| Home | Interview with cartoonist Mike Luckovich -- Nov. 2001
September 17, 2014

Mike Luckovich, 41, is an editorial cartoonist with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Luckovich graduated from the University of Washington in 1982, sold life insurance door-to-door for two years, and got his first editorial cartoonist job with the Greenville (S.C.) News in 1984. He left Greenville nine months later for a job with the New Orleans Times-Picayune, then joined the Journal-Constitution in 1989. Luckovich was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning in 1995. His work has appeared in Time, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, and is syndicated to a number of papers nationwide. Ever the funny man, if you call his voicemail, you might hear that he's been sent home temporarily because of poor hygiene. spoke with him recently about the role of editorial cartoonists.

Mike Luckovich
Mike Luckovich in his Journal-Constitution office. Take me through the process of creating an editorial cartoon -- what time do you start, how do you pick your subject matter, how many rough drafts do you do, etc.?

Mike Luckovich: I usually don't get in until 11:30, and that's even early for me nowadays. The reason why is I used to get in early but I can't come up with an idea until I've had lunch. I tend to look at websites, read the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal -- I'm just reading a lot and writing down topics. My mind is not able to come up with cartoon ideas until 3. I don't know why that is, I just have kind of creative periods and non-creative periods, and around 3 o'clock I get creative. That may just be because I'm starting to get nervous about my deadline, which is 5:30. Around 3 o'clock I'll come up with a few ideas, and show them to a couple of guys in the office who I know are honest with me. Typically they don't like my first couple of ideas, and I kind of like that because it gets the adrenaline going when I get the rejection from them. By 3:15 or 3:30, I'll have a couple of more ideas and usually those are better. I'll show it to them and my editor and then I'll draw it out. I don't pencil anything in on my final drawing. I just think how I want it to look and ink it right on the drawing board. I screw up a lot -- I can't erase -- so I use a lot of white-out. I can draw quicker that way. How has the Sept. 11th tragedy changed the way you do your work?

Mike Luckovich

Mike Luckovich: Normally with my cartoons I try to use humor to get across my point. After Sept. 11th, you just couldn't use humor. The tragedy was so enormous, you couldn't be funny. It's almost like you have to come up with cartoons using a different part of your brain. I was just trying to come up with images that expressed the emotions that I was feeling and tried to focus in on different aspects of the tragedy that I thought were important. In the first couple of weeks, I kind of left politics behind, I wasn't focusing on the president, I was just focusing on the tragedy and the different aspects of it. When it comes to issues of race, how do you respect someone's ethnic and religious background and still make your point?

Mike Luckovich: I try to include various ethnic groups in my cartoons so that when I do a cartoon it doesn't seem odd that I've inserted a black person or a Hispanic person. It's sort of hard to explain. If I'm doing a cartoon, I don't want to use African Americans voicing the dialogue in the cartoon if I think that people can interpret that as being specific to African Americans. I can't think of any specific cartoons, but I think about this. It comes up fairly often. In that case I will make them two generic white people. You have to be somewhat sensitive, but in most situtations I try to mix it up a little bit, as long as I'm sure people won't misinterpret me by putting a member of an ethnic group in there and somehow think that it's targeting that group. Editorial cartooning is obviously intended to poke fun at someone or something, and over the years you've received your share of hate mail and a few death threats. Does this effect how far you will go with a cartoon?

Mike Luckovich: Oh no. Gosh, I just feel like everyone is entitled to their opinion, and if I can dish it out I should be able to take it. I just feel that people are paying attention to my cartoons, so I don't look at the angry, sometimes hateful letters as a negative. You've had some cartoons that have been dead on -- the one where Judge Ito tells the baliff to tell Kato Kaelin he can't live in the courtroom to the one on Gen. Custard and Sen. Shelby after Shelby switched parties. Which cartoon gave you the most satisfaction?

