy at the drawing board.

Looking back on his China trip, he told Public Radio International that audiences were most surprised at "how rough I was on Obama".

"They kept asking me, 'What you got against Obama? Why do you hate him so much?' and I kept saying, 'Actually I don't - this is just part of the job to push authority to do better'."

Like many editorial cartoonists in the US, he is happy to point his barbed pen at leaders of either political party. Likewise, don't read too much into his trip representing the US when there's a Democrat in the White House.

Pett says he has traveled overseas on State Department programs twice before, to Cameroon and Bulgaria, during the George W. Bush administration.

Pett, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his editorial cartoons in 2000, says the job seems fun on the outside but that it's all about making a concise point - and that's hard work.

After four years, he says, the way he draws the current US president has changed some.

"A little grayer, certainly," he says. "Maybe more weary-looking, beaten down. It's hard to gin up the same level of excitement on your fourth anniversary as on your wedding night."

Asked whether he found it easier to draw Obama or Republican challenger Mitt Romney, Pett replies: "Everyone is eventually easy. I usually get them down right before they lose."

Like many cartoonists, Pett does not take himself too seriously. His bio lists his proudest non-cartooning accomplishments as "college intramural golf title, shutting out a University of Kentucky player in a game of horse, two-second quarry-frisbee-grabbing cameo on TNT" - while his embarrassments, he says, are "endless".

In China, Pett was intrigued by his meetings with a broad range of cartoonists, from veterans working in established print media to young artists who are finding expression on the Internet. He jokes that the latter phenomenon is just like in the US: "You reach a huge audience but you don't get paid".

He adds that young cartoonists today "seem very excited and energized" - more so, he says, than he found 17 years ago when he first visited China.

One cartoonist he enjoyed meeting signs his work with a tiny cartoon of an animated pepper with its middle finger extended.

"Certain things transcend language barriers, and make us feel more like one big human family," Pett says. "Things like a cool breeze, a tired smile, the warmth of playful children, and cartoon vegetables flipping the bird."

Contact the writer at michaelpeters@chinadaily.com.cn