There is plenty of irony in the life of Los Angeles Times editorial cartoonist Michael Ramirez. An "unabashed conservative," he works for a traditionally liberal newspaper.
As the son of mixed-race parents – his father is Hispanic and his mother Japanese – he does not fit the stereotypical profile of an ethnic minority. And his black-and-white cartoons depict the bittersweet humor lurking under the surface of the nation's political system.
The irony isn't lost on Mr. Ramirez, who describes himself as "an equal opportunity offender."
For someone who takes his work and his subject matter so seriously, he keeps a healthy sense of humor about it all. That's because Michael Ramirez and controversy have become like yin and yang: One always follows the other, and neither can be completely comprehended alone.
The iconoclast approach extends beyond the content of his cartoons to the methodology behind them. "The historic tradition of editorial cartooning has been to draw easily digestible, humorous anecdotes," he explains. "But my philosophy is the exact opposite. I want to draw poignant cartoons with deep meaning."
By way of example, Mr. Ramirez recalls a cartoon from October 2000, which he refers to as "the wall of hate." The image shows a Palestinian and an orthodox Jew both worshiping a wall of stone, reminiscent of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. The caption reads "Worshiping Their God ... " and the stones of the wall form the letters of the word "hate."
The cartoon struck a note as the most controversial of his career, and the most controversial ever published by the Times. According to Mr. Ramirez, it resulted in countless complaints and thousands of canceled subscriptions. He even received a letter from another newspaper, the Jerusalem Post, which excoriated him for "offending its religious sensibilities."
But Mr. Ramirez isn't deterred by the controversy. In fact, it's fair to say that he derives a bit of pleasure from the public give-and-take. It works to achieve the higher aim of his art, one based on a surprisingly idealistic faith in the virtues of participatory democracy.
"I want to get people involved in the process," he says. "People don't realize how much impact they can have."
He points out that politicians tell him it takes less than 20 pieces of mail to motivate them and their staff to act on an issue. "I want to be the catalyst," he says, for that kind of letter-writing.
Reaching that noble goal in a cartoon presents challenges galore.
First, the artist must "hook" the reader, whose attention, in today's information age, is bombarded with compressed message. Unlike comic-strip cartoonists, the editorial cartoonist has only one frame to present his material, not four or five.
Mr. Ramirez recognizes the limitations of his medium and has developed a strategy to overcome them. He draws an analogy between his profession and the creatives in an advertising agency. "I think of myself as selling ideas instead of products," he maintains. "I have eight seconds to capture the readers' attention, then hit them with my point."
Luckily, he says, people are attracted to the visual medium. Using that to his advantage, he employs his cartoons "like bait in a trap. The cartoon is just a device to get the reader to look at what I have to say. Once they read it, it's too late. I've got them."
Mr. Ramirez doesn't put much stock in his skills as an artist, admitting he doesn't like the way he draws. "It doesn't come out as good as it looks in my mind," he says. But he adds that some of the best cartoonists are those who draw the least. Stylistically, "I just try to make my cartoons very intricate and interesting to look at," he says.
Rather than style, Mr. Ramirez emphasizes substance. For ideas, he mines a vast wealth of information, in print and electronic media, regarding current events and politics. He is a news junkie and a voracious reader. "I'm a boring date," he jokes. "I watch C-Span and CNN, and I read everything – the L.A. Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Nation, the New York Times. If it's politically oriented, you name it, I have to know it."
When the occasion calls for irony and humor, Mr. Ramirez gets inspiration from the antics of government officials. "I have the best comic gag writers – politicians," he says wryly. "They do all my work for me. … [So] the more knowledge you have, the easier it is for you to do your job. This is the tool I use the most."
Fierce competition among editorial cartoonists demands high creativity and originality every day of the week. "All of us are dealing with the same subject matter, the same cultural icons, so I have to be creative and use different metaphors," Mr. Ramirez observes. "I never use the first idea. … I will use the tenth or the fifteenth idea that comes to me. I have to be more profound, more concise than everyone else."
As a benchmark, Mr. Ramirez looks to Paul Conrad, the other staff cartoonist at the Los Angeles Times, a man he describes as being "as diametrically opposed to me philosophically as any person in the world." To measure progression in his quest to become "the best editorial cartoonist ever," Mr. Ramirez keeps a running tally of his achievements versus Mr. Conrad's. "Conrad has three Pulitzer Prizes and seven Sigma Delta Chi [Society of Professional Journalism] Awards. I have one Pulitzer and two Sigma Delta Chi's. And I want to beat him."
For millions of readers, the awards are a moot point. Mr. Ramirez's cartoons are syndicated in more than 500 newspapers and magazines worldwide, including the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, the New York Times, the Washington Post and Time magazine.
"A cartoonist ought to relay a significant message," he declares without reservation. "My mission is to incrementally save the world from itself."
Some day his outspokenness may catch up with him, but for now he enjoys the full support of Los Angeles Times management. In fact, in the midst of the "wall of hate" scandal, editor John Carroll offered support with an ironic, Ramirezesque twist. "If your job is to be hated," he told the cartoonist half-jokingly, "then, frankly, you're doing a good job." That's equal opportunity offense of the highest order.
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