By: Rob Tornoe
The Sacramento Bee has a rich and storied history of local editorial cartooning. The paper, which has been running original editorial cartoons since 1857, was dealt a tragic blow in March when beloved cartoonist Rex Babin passed away after a long battle with stomach cancer.
No one took the news harder than Jack Ohman, longtime political cartoonist for The Oregonian (syndicated by Tribune Media Services) and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize last year. After 29 years drawing cartoons in Portland, Ohman decided to move south and take on cartooning the politics and follies of California’s dysfunctional political system as the Bee’s new staff cartoonist, filling the void left by the untimely death of his close friend.
“It’s impossible to describe the poignancy of this moment in my career,” Ohman said. “I felt like Rex was the right half of my brain, and I felt like I was the left half of his. If I had died, I would have wanted him to succeed me at the Oregonian, because I think we had virtually identical motifs in cartooning and very similar approaches.”
Ohman first met Babin in 1987 at the annual Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC) convention in Washington, D.C. Ohman, who was 24 at the time, had been afraid to attend previous conventions, because he had been handed longtime Chicago Tribune cartoonist Jeff MacNelly’s coveted client list and feared an angry backlash from more-seasoned cartoonists. But his fear was for naught, as he was greeted kindly by all the cartoonists, and instantly bonded with Babin, who was also attending for the first time.
“I immediately responded to Babin,” Ohman said. “Not only was he a very charismatic guy — he really thought about cartooning.”
As Ohman’s career wore on, annual meet-ups at AAEC conventions turned into late-night phone calls, often two to four times a week, during which every facet of art, politics, and cartooning was discussed to the minutest detail. “We became a mind-melding cartoon machine,” Ohman said, and the two would always end each conversation with, “Well, I love you.”
After Babin was diagnosed with cancer and his condition deteriorated, Ohman spent even more time with his friend. He was in Palm Springs with Babin’s son Sebastian during spring break when he learned of Babin’s death. After flying home to Portland, Ohman immediately headed to Sacramento to attend what he described as “the most emotionally wrenching memorial service” he’d ever been to.
Following Babin’s death, Ohman became close with Stuart Leavenworth, the Bee’s editorial page editor. The two started talking, and once Leavenworth got wind that Ohman was thinking about leaving the Oregonian, he fought hard to have Ohman be the cartoonist to fill Babin’s position.
“Rex had a really strong commitment to doing local cartoons, and since he passed away it’s been such a huge loss for our pages,” Leavenworth said. “Not only did Jack have a great relationship with Rex, he’s a great cartoonist that is committed to coming here and getting to know the weirdness of Sacramento.”
For Leavenworth, the role of the editorial cartoonist is more essential now to newspapers than it ever has been, and he knew that even though he would never be able to replace Babin, it was important to preserve the power and irreverence of his voice in the community.
“Readers not only miss Rex, they miss a local cartoonist,” Leavenworth said. “It’s going to send a big jolt of energy to our readers when Jack starts in January.”
Ohman’s role at the Bee won’t be simply to fill the vacant hole on the paper’s editorial page. Ohman and Leavenworth have been talking about all sorts of ideas and ways to use his unique skills to engage and energize readers, both online and in print.
Ohman has some experience working outside the box. During the 2012 election, he created a fake political campaign for OR-7, an electronically-tracked male wolf named Journey, who captivated readers after wandering more that 1,000 miles throughout Oregon and California. The campaign, which included posters, bumper stickers, and cartoons, was a hit from the start with readers and quickly became the Oregonian’s fastest-selling promotion.
“The Oregonian broke even on the first day,” Ohman said. “It was a tremendous success, and I’ll be doing stuff like that for the Bee.”
For Ohman, his new job at the Bee is much more than an opportunity to try his hand at new avenues of content creation. Filling the role vacated by his friend is more a mission than a job, and he got choked up describing the moment he walked into the Bee’s newsroom and saw Babin’s former desk.
“This is Rex’s position,” Ohman said. “In my head it will always be Rex’s position. I agree entirely with his views on what that position should be, and I’m going to keep Rex’s flame burning, and think about him every day when I sit down there to draw.”
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor & Publisher and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.