What makes a great editorial cartoon in 2019? Adam Zyglis knows

Sep 18, 2019

Political cartooning has been impacted by many things over the past decade. The advent of social media. The change in how consumers receive their news. And more recently, President Donald Trump. Buffalo News’ Pultizer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Adam Zyglis spoke with WBFO’s Nick Lippa about what makes a great cartoonist in 2019.


Adam Zyglis in his Buffalo News work space
Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO

In the paper or online, a political cartoon appears as a detailed panel, giving commentary to a current event. The creative process for just one image is a daylong endeavor.

“If you think about it, a cartoonist doesn’t really have a beat. So I’m expected to know a lot about every topic that I’m commenting on,” said Zyglis.  

After researching his topic of the day from home, he makes his way to the newsroom to bounce ideas off other reporters.

“I’ll develop a stack of rough sketches, and this is where I’m concepting things almost like a copywriter for an ad agency, getting my ideas, messages and opinions from a statement to a creative image. I’ll just show them what I’m working with to gage their reaction,” Zyglis said. “If you’re a standup comedian you can actually try your jokes out. Even though not everything is using humor, it’s a way to test out some of these concepts.”

By 2 or 3 p.m. his sketch is approved by an editor and shortly after a final product is submitted for the next day’s paper. But as the News has developed a larger online presence, Zyglis’ work has reached a larger international audience.

“I would draw a cartoon on something like the Charlie Hebdo or something on a global issue, and all of a sudden I’m getting people sharing my cartoon and writing in Arabic or in French and in different languages and I’m realizing that people all around the world can view these cartoons and sometimes misinterpret them,” Zyglis said. “The power of the image is apparent on social media because cartoons are sort of tailor made for it. They are very similar to a meme, but they’re much richer than a meme. They have many layers. If you can compare them to a meme, a meme would be cheaper boxed wine and a cartoon is like a vintage. It’s hand crafted. It’s got much more there. I think the correlation is there because they are consumable in a very rapid pace and they are very visual.”

This love for a "vintage" artform didn’t happen overnight. Zyglis originally attended Canisius College as a computer science and math major.

“I was thinking to go in to graphics programming because I was going to combine the critical thinking skills I had with my desire to be creative,” Zyglis said. “I think some of these jobs in that field are so specialized. I learned as I got through the program, you would either be the artist, doing concepting, or you would be the coder and you would deal with math.”

During that time Zyglis started drawing a weekly comic strip for the school’s paper on student life. He said the content was mostly auto-biographical. Then, 9/11 happened.

“It impacted me like it did everybody, very deeply. For me, it sucked me in to foreign policy and current events like I never experienced,” Zyglis said. “That kind of turned me on to political cartoons and I just couldn’t stop consuming them.”

Zyglis ended up writing his honors thesis on the art of editorial cartooning instead of on his major.

“They’re like, ‘You can write it on anything you want.’ Then I’m definitively doing it on cartooning. Because when else will I get a chance to do this,” he said.

After Zyglis graduated, there happened to be a vacancy for a political cartoonist at The Buffalo News, so he pushed to get an internship in the art department. Tom Toles, a Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist himself, left the News in 2002 to work for the Washington Post.   

“I grew up in Buffalo. So I grew up a fan of Toles and in awe of his writing ability and his cleverness,” Zyglis said. “There’s still no other cartoonist like him in terms of how unique he approaches things. He’s just such a smart writer.”

Before he could fill the position, Zyglis had to prove himself.

“I sent in my resume, but I actually hand delivered my portfolio and walked in without a meeting and just was like, ‘Hey I’m a jack of all trades I can do technical drawings. Illustrations, caricatures, cartoons. So Margaret Sullivan (the first woman to serve as the editor and as the managing editor of the Buffalo News) ended up getting her hands on my portfolio and decided to give me a shot with an internship,” Zyglis said. “I started with a three month internship in 2004, and by the end of the internship, I started transitioning from illustration to at least two editorial cartoons, primarily local at first. I applied for the job and I thank Margaret to no end for seeing potential in me because I was very rough around the edges at that point.”

Replacing Toles was beyond daunting for Zyglis, but he said he had the support in Buffalo to develop into the artist he’s become today.

”My goal was to not be anything like Tom. I needed to have my own style, have my own approach. Not really look to him as someone as a cartoonist I wanted to be, but to find my own voice,” Zyglis said. “I think you will ask most cartoonists and they’ll tell you that it takes three to five years really working full time to get your feet on the ground in terms of your visual style. You experiment a lot the first few years and then after that your voice as a commentator. So it took me several years but then I really felt I came in to my own.”

So what makes a great political cartoon?

Zyglis describes cartooning as a negative art form in a way. It acts as a form of criticism. He believes stronger cartoons call out injustice, inequity, or something viewed as unfair by society.

