The Life (and Death) of Don Asmussen

The San Francisco Chronicle and Peter Hartlaub remember Don Asmussen.

[Don] Asmussen, who drew cartoons and illustrations for The San Francisco Chronicle, died on Thursday, Dec. 9 at age 59. He entertained audiences around the world with his syndicated Bad Reporter comic, San Francisco Comic Strip and other local and national projects.

Asmussen’s wit had no off switch. His explorations of humor, cartooning and design were a complete lifestyle, whether he was working on a strip about a Supreme Court ruling that might be seen by hundreds of thousands of readers, or designing an in-house goodbye card for a retiring Chronicle copy editor that might be viewed by 15 staff members. Visual art was his preferred method of communication, in work and in life. I shared an alcove office with him for eight years, and there was never a day I didn’t laugh.

Asmussen was born in Rhode Island, where he developed a love for the Boston Red Sox and a distrust for politicians and newsmakers who took themselves too seriously. He worked briefly on the East Coast in advertising and as a newspaper designer. Then he went on a search for a place that would nurture his offbeat humor, and — after stops in Detroit and San Diego — found it in San Francisco, where he spent the last 26 years of his career.

The Pink Section is The Chronicle's Sunday entertainment section

“Don is absolutely singular, as much as (iconic Chronicle columnist) Herb Caen,” said Villalon, now the managing editor of Zyzzyva Magazine. “Nobody does what Don does in any other part of the country. And it’s absolutely wacko in the best sense. We took Don for granted, because Don was one of the most self-effacing artists I’ve ever known. The guy had no ego.”

Asmussen was hired by the San Francisco Examiner in 1995 by editor Phil Bronstein, and while he didn’t relish confrontation, he was fearless when it came to the strip. Bronstein was a regular in Asmussen’s early comics — always with a Komodo dragon attached to his foot; a reference to a real-life lizard attack.

The humor was often in the smaller details — an absurd aside or juxtaposition — and his barbs were reserved for powerful figures. Zito said Asmussen developed an early hate for bullies, which she links to watching how people mistreated his older brother Dean, who had Down syndrome.

Current California governor Gavin Newsom began his career in San Francisco

Asmussen’s struggle with cancer was long and had ups and downs, with which he rarely burdened others. When he first got sick in the mid-2010s, I didn’t realize he was taking interferon and chemotherapy until I went to grab our TV’s remote control and saw needles piling up on his desk. He told Zito that the interferon was like injecting concrete into his body. But he still went to work every day throughout that first illness.

On his first day back in the newsroom in spring 2019, a receiving line of people came over to our alcove, brows furrowed and near tears, probably thinking (like me) that he would never return to work again. He listened patiently, gave that blank Don Asmussen grumpy cat look, then started making deadpan improv until they laughed and engaged with him. I remember thinking in the moment how heroic it was. The sickest person I knew wanted to make us feel better.

Read The Chronicle’s full tribute to a man they loved here
(or here if you run into a paywall).

A Don Asmussen photo essay from The San Francisco Chronicle.