In 5 Words or Less

Scott Stantis draws a grave in a cemetery. The grave reads ‘Four Little Girls’ and hovering over it is lady justice. She kneels to place a flower on the grave.

As she kneels over the grave, she says, “Sorry I’m late.”

The four little girls are Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair, the four girls who died in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 Birmingham. The bomber went 38 years without a conviction, finally charged back in 2001. Stantis summarizes this whole story in three words and a drawing.

The cartoon now hangs in one victim’s  living room.

Rows of ‘The Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year’ issues lined his shelves. He began pulling books from the shelves and as I listened to him describe each cartoon, I began to notice small glimmers of passion in his face. Stantis is 57 years old. In his 30 plus years of cartooning, there is not one cartoon he can’t remember. It was as though he was seeing each cartoon for the first time, snickering at some and verbally praising others as he handed them over for me to read.

Every cartoon he described came in two parts: the first, a description of the design and the second, an anecdote on public reception.

One story involved a cartoon he drew while working in Birmingham, Alabama. Stantis was assigned the governor’s race. The concept behind the cartoon draft required him to draw the candidates and the people attending the rallies.

“I worked in a town that was 70, 75 percent African-American. The cartoonist that I followed worked there for 11 years and he never drew a black guy,” Stantis said. “If I drew a scene that took place in Birmingham, I would get a lot people asking ‘well why’d you make him black?’ Well the average Birminghamian is African-American.”

Every character has Stantis’ own signature characteristic. President Obama is always depicted as tall and slender with an emphasis on the size of his ears. For Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, it was his huge, bulgy eyes. Stantis does not fear offending the public. Every time he stands up in his office to draw (yes, he draws while standing), his focus is aimed at the message behind his drawing.

“Your question about the Sunday cartoon is what I fear, people asking what it means or saying ‘what the hell is he talking about,” Stantis said. “My first and foremost thing is that I need to make sense. And since I’m using metaphor, some people don’t get it. If I piss people off, it’s fine. That’s my job.”

But as a cartoonist, Stantis is often overlooked regarding serious work in the field of journalism. Cartoonists are introduced as the “bright side” of news– jesters drawing silly cartoons to generate laughs from an audience of readers.

“Cartoonists are smart. I’ll subtract me from the equation. They’re smart, articulate, entertaining and concise. They’d be perfect for CNN or MSNBC,” Stantis said. “But when they do have us on it’s always ‘ok now for the lighter side of politics’. They think we’re there to make jokes.”

The comparison between columnists and cartoonists boils down to the disparity in available resources for each piece. Columnists are given the luxury suite: a room large enough to fit 800 words, statistics and charts to help decorate, and quotes paired with descriptive details for aesthetic appeal. Cartoonists get the single. All Stantis has is a blank square and a sentence.

“I wish we were taken more seriously. I really do,” Stantis said. “You know, I can write 600 words about Barack Obama. I challenge you to use five words and a drawing to get the same message across.”

On average, Stantis is responsible for 10 cartoons a week: seven for a strip and four editorial cartoons. Each cartoon is assigned a different topic, and every topic requires a different approach. Some days it’s a story on abortion legislation or the conviction of a terrorist from Birmingham, other days it’s a piece on the Chicago Cubs or banter on government policy.

“I feel like I’m having a discussion with the readers and sometimes that discussion means I’m funny, most of the time is making fun of and using ridicule and those other tools. But sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it is just, ‘guys, this sucks.’ Because it does suck,” Stantis said.

There is no secret technique. Some stories require Stantis to doodle sporadically, resulting in an archive of sketches that usually end up labeled with a word familiar to most artists: shit.

Other times the idea is clear, but it’s the program that fails.

I watched as he argued with Photoshop. He wanted one thing; Photoshop wanted to do something else. He raised his voice and it responded by ignoring his demand.

But on days where ideas flow, and programs work, the result is what makes the job worth it for Stantis. Cartoons tell a story words sometimes can’t, and in the editorial field it’s the cartoonist that gets hidden in the pages.

After going through multiple books of comics, Stantis pauses. He looked at the cover and then turned to me.

“They don’t even make these anymore,” Stantis said. “Not enough people were buying them, so they went out of business.”


Header image and video courtesy of Scott Stantis