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The Cartoonist’s Cartoonists: Clay Bennett

Not having spotlighted an editorial cartoonist in my Cartoonist’s Cartoonists feature, I wanted to make sure it was a cartoonist who had a unique artistic style. I’m happy to feature Chattanooga Times Free Press cartoonist Clay Bennett.

Clay started his cartooning career while attending the University of North Alabama where he was the editorial cartoonist for the school paper and the managing editor of the alternative student paper. He graduated in 1980 with degrees in Art and History.

Clay worked as a staff artist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Fayetteville (NC) Times before accepting the editorial cartooning position with the St. Petersburg Times. He served as their editorial cartoonist from 1981 through 1994. In 1998 he was hired by The Christian Science Monitor. Including this year, he has been a Pulitzer Prize finalist six times in the last decade. He took the prize in 2002. He has also been honored with the Sigma Delta Chi Award (2001), the National Journalism Award (2002), the National Cartoonist Society’s Award for Editorial Cartoons (2002), the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award (2007), the John Fischetti Award (2001, 2005), the Overseas Press Club’s Thomas Nast Award (2005, 2007), and the National Headliner Award (1999, 2000, 2004).

He is currently the staff cartoonist for the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Here is the list of the 10 cartoonists who Clay cites as the major influences on his own work.

Quino – Quino (Joaquin Salvador Lavardo) is a god among cartooning mortals. His work is a true testament to the universal nature of cartooning. He hails from another continent, speaks a foreign language and is the product of a different culture but still communicates masterfully with this insular American through his unique and inventive visual storytelling. Technically, he’s not an editorial cartoonist, but in my mind, no cartoonist captures the politics of the human condition better than does Quino.

Charles Addams – My parents had one cartoon book in the house when I was a kid. It was a collection of Charles Addams cartoons. I loved that book and must have leafed through its pages a thousand times. Through that exposure, Charles Addams became one of the earliest and most profound influences on my own cartoons. Like Quino, Addams demonstrates a wonderful visual sensibility in his work. His beautifully composed and rendered drawings always seem contrary to the dark, often macabre humor they contain. It was this paradox that always captivated me. His work, like Morticia Addams herself, is visually stunning, yet a little bit frightening, all at the same time.

Tex Avery – Tex Avery is the indisputable king of animated cartoons. He set the bar for every other animator with his work at Warner Brothers Studios in the 1930’s, only to best his efforts once he moved onto Metro Goldwyn Meyer a decade later. With his bizarre, over-the-top conceptual approach to animation, Tex Avery broke every boundary, tested every limit, and challenged every convention, with an inventiveness and imagination that remains unmatched.

Saul Steinberg – Saul Steinberg always seemed to be way ahead of his time. His simple line drawings and highly conceptual New Yorker cartoons were always a stark contrast in an era dominated by lavish renderings and conventional approaches. A native of Romania, Steinberg’s work always maintained its European flavor. His deceptively simple drawings conveyed surprisingly complex themes and established Steinberg as one of the most unique and talented cartoonists of his time.

Sam Gross – Sam Gross is great. His cartoons are always well conceived, and his drawings well composed. His drawing style is very loose and quick, but always methodical in its application. His ideas are direct and very humorous, but often border on disturbing (much like Addams). It’s the uncluttered nature of his work, in both form and content that most influenced my own approach to cartooning. If one of the lessons of cartooning is to make hours of hard work look like the product of a moment’s inspiration, Sam Gross should teach the class.

Ron Cobb – As a counterculture cartoonist of the 1960’s, Ron Cobb’s style and approach might have been more conventional than other ‘underground’ cartoonists of the era, but it never diminished the inventiveness of his work. With a beautifully ornate pen and ink style, and a deft visual approach, Cobb took on big issues. It was the issue-orientation of his work that most influenced me. Cobb always drew from the outside looking in. He depicted ordinary people (instead of their elected officials) dealing with a complex and unjust world, and in so doing appealed more to his readers’ sympathy than to their hostility. It’s an approach I’ve always admired in his work, and one I’ve always strived to achieve in my own.

Sergio Aragones – Like the other artists on this list, Sergio Aragones has always appealed to me because of his purely visual approach to cartooning. Like Sam Gross, his drawings are wonderfully loose and spontaneous (I must admire in others what I’m unable to achieve myself), and his concepts are beautifully simple and direct. I’ve always been a huge fan of all the cartoonists in MAD. Oddly, the one who had the biggest impact on me produced the smallest drawings in the magazine.

Peter Kuper – Profoundly visual in nature, Peter Kuper’s work is hard to pigeonhole. The artist defies labels and his art defies classification. The wordless approach in his ‘Eye of the Beholder’ series demonstrates his unique graphic sensibilities and his mastery of purely visual storytelling. Using a somber, often jarring aesthetic style to convey sobering messages, Kuper’s artwork is a wonderful blend of equal parts passion and intellect.

Pat Oliphant – No surprise here, I guess. Like every other editorial cartoonist of my generation, I rank Pat Oliphant as one of my main influences. When I was in my teens, Oliphant’s influence on me was so profound that I consciously tried to emulate his style and approach. Realizing that such an exercise was futile and could result in nothing more than a pale imitation of the master, his influence over me changed- I decided it was best to go in a completely different direction. Another path, I thought, might just lead to a place out from under Oliphant’s enormous shadow.

Herblock – Influences come in many forms. Although Herblock never influenced my cartoons, he definitely influenced me as a cartoonist. Herb was completely devoted to his craft. He gave his job everything he had for as long as he had. It was his devotion to this profession, his passion for politics and his commitment to excellence that always inspired me. I’ve always appreciated the importance of hard work and dedication in cartooning. To me, Herblock was the personification of those virtues.

Community Comments

#1 J.G. Moore
June/17/2008
@ 11:53 am

Maaaaaan, Clay Bennett is one of the best! I love his work.
The CSM has not been the same since he left.

#2 Rob Tornoe
June/17/2008
@ 1:24 pm

Speaking of which, any word on when they’re going to be filling their open cartoonist slot, or are they still “searching?”

I think the Tampa Tribune is still “searching” as well.

#3 Charles Brubaker
June/17/2008
@ 2:57 pm

Rob,

Well, before Bennett left, CSM was one of the “two cartoonists” paper; the other being Brian Barling.

Brian’s still with the paper, although they haven’t actually replaced Bennett yet.

#4 Mike Rhode
June/17/2008
@ 6:43 pm

Wow, excellent list with some real surprises like Ron Cobb and Quino.

#5 Clay Bennett
June/17/2008
@ 7:30 pm

John- Thanks for the kind words.

Charles- Although Brian is now producing regularly for the paper, he isn’t on staff at The Monitor.

Brian was first contracted to produce cartoons to fill in when I took a day off or when my cartoons got rejected. Although his cartoons have The Monitor credit line (and the paper controls their copyright), he’s still a freelancer.

As for the cartooning job there, the paper is currently going through a change of editors and possibly a change in its form, so hiring a new cartoonist may be put on hold. I do think they still plan to replace me. I’m just not sure how soon.

I wouldn’t give up on them yet, when they first interviewed me in 1997, Danziger had been gone for almost 10 months.

Clay

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