“It has to be standing up for what’s right,” Zyglis said. “I think the best cartoons are courageous because they’re saying something maybe that we’re all thinking, but we are not publicly saying out loud. If we are, a cartoon can say that with maybe more force and more bite with satire. I think one element of a really good cartoon, and cartoons are designed to be different, they are not always identical, but a great cartoon often will engage the reader and make the reader do a little bit of work to kind of bridge the gap. So as a reader, it engages you. You feel that, a little aha moment, even though it shouldn’t be that hard. You don’t want to lose readers. but you do have this little gap that you want the readers to make or fill. I think if you pull that off successfully, you communicate a really strong opinion on something and at the same time make the reader think a little bit and show some creativity.”

In 2015, Zyglist became the third editorial cartoonist for the Buffalo News to win a Pulitzer Prize following Toles (1990) and Bruce Shanks (1958). With experience and accomplishment has come an updated perspective. He has a family now and said he’s gained further understanding of the context within the issues he draws about.

“In the past I used to focus maybe almost too much on just trying to be the most clever or creative. I thought the best cartoon would be the most clever or witty. That is not really my philosophy anymore,” Zyglis said. “To me, the best cartoon punches the hardest and says what it needs to say. Sometimes I’m trying to be clever or creative. Sometimes you’re just trying to throw a grenade and really just hit a target and make sure that you’re going after what’s right.”

Zyglis shared his thoughts on some of his more recent popular cartoons.

“El Paso remarks”

When drawing a public figure, he’ll get a handful of photos to go off --- except President Trump, who he has drawn countless times now. Many of his recent works have been based off the president’s remarks regarding white nationalism and racism.

“We shouldn’t be surprised. We know what Donald Trump is about. We’ve known since the campaign,” Zyglis said. “But many people thought, ‘Oh he will just become presidential.’ Charlottesville and his remarks about good people being on both sides. There are so many points along the way that have disproven that theory that he’s just going to change.”

Zyglis drew a cartoon referencing what he says was Trump’s racist remarks at rallies. It shows the President on a dock dumping a bucket of chum filled with tweets in to the water. Circling the chum instead of shark fins are KKK hoods. Zyglis said this cartoon was misinterpreted by many as a response to the El Paso shooting. So when the time came for commentary on the mass shooting that left 22 killed, Zyglis created something a little more off-putting.

'El Paso remarks' published August 5, 2019
Credit Adam Zyglis / The Buffalo News

“The El Paso shooter had a manifesto that cited a lot of the language Donald Trump has used and those in the right wing media about the invasion coming in, this immigrant invasion, this caravan. And it’s established that this shooter had white nationalist, hateful roots to his killing spree, at a time when our president has been inciting this language at rallies, week after week. So we know he bears responsibility for this,” Zyglis said.

“Days after, just like Charlottesville where Donald Trump was almost forced to back off against those statements and saying something kind of rational. He had a prepared statement that just seemed like we were in upside down land where he was saying we must call out against white nationalism, racism—it doesn’t have a place in America. He was making a statement that you thought a president should, but it just did not line up with any of his previous remarks. So I’m showing this fork tongue. To me it’s just double talk. If you are going to remove and end all this white nationalism talk, he should start with his own mouth. So I had the tongue sort of morphing in to a fork tongue that was cutting his own tongue off. To my previous statement about how I tried to be more and more clever, that was a time where I’m just like, ‘No. This is what I’m seeing happening and I just want to create the strongest visual to communicate that message.’ And yeah the goal is to have something almost so disturbing to match how disturbing I felt his words and the events were.”

“Pancho Billa”

There are different categories that Zyglis said he sees strike a nerve. The Buffalo Bills hold their own section. This has led to arguably his most popular cartoon in recent memory.

'Pancho Billa' published May 16, 2019
Credit Adam Zyglis / The Buffalo News

“I was touched by the story and just like everyone else, I’m a Bills fan. I’m a native Buffalonian, so I was kind of right there with everybody,” Zyglis said. “When I travel, I’m always blown away by how many Bills backers bars there are. Like everywhere. As a point, whenever it’s football season, I do make an effort to find a Bills backers bar and go. So when I was just reading this story just something hit me. I mean, he’s in a better place and I’m like, what’s the first thing he’s going to do when he gets to heaven? He’s going to find the local Bills backers bar. And that’s when it (got) my brain thinking. I’m like, of course Tim Russert is going to be there. And I think Ralph Wilson at that point would probably have either token over management or he’s behind the bar or bought it out and owns it. I just thought it was a fun storyline, but that also kind of touched people’s hearts a little bit. It was a change of pace. I didn’t expect the (amount) of people to get back to me and embrace the cartoon, but it was a lot of fun to do.”

Zyglis said he tries to include positive pieces from time to time about serious issues. That train of thought led to this next cartoon.

