Back in July, editorial cartoonist Jeff Parker announced that he was voluntarily stepping away from his staff job that he’s held for the last 21 years with Florida Today. Jeff cited the need to reduce workload and spend more time working on the comic strip Dustin that he co-created with former Times-Picayune editorial cartoonist Steve Kelley. His last cartoon ran Sunday (see above).
As with most staff cartoonists who have left voluntarily (but mostly non-voluntarily), I present Jeff’s exit interview.
Alan: As sad as it is to hear of another cartoonist leaving a staff job, your decision is voluntary. How long had you thought of stepping away from your staff job?
Jeff: My wife Pat and I have been kicking around the idea of shedding the editorial cartoon gig for a couple of years, but the decision hinged on two things. We needed to make sure “Dustin” found enough success to make up for any loss of income, which it has, and we had to wait to find out how the 2012 election turned out. If Obama had lost and Republicans then killed the Affordable Care Act, we wouldn’t have been able to give up our health insurance provided by FLORIDA TODAY. Insurers refused to cover my Pat’s pre-existing condition and ongoing health issues before the ACA.
I realize it’s odd to be giving up one of the few remaining editorial cartoon staff jobs left in existence, but frankly, the way things have gone the last few years with cartoonist layoffs left and right, I never thought it would be my decision to make. I must say though, I owe so much to FLORIDA TODAY. My publishers and editors couldn’t have been more supportive of my role at the paper over the years.
Alan: Will you still be providing cartoons for Florida Today in anyway?
Jeff: No, I’m putting aside editorial cartooning entirely. You wouldn’t think it after looking at my lousy editorial cartoons, but it took most of the day to think out the ideas — a full 40 hours per week and the heart of my 90-100 hour work weeks. Something had to give, and my first love has always been comic strips. I’m just so lucky Steve asked me to collaborate on “Dustin” when he did.
Alan: I know you’re a prolific cartoonist working on Dustin, Mother Goose and Grimm in addition to your editorial cartoons. How have you been managing that kind of a workload these last few years?
Jeff: I drink a lot.
Seriously though, I don’t know how I’ve managed it myself really. I found that I couldn’t allow myself to indulge the urge to “not work tonight.” Any deviation in my daily routine meant a lot of harder work trying to regain lost ground. It just wasn’t worth it. For four years, my only nights off were Fridays, and police records will show, I packed a lot of living into those four or five hours.
I used to assist on “Blondie” from 1996 to 2005, and my schedule then was a lot like now, so I knew what I was in for when we landed Dustin, but I was much younger in those Blondie days.
Alan: With a bit more time on your hands are there any other projects you want to tackle?
Jeff: Not at present. I’m just looking forward to having my evenings and weekends back — and catching up on a lot of lost sleep. My reading pile by the bed is several stories high (pun intended), and I’m excited about more time to get outside for some much-missed sailing, paddling and pedaling. Plus, happily, I’ll have more time to devote to my Pat’s care.
I am hoping that having more time for Dustin will translate into a better overall presentation.
Alan: What was your most memorable cartoon either because of the controversy or public reaction in your career?
Jeff: I’d have to say the cartoon on the loss of Shuttle Columbia in 2003. FLORIDA TODAY is the Space Coast’s newspaper covering Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center. I’m not particularly proud of the cartoon, as I had to create it in under an hour for our extra edition that morning, but it drew a ton of response from our readers, many of whom worked at KSC or had some connection to the space program. So many requests for copies came in that my editors decided to reprint the cartoon and sold thousands to raise money for the families of Columbia’s crew.
Also, our area was blasted by four hurricanes in 2004. I’m proud of the cartoons I did through that tough storm season and during the long recovery. People still mention how much those cartoons afforded them a little laugh when all around them was blue tarps and devastation.
Alan: Any regrets in your career there with the paper?
Jeff: None. As I say, FLORIDA TODAY has been beyond generous to me.
Alan: What are the positive take-aways from your experience and time with Florida Today? What will you remember most?
Jeff: FLORIDA TODAY took a chance on an aspiring cartoonist who had just left his job in city planning after 12 years to embark on a new career in cartooning. I had very little experience with drawing editorial cartoons, but they saw something I guess. The constant encouragement I received from all my editors over the years was invaluable. Each helped me grow into a much better cartoonist.
Alan: Will Florida Today be filling your editorial cartoonist position?
Jeff: I lobbied them hard to fill the spot the last couple of months, but to save possible near-future staff layoffs I’ve been told the position will be “kept dark” for now along with a handful of other openings in the newsroom. That being said, I don’t want to discourage anyone from sending samples and applying for the job. FLORIDA TODAY is very “local-centric” and one thing they always liked about me was that I grew up along the Space Coast and brought that background and backstory to our pages. Familiarity with the area and a love for both Florida’s coastal environment and the space program would be a big plus to anyone interested in cartooning for FLORIDA TODAY.