Mike Luckovich: A cartoon that seems to have hit the strongest cord, was the cartoon I did the day after the tragedy on Sept. 11th. I was watching CNN at home with my wife. I went into the office and spent all day on ideas and finally came up with one. I drew it, and I thought I screwed up. I didn't think it was very good. I brought it home and showed it to my wife and she said,"Well, I like it." I remember just throwing it down and feeling crappy about it. It ran on the 12th, and the paper started getting a lot of feedback on it, and people really liked it. Since then there's been a poster made out of it. It's raised money for the September 11th fund... Of course that's not my usual style of drawing. Like I said, I like using humor, and in that case you just couldn't use humor. I was feeling so much emotion that day. I was feeling sadness and anger and uncertainty and vulnerbility and surprise and shock. I guess that's why I was so ticked off when I came up with that cartoon because that only addressed one part of the stuff that I was feeling. I realize now that you really couldn't draw a cartoon based on all those emotions. You can only say one thing. Who are your favorite targets?

Mike Luckovich: Our politicians today who fight against campaign reform -- our politics have become corrupt with all this money. It sickens me to see Congress continually vote down campaign finance reform. They know how corrupt it is, but they defend it as freedom of speech. That's just so hypocritical. Then of course you have your old standbys like the NRA and the tobacco industry.

Those are kind of pre-September 11th targets. The sign that the country is getting back to normal -- at least for me -- is when it feels comfortable to start hammering on those groups again. Have you done any cartoons that you wish you hadn't?

Mike Luckovich: Yeah, but it's usually not on issues. They are like cartoons that I think weren't that good. I think, "There's probably a better way that I could have gotten that point across or a funnier way." Or, "Boy that drawing really stinks." I can't think of any specifically. When I feel that way I'm just glad the day is over and I can come in and do another cartoon to kind of redeem myself. In 1995 you won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning. Was there anything about that year that made your job easier?

Mike Luckovich: One thing is Newt Gingrich was in full flower at that point. So the lines in the sand were drawn pretty starkly then. It was just sort of an angry time. And I think that made cartooning a little easier. The whole Republican revolution, and just the nastiness in politics at that point was at least good for editorial cartoonists. But the last few years up until the tragedy, we cartoonists have been like the rest of the media, concentrating on goofiness like Condit and sharks and stuff like that. It's been difficult for editorial cartoonists because our readers are not focusing on what's going on in the rest of the world. We're sort of hostage to that because with editorial cartoons you need a reference point, and so if people have no reference point for what's going on in the rest of the world, you're kind of stuck doing cartoons on the Condit-like goofy issues -- things that seemed so important not long ago. The only positive aspect -- if you can call it that -- of the tragedy for editorial cartoonists is that it's made people really aware of life and death issues and it's kind of opened up a lot more avenues that people are aware of now. As you were perfecting your craft at your college newspaper, what editorial cartoonists gave you inspiration or served as role models?

Mike Luckovich: Probably the biggest editorial cartoonist role model was [former Chicago Tribune cartoonist] Jeff MacNelly. But my first hero was Mort Drucker, who draws for Mad magazine. He is a great caricaturist. I just love his work. And then I started to notice MacNelly, who in some ways had a similar style to Mort Drucker. They drew in a cartoon style, but they were very detailed and really good with caritcature and expression and hands and clothing and getting the wringles in clothing just right. Even though it was cartoonie, there was a realism about it that I just thought was so beautiful. MacNelly more than anyone got me interested in editorial cartooning. Did you always want to be an editorial cartoonist, and were you the class clown growing up?

Mike Luckovich: Up until my sophomore year in high school I wanted to draw for Mad Magazine. It was sophomore/junior year that I really started to notice MacNelly's stuff and Mike Peters and Pat Oliphant's cartoons. When I was 14 I drew my first editorial cartoon. Just some goofy thing on Nixon for my grandma [laughs]. It wasn't very good. Growing up I was sort of mischievous, I guess the class clown in school. And I've always questioned authority and so I think editorial cartooning is sort of a natural avenue to go to. Considering there are only 300 or so people making a living as full-time editorial cartoonists, do you consider yourself lucky?

Mike Luckovich: Oh, everyday. I feel so fortunate to do this. I sometimes feel guilty -- this is my favorite hobby, and they're paying me to do it. And not only do I get to do a fun drawing and make my point, but then the next day it comes out in my paper and gets sent out to papers across the country. I've got such a great situtation where I can come and go as I please. I cannot think of a better job, so I'm always thankful.

