Gay artist gets presidential nod

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By: Dave Astor

Barry Goldwater and John McCain didn’t make it, but another Arizonan did when Mike Ritter was elected president ? of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC). He also has the rare distinction of being an openly gay staff cartoonist at a mainstream daily.

The Washington state native, who’s been at the Tribune Newspapers in suburban Phoenix since 1992, publicly revealed he was gay in 2000. “I came out kind of late in life,” says Ritter, now 38. His decision was made mostly for personal reasons, but difficulties being a closeted cartoonist also entered the equation. “It was impacting my work,” he says. “I was avoiding gay issues.”

Ritter, of course, also focuses on many other topics ? including everything from local racial profiling to national politics. “But even when I’m not doing cartoons on gay issues, it’s important that my readers know I’m gay,” he says. Why? Ritter explains, by way of example, that a homophobic reader might realize he shares some common ground with him after agreeing with a cartoon on, say, tax policy.

The King Features Syndicate-distributed creator recalls getting some nasty reaction when he came out as gay, but most of the feedback he received was positive.

A former registered Republican, Ritter now describes himself as a libertarian with “a small ‘l’.” He says: “I believe there should be some government, but that people shouldn’t be told how to live their lives.”

Ritter gets ideas from perusing newspapers, reading Web stories, and listening to streaming news radio on the Internet. One of his favorite cartoon topics is homeowners’ associations, of which there are plenty in the Phoenix area. Ritter says the rules of these associations and the “tinpot dictators” running some of them make for great targets of satire.

Whatever the subject, Ritter loves doing detailed drawing ? with plenty of cross-hatching ? “unless it’s 20 minutes to deadline.” But he emphasizes that the writing is the most important thing. “The drawing is for the artist, and the idea is for the reader,” he observes.

The award-winning Ritter also draws illustrations for the Tribune Newspapers as well as other clients such as The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He notes that doing a variety of work makes staff cartoonists more valuable to newspapers at a time when many papers are reluctant to pay for such cartoonists.

Ritter is also keeping busy as 2003-4 head of the AAEC, which will have its next annual convention this April in Lexington, Ky. The organization continues to explore links with the Herb Block Foundation, is making efforts to have Newspaper in Education programs use editorial cartoons in the teaching of politics and history, and wants to send AAECers to speak at journalism schools. “It’s very possible to go through an entire journalism program and not discuss editorial cartooning,” says Ritter, who majored in history at Arizona State University.

The AAEC will continue sending members to speak at newspaper-editor conventions about the importance of cartooning, and to make its feelings known when a paper fires a cartoonist or doesn’t fill an open spot. “The importance of having a local cartoonist can’t be overstated,” says Ritter, noting that it helps get readers interested in issues. He added that a major reason why people buy newspapers is to read ? and love or hate ? the work of “personalities” such as editorial cartoonists, opinion columnists, and sportswriters.

“I’m not a big fan of TV news,” says Ritter, “but they know how to promote personalities such as anchors and weather forecasters. Why are newspapers promoting their lifestyle and business sections when they could be promoting their stars?” Actually, Ritter knows one reason: Some papers are afraid those “stars” might then ask for a raise.

Most editorial cartoonists are white men. Ritter said one possible reason for this lack of diversity is that females and minorities, from the time they are young, aren’t always encouraged to speak their minds. “That’s changing,” Ritter says, and he’s glad it is.

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