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02.02.11

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Phaedra
Rick Romagosa / San Francisco Chronicle
CENTER OF ATTENTION: Cartoonist Mark Fiore after winning the Pulitzer. Fiore is the first recipient to win for online animation.

Talking Pictures, Walking Tall

No topic off-limits for Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Mark Fiore

By Jessica Dur


"You are the most talented cartoonist in America and you should run on television," says a fan.

"God have mercy on you," preaches a frantic woman—obviously not a fan.

"Find a real job," coaches a Marine.

These are the messages left on Mark Fiore's voicemail, the ranting from which he posts on his website for all to hear. Some are gracious, many mean. More than one person expresses a concern to kick his ass.

Not bad for a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Although Mark Fiore, who appears Feb. 12 at the Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, is not seriously afraid for his life, he has received death threats. It's not surprising, then, that Fiore works out of a converted warehouse in an undisclosed location in San Francisco. When I approach, I notice his name doesn't even appear on the call box outside his studio.

But while the attention may have changed Fiore's public profile, it hasn't altered his work one bit. "No topic is taboo or off-limits," Fiore tells me, echoing that as a political cartoonist, it's his "responsibility to take a stand, even if it's unpopular."

When he won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning last year, Mark Fiore became the first person ever to receive the award for work that does not appear in print. Though political cartoonists blossomed in the 19th century, and the category of editorial cartooning was created in 1922, Fiore is a modern-day pioneer of the trade. "The undisputed guru of the form," according to the Wall Street Journal, Fiore broke free from print a decade ago to create flash-animated political cartoons online that, thanks to the internet and according to his website, are "seen by millions, probably even scrillions."

Given the professionalism of Fiore's cartoons, I expect lots of fancy-looking equipment and shiny surfaces when I visit his studio. But much like the outgoing, relaxed cartoonist himself, the studio is cozily unkempt: piles of paper and sketch pads are presided over by a towering bookcase stuffed full of actual books. For a digital artist, Fiore still swims in the world of print.

Any political cartoonist needs constant fodder for the satire mill, and what's bad for the citizenry is often good for Fiore. When I mention Bush, he grins: "He's been beddy, beddy good to me." When it comes to the current presidency, he admits, "As a cartoonist, I wanted McCain, but as a citizen, I wanted Obama." And although Fiore's perspective is unequivocally progressive, he lampoons both the right and the left. His Sarah Palin chokes on her words and says things like "All we have to fear is grizzly bears—and we can shoot 'em," yet his Obama has been featured as a boxer who gouges his own eye out after letting the conservatives beat him up.

Ultimately, Fiore's work exposes the raw grit of political hypocrisy. As George Orwell once said, "In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." Last year, NPR's website featured his cartoon "Learn to Speak Tea Bag," which parodies the Tea Party's over-reliance on terms like "nazi" and "socialist" to criticize the current administration.

As a result, an incensed Bill O'Reilly branded NPR "a left-wing jihadist deal" after calling Fiore's cartoon "not funny, stupid and unnecessary."

Fiore later wrote that the controversy was "just great," because it accomplished the sort of discussion he's after. He also seized the opportunity to speak out about the danger of splitting people into easy bipolar categories. "As a matter of fact," he wrote, "I myself am a left-leaning, pro-gay-marriage San Franciscan, Catholic, anti-Bush, anti-Nader guy who guts his own fish, has cut down trees with a chain saw and took political science classes with Mary Cheney. Is your head imploding yet?"

Fiore's interest in cartooning began in childhood, with Garfield and Doonesbury. "I was brought into the news through cartoons," he says. "Not because of some brilliantly written editorial, but because of funny pictures." His eyes light up when he speaks of the "perfect design" of newspapers and the Sunday-edition cartoons. "Eventually," Fiore notes, "I was drawn inside to something deeper, to the editorial cartoon." In ninth grade, an English teacher one day told him, "Do anything you want this period, but you must give me something by the end of it." Echoing the Cold War climate, an astute Fiore drew a cartoon of a kid sitting under a tree watching a truckload of dissembled nuclear warheads rolling by. His teacher informed him that political cartooning was something people did for a living, and his passion blossomed.

When it comes to his skills, then and now, Fiore is modest. "I was not naturally talented," he admits, "I just liked it." In the mid-'90s, while working at a copy store to foot the bills, Fiore scanned one of his cartoons in color for the first time. The digitized result amazed him. After an uninspiring turn as a staff cartoonist in "a terribly stifling fluorescent, windowless office," Fiore fled the print world for good in 2002. He's never looked back.

"Animation gives me the opportunity to tap into people's emotions, given the range of color, motion, sound and music.

It's like getting to pull back someone's skull and poke different parts of their brain," he says, chuckling.

By literally putting faces on issues, Fiore infuses the serious with the silly. Fiore's chirpy talking gun, for example, is featured most recently in "Shooting from the Lip," a response to the tragedy in Tucson. The gun calls for an "eight-day waiting period for dangerously confrontational political speech" because "guns don't kill people, words kill people!"

Then there's the hopelessly grumpy conservative Mr. Dan, growling at the innocently practical Dogboy. "Mr. Dan! 'Don't ask, don't tell' is going to be repealed," Dogboy announces—to which Mr. Dan responds, "Good, now we can ask who's gay and tell them to leave!" There's also the playfully sinister Knuckles, a black-hooded oaf who delights in torturing people, and Pokey, a hypodermic needle who's eager to keep the death penalty alive and well in America.

Fiore's is essentially a one-man show; he has no research assistant, and only just hired voice actors about a year ago. (He and his wife still lend their vocal cords.) Every week, he combs both print and online news for a worthwhile and often underplayed story that he can turn into a one- to two-minute cartoon. Like all satirists, he must tap into the archetypes that reach the largest number of people. "Advertising serves the role that literature once did," Fiore says. "There was a time when Americans had books, like the Bible or Huck Finn, to unite them, but these days it seems like advertising is our common language."

A self-syndicated artist, Fiore sells his cartoons to a number of media outlets, including the San Francisco Chronicle's SFGate.com, where they run each Thursday. When it comes to syndicated cartoons, he is frank: "The syndicates have done more to kill cartooning than the internet." After all, it's much easier for newspapers to pay less for a sure thing (The Family Circus, anyone?) than to take a chance on something new. He bemoans the syndicates' use of grandfathered cartoonists who, though great, are squeezing out local, regional cartoonists whose hearts are still beating.

For someone who mucks around in the grime of American politics, Fiore is remarkably upbeat. In addition to spending his weekends "unplugged," he manages to stay positive by focusing on what's possible. He calls for his viewers to "Turn cartoons into action!" with his site's "Do Something" link, which lists helpful (and hopeful) sites related to his cartoons, like SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), a comforting salve to Fiore's hilariously irreverent "Hierarchy Complicitus" about the misdeeds of the Vatican.

As for the future? Fiore remains characteristically cynical and optimistic in the same breath. "I hope we screw things up enough," he says, "that we are forced to innovate solutions in order to save ourselves."

Mark Fiore appears twice on Saturday, Feb. 12, at the Charles Schulz Museum. From 10-11:30am, Fiore leads a master class for adult cartoonists ($32-$40; reservations at 707.284.1263). From 1-3pm, Fiore appears in the museum to draw, meet fans and answer questions (free with museum admission). 2301 Hardies Lane, Santa Rosa. 707.579.4452.


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