JournalismJobs: In 1996 you rode on Air Force One with President Clinton during his re-election campaign. The story is you kept calling his office until they would let you on the plane. What was that like?

Mike Luckovich: It was just great because I sort of had an outline in mind what I hoped would happen. And everything happened the way I hoped. My newspaper was paying for me to be on this plane, and I wanted to make it worthwhile. I didn't want to come back without having some fun. An aide brought me back to see Clinton in his office on the plane. I asked him if he wouldn't mind doing a drawing of himself. That took some courage because it's hard to ask the president, "Hey, would you do a drawing for me." Later someone nudges me and Clinton is in the aisle back near the press area and he's got this drawing in his hand and motions for me to come up. It was great because as I'm walking up, the plane is taking off and they don't have flight attendents on Air Force One to tell you to sit down and if you can imagine this, Clinton turned around and started to lean into the acceleration of the plane. He was like surfing into the acceleration -- he had both of his arms out. And I'm right behind him so I start to do that, too. It was a blast and I just started to laugh. I managed to get up to where he was and he handed me this drawing that he had done on Air Force One stationery. It wasn't very good, so I told him I could understand why he was trying to keep his day job. His caption said something like: "How did I get talked into this. Maybe Luckovich should be president." Then he had an arrow pointing down with the letters GDP on it. Getting your first job at the Greenville News in South Carolina must have been a big relief.

Mike Luckovich: Yeah, it was crazy because I didn't even know where this job was. There was an ad in E&P and I just thought I've got a good chance at getting it. I don't know why, I just had a feeling. As I was driving around in my Ford Pinto trying to sell life insurance, I had that E&P opened to the page so that when I go in and try to sell that crappy insurance, I could come back to my car and look at that ad and go, "Oh please, please let me get that job." The Greenville News called and I eventually got hired. It was such a happy feeling. I felt like I was getting out of life insurance prison. What do you tell aspiring editorial cartoonists who want to break into this business?

Mike Luckovich: The huge secret to this profession is just to practice. Young people will come into my office and they'll show me maybe one or two cartoons that they've done -- maybe they've traced Garfield. And then they'll say can I be a cartoonist? You have to join your school newspaper and start thinking like an editorial cartoonist. It's very difficult to get into this profession. Practice is the key. When the rare job does open up, you want to have a portfolio that's current.

Copyright © 2001 All rights reserved.

Other interviews:
  • Lisa Chamberlain, editor, Cleveland Free Times -- Oct. 2001
  • Ben Fong-Torres, former reporter and editor, Rolling Stone magazine -- October 2001
  • Raul Ramirez, news director, KQED Radio -- September 2001
  • James Daly, former founder and editor, Business 2.0 Magazine -- August 2001
  • James Fallows, correspondent, The Atlantic Monthly -- July 2001
  • David Ignatius, executive editor, International Herald Tribune -- July 2001
  • David Talbot, founder and editor, -- June 2001
  • Ed Fouhy, former CBS, ABC and NBC news executive -- June 2001
  • Linda Cohn, anchor/reporter, ESPN -- May 2001
  • Sol Levine, former producer, CNN -- April 2001
  • Charlie LeDuff, reporter, New York Times -- March 2001
  • Pierre Thomas, correspondent, ABC News -- March 2001
  • Gene Roberts, former managing editor, New York Times -- February 2001
  • Sydnie Kohara, anchor, -- January 2001
  • Lowell Bergman, former producer, 60 Minutes -- January 2001
  • Joie Chen, anchor, CNN -- December 2000
  • David Plotz, Washington Bureau Chief, -- November 2000
  • Christopher John Farley, senior writer and pop music critic, Time Magazine -- October 2000
  • Bob Edwards, news anchor, National Public Radio -- October 2000
  • Sharon Epperson, CNBC correspondent -- September 2000
  • David Maraniss, reporter, The Washington Post -- April 2000
  • Wolf Blitzer, anchor, CNN -- March 2000