Three years ago, Bill Mitchell knew nothing about computers or the Internet. He was slogging away as a pen-and-ink political cartoonist for a newspaper in Rochester, N.Y.
Mitchell, 39, is still cartooning. But now his political humor has a national audience and is geared strictly for the World Wide Web. The best part, Mitchell said, is he doesn’t have to live in Washington, D.C. to take satirical jabs at the likes of Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich. He does it all from his office in Sandpoint.
Mitchell is a new breed and pioneer in the realm of Internet political cartooning. It started with a fellowship at the University of Southern California in 1994. That’s when he got his first computer and plugged into the Net.
His idea was to take humor off the flat, black-and-white editorial pages of newspapers and use the electronic media to make his drawings come alive.
Mitchell’s cartoons have color, the characters move, some even have sound. Things he could never do in a newspaper.
“Print cartoons are great in newspapers and stink like a dead fish on the Web,” he said. “It’s not that they are bad cartoons, they just don’t acknowledge the medium at all. It would be like silent movies on CD. It doesn’t work.
He moved to Sandpoint to pursue his unique career because it would be “cheaper to starve to death here than in L.A.”
Initially, his idea was to post his cartoons and have Internet surfers pay a small fee to view them. “Nobody is paying for anything on the Web and that didn’t exactly pan out,” Mitchell laughed.
But he is hardly starving. Mitchell’s interactive cartoons landed him a contract with Time Warner. His work now appears on the CNN home page. “With 60 million visitors a week, it’s not a bad corner to be on,” he said.
Mitchell’s cartoons are syndicated by Tribune Media Services and appear on several newspaper Web sites, including the St. Petersburg Times in Florida.
He was one of the first political cartoonists doing work specifically for the Web. “I saw what I thought was potential and jumped in. I don’t know of anyone else doing what I do right now,” he said.
Other cartoonists post their work on the Web, but it’s the same cartoon that appears in print. The pieces are not designed specifically for the Internet.
One recent cartoon targeted IRS abuse of taxpayers. It showed a taxpayer as a snake charmer. The IRS was a cobra rising from a wicker basket. It looks like an average cartoon, but in a blink, the cobra lurches down and swallows the snake charmer.
It’s simple animation, but it makes the cartoon come alive, Mitchell said. Internet users who see his work seem to think it’s unique. He gets 10 times as much feedback on the Web as he did when working for newspapers. Between 30 and 60 viewers e-mail him each week with comments. Mitchell answers all the mail.
Some of Mitchell’s cartoons are more like games. They require viewers to participate in the political satire. When Bill Clinton’s coffee fund-raisers at the White House hit the news, Mitchell pounced, drawing an interactive pun.
Viewers could manipulate Clinton’s coffee-pouring arm. If they clicked the computer mouse at the right time, the president filled a donor’s cup. A click at the wrong time and Clinton spilled the coffee. Viewers got 10 tries and earned campaign donations for every properly poured cup of java.
“There’s a ton of stuff that is possible to do on the Web that you just can’t do in newspapers,” Mitchell said.
He adds Internet links to some of his cartoons. The link will take a viewer to another Web page. With cartoons about campaign finance reform, Mitchell can add a link that lets users view the actual campaign finance reform bill.
“I can have them click on Newt Gingrich and it will take them to a Satan worshiper page or have Marv Albert linked to a lingerie page,” Mitchell chuckled.
Most viewers have no idea Mitchell is based in Idaho, far away from the politicians he satirizes. He keeps up with current events by reading newspapers online and gets the New York Times at home.
Mitchell does three cartoons a week for CNN. Many are drawn in ballpoint pen on a sheet of typing paper. Mitchell scans the image into his computer, then adds color, sounds, and animation. The whole process takes about four hours.
“Print cartoonists have to wait 24 hours before their work hits the streets. I do it and have it up in an hour.”
Mitchell is an admitted ski bum. He dropped out of college to ski and work in Colorado. That’s where he started drawing political cartoons. Later, he free-lanced his work in Washington, D.C. before landing jobs with several newspapers.
He moved to Sandpoint in 1995 with his wife, Anne, and 4-year-old son, Kit. Mitchell vacationed and visited his in-laws in Sandpoint years ago and was attracted to the skiing, sailing and more relaxed lifestyle.
The move and banking on a new career in the electronic media was risky, he said. So was working for the print media where jobs are scarce.
“Papers have closed or merged and cartoonists have been fired. It’s not a growth industry,” he said. “This way I don’t have to sit around waiting for a cartoonist to die for there to be an opening in a company. I’m making a living, a better living, than when I was at the newspapers.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo; cartoon
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: FOR MORE To view some of Bill Mitchell’s work, visit www.cnn.com or www.allpolitics.com