Political cartoonist talks about confusing Texas politicians for 48 years

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With Pulitzer Prize credentials and an acid pen in hand, 73-year-old Ben Sargent heads into battle, flat cap in hand. The minefield of political commentary where he forged his legacy – during a 35-year career drawing editorial cartoons in Austin American Statesman—remains ripe as ever. An ink born to a family of journalists, his jabs, now issued in the name of the Texas Observer, hit their targets with Sargent’s wit and ferocity. His battle cry is simple. “Raise the hell up,” he said, “and try to point out that the Emperor has no clothes. Here, the cartoonist reveals his unwavering approach to turning current events into thought-provoking images.

Much of the editorial cartoons rely on symbols and the messages they subconsciously evoke, Sargent says. “Usually it’s by setting up a little situation in the cartoon and using that as a symbol of what it’s trying to get across.” Take, for example, Greg Abbott’s Rickety Ship, which finds the big ship Texas shaking on choppy coronavirus waters. “A ship on a heaving sea like that is kind of the ultimate symbol of control or lack of control.”

Every Sargent character has an inherent craziness in their little heads and even smaller hands. “It’s just the way they seem to come out of the paddock,” he laughs. These skills are still put to the test when faced with the bulk of editorial cartooning of cartoons. The secret is in those defining features, from Ann Richard’s huge up-do to Greg Abbott’s squint. The ultimate challenge? Asset. “He’s a walking caricature himself,” Sargent explains, “so it’s hard at first to exaggerate or ridicule.” Sargent kept it simple: Nail his “strange facial expressions…then the cartoon really gets more carried away with what he’s being made to do or say.”

Still preferring an old-school approach, Sargent draws every line first, including his signature cross-hatching that he picked up as a child while flipping through the pages of a Harper’s Weekly book of engravings—in blue pencil. He then covers these lines in ink. Only then would he turn to the computer, using Photoshop to add color, as he has since introduced more vibrant hues into his work at the Statesman circa 2007. In total, that’s about five hours per cartoon.

In an age of 24-hour news cycles, where stories never really seem to end, cartoons also have an increased staying power. That’s why Sargent plans to return to his 2021 panel “Out With Democracy,” which featured the democracy ballot box in a Republican Party trash can. “I’m playing with an extension of this,” he shares, “showing the dumpster behind the Republican Party headquarters. It’s full because they also threw decency, truth, rights .

As Texas politics change, so does Sargent’s approach to representing warring lawmakers under the Capitol dome. “When I started, I drew them like little Mickey Mouse characters and clowns,” he recalls. “Now there is a kind of evil edge.” Legislators like Dolph Briscoe, Tom Delay, and Bob Bullock used to collect Sargent’s depictions for their personal ink self-erasing collections. But we somehow doubt that today’s legislators will do the same.

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