“Nation of immigrants”

'Nation of immigrants' published February 1, 2017
Credit Adam Zyglis / The Buffalo News

“We’re a positive community. We support each other. This Making Buffalo Great Again was the first year early in the Trump campaign when he tried to do the travel ban initially. We got a lot of blowback locally from that,” Zyglis said. “I believe immigration is what our country is founded on. Originally, we were all immigrants. I have polish immigrants. The reason I’m here are because of my Polish ancestors and people were not kind to the Polish when they first came here. We all need to put ourselves in their shoes. Part of what America is about is to be a melting pot. And Buffalo encapsulates that so well and we have so much pride about it that it was a prideful moment for me where I’m like you know what, everywhere else I’m seeing these other cartoonists be very negative, but we have a success story here in Buffalo, so I wanted to sort of highlight that. That cartoon I’ve heard from other colleagues around the country too that said, ‘This is very nice. You guys seem to really have a great immigration story here.’ That was kind of the thought process behind that one. And I tried to make sure I had most of the countries represented in the travel ban that were holding up the signs.”

In Buffalo, an area where the public schools have to cater to over 80 different languages, the power of an image can be more powerful than the written word. Zyglis said there have been cartoons on immigration that have gotten responses from those who don’t speak English.

“It’s a universal language. Imagery,” he said. “I think The News (and) my editors know the power of that and know even on the local level, we have communities that speak different languages and we have communities that are illiterate. The literacy rate is really low. There contains sort of a greater power when the message is contained with a visual.”

Zyglis has many critics who feel he has too many critical Trump cartoons, but he said his job is not to support anybody.

“I never supported any president in the past. People would always assume, ‘You love Hillary. You love Obama.’ I liked when they were in office because I could draw about them a lot. I had tons of Obama cartoons and Hillary when she was running. But a lot of critics of mine fail to remember any of them. And sometimes I’ll send them an email back and forth and they’ll be like, ‘Oh I never really realized you did that.’ So we should be supporting beliefs and ideas. Not individuals,” Zyglis said. “If Donald Trump does something right and a cartoonist acknowledges that there’s nothing wrong with it. But to be a supporter and fan of his, it’s troubling because his style of politics is closer aligned with propaganda. What he’s doing to the truth, in good conscious, no good journalist should support that.”

What about the pro-Trump cartoons? Zyglis said it’s been an odd time for his career. The majority or almost all of the mainstream conservative colleagues he has didn’t support Trump at first, so for a while there wasn’t many pro-Trump cartoons right after he was elected.

“When they came, they were very hyper specific,” Zyglis said. “It was almost, you wouldn’t see any critical for a while. Because I think the conservative cartoonist or columnists wouldn’t want to upset some of their readers. I know from knowing my syndicate and the newspapers, the editors that communicate with us, there was a big call for, ‘Where are the pro-Trump cartoons?’ It should tell you something when most mainstream conservative writers and commentators, when they don’t support someone, it may mean he’s not conservative. So I think he was tapping in to a new demographic in a way that’s been there all the time. So what’s interesting is you’ve seen a couple of underground cartoonists who have never really had a large platform, or as large, are becoming very popular.”

Self-described libertarian Ben Garrison is one cartoonist who has seen his work embraced and promoted among the alt-right. Zyglis said Garrison’s work isn’t often backed by facts.

“Most of the stuff in the cartoons are conspiracy theories. But Trump supporters have put him on a pedestal and he was invited to the White House even,” Zyglis said. “It’s very odd. It’s something like I’ve never seen before. I don’t mind seeing someone praise Trump in a cartoon for something he did right. To consistently acknowledge things that he does as fair and just when they’re not, I think is just a completely separate reality.”

For Zyglis, working at The Buffalo News has given him the support and tools he needs to create award winning work. He gets feedback from his editors, but said he also gets full editorial freedom as long as his opinion is rooted in fact.

Even if he disagrees with the editorial board, they will move forward with his ideas because they view him as an independent columnist.

“The only time I will get into trouble is on sensitive issues,” Zyglis said. “If I visually go too far, it’s a family newspaper after all, I know the limits where I can’t go visually to get at that message. There’s been very rare times over the years, lately not much at all, but maybe six to ten times over my career where I really had a problem with the visual and I had to either move on to a different topic or say what I was trying to say in a slightly different way with using a different image.”

In a time where ‘fake news’ is a popular phrased used by several politicians, Zyglis said these cartoons are more important than ever before. He added it’s the job of a cartoonist to remind people how important it is to have a voice and political dissent.

“We still take that for granted, which at this point we shouldn’t. You look around the world, you have countries like China jailing any kind of political dissent, political speech that doesn’t align with the communist party. Iran jailing cartoonists. The same [thing] with Turkey. President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan jailed Musa Kart for critical cartoons. Cartoonist are often the first to get punished by a dictator because they ridicule in a stronger way with satire than the written word,” Zyglis said.

“This has been happening around the world for a while, but now we are starting to see the beginnings of this push back with the President labeling anything fake news he doesn’t agree with. And even suggesting something like SNL (Saturday Night Live), who skewers him which is essentially satire, like what I do, suggesting that there should be retribution for that. Those remarks, and calling the press the enemy of the people repeatedly. It’s just drip drip drip, which could turn in to a slippery slope. Commentators like myself, we have an obligation to continue to speak out against that and to tell our readers how important it is to maintain a voice and our freedom of expression.”