By: Shawn Moynihan Spend a few minutes talking with Scott Stantis and you quickly learn he's excited about his new gig and critical of some of his own drawings ? but he's not about to get over-analytical about it. "You want to do great work out of the box, and I keep forgetting this is a marathon, not a sprint," he says on the line from the Chicago Tribune newsroom, where he's settling in after his Sept. 1 start as the paper's first full-time staff editorial cartoonist in nine years.
It comes at a time when many papers are going in the opposite direction ? laying off cartoonists. "So far, it's going pretty well," Stantis reveals. "I just got to draw Mayor Daley in a leotard ? that's cartoon excellence right there," he laughs.
One could forgive Stantis a certain amount of culture shock. He's coming off more than 12 years as cartoonist for The Birmingham (Ala.) News. There was no shortage of crooked officials to keep him busy there, but to hear him tell it, lampooning the politicos of the Windy City isn't all that different. "You just have to walk into it with the same healthy dose of political cynicism you've always had," he says.
The Tribune had long put off hiring a successor to Jeff MacNelly, its former editorial cartoonist and a three-time Pulitzer winner who also created the comic strip "Shoe," which starred a cigar-smoking, irritable newspaper editor and his staff, all of whom were birds. MacNelly died in 2000 after losing a bout with lymphoma.
Until recently, the Trib's editorial cartoons were syndicated pieces or occasional Chicago-centric cartoons by another of its previous editorial cartoonists, Dick Locher ? another Pulitzer winner.
One might assume the pressure to follow such greats would be enormous. Not so, says Stantis. "I just haven't felt it. It's not ego ? maybe it's stupidity," he jokes. "The pressure on me is just to build an audience now. It's just a matter of getting people to know that I'm here."
Skewering deserving subjects is a mission Stantis holds dear; he has spent his entire career as an editorial cartoonist. A San Diego native, he attended Los Angeles Harbor College, a community college where he says he fell in love with cartooning, "and I haven't fallen out of love since." He recalls that on May 22, 2008, he wrote a blog entry commemorating the 30th anniversary of his first professional editorial cartoon ("which I got paid $10 for," he says). These days, his political cartoons are distributed by Creators Syndicate.
Stantis tells E&P he first discussed the possibility of joining the paper with Editorial Page Editor R. Bruce Dold while attending the 2000 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles. As years passed he fielded some other offers, continued to do some occasional freelance work for the Trib, contributed the occasional political cartoon, built a relationship with them, and in June he got the call to see if he was still interested. The paper flew him out for a meeting.
"I came here and I was just really blown away," he says, recalling his dinner with Editor Gerould Kearn and editorial page editor Dold. He attended one of the paper's edit board meetings: "It was the first time in two and-a-half years that I felt optimistic about journalism. It was stunning. A paper this size, with this reputation, you're going to be excited about," Stantis adds.
A self-described libertarian conservative, Stantis expects his views to coincide with the Chicago Tribune's more often than not. He's also a member of the editorial board. In any case, the paper is committed to him as a permanent fixture, and seeks to highlight his work whenever possible. The first strip he created for the paper enjoyed prominent play, in color, on Page One. "It was bigger than I drew it," he marvels. "It was pretty remarkable." He's since been teased on the front page a number of times.
After a brief time getting adjusted to the new job, Stantis last month resumed contributing a weekly political cartoon to USA Today, something he's done for more than a decade. He's also the creator of "Prickly City," a daily and Sunday comic strip about Winslow, a liberal coyote pup with political aspirations, and a young girl named Carmen, a feisty libertarian-conservative. Launched in 2004 and distributed by United Feature Syndicate, the comic appears in more than 100 newspapers and was reinstated Monday at the Tribune (which, ironically, dropped it a few years ago) ? something Stantis jokes was not a condition of him coming aboard, but "it should have been."
Not only does he make a living poking fun at politics, but Stantis is also a collector of political memorabilia. His most recent acquisition: a William Jennings Bryan presidential campaign button from 1896. His interest in politics is so strong, in fact, that at one time he seriously entertained a run for the state senate in Alabama after being approached by some high-level Republicans.
"I tend to think I'm a pretty honest guy, and I was looking for what was next," he recalls of that possible career change ? which his wife encouraged him to reconsider. "I saw this disintegration of the business that I love," he continues, "and I probably would have won. I think I would have been good at it. But thank God I didn't."
On the flip side, being at the Tribune, he says, "is about as good as an experience as I can hope for, as far as how I'm treated." It's the latest stop on a road that began in October 1981 at the Orange County Register in Santa Ana, Calif., took him to The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, The Arizona Republic and The Grand Rapids (Mich.) Press before joining the Birmingham News in 1996.
"It's been a long trip, but we got here," he says. "I'm hoping this is it. I'm pretty confident it is," he laughs. "I'm hoping to God it is, because I'm tired of moving."