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End of the line for cartoonist

Tue., Dec. 2, 2008

Budget cuts no laughing matter for Seattle Times artist

Journalists are known for their gallows humor, but the editorial cartoon in the Seattle Times a few days before Thanksgiving was downright disturbing.

Titled “Everything gravy? Not so much,” the panel showed a fallen ax and two turkeys, one with its head missing. The intact Tom turns to his headless companion and says: “Ha! That’s nothing. You should see my 401(k).”

If cartoonist Eric Devericks’ art is a bit darker than usual these days, he can be forgiven. On Nov. 13, the ax fell on him.

“It’s tough to try to be funny or witty when your life is a wreck,” the 32-year-old artist said, managing a weak laugh.

Devericks is one of about 150 employees being let go in a third round of layoffs or buyouts at the newspaper this year. His last day is Dec. 12.

The Times is not alone. Newspapers across the country have shed thousands of jobs in recent months as advertising revenues and circulation continue to plummet.

The economic downturn has only made it harder on the beleaguered newspaper industry. And in this rapidly changing ecosystem, cartoonists are among the most-endangered species.

In the past three years, around three dozen artists have been laid off, forced to take buyouts or to retire, according to the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. The toll was nine during one particularly brutal three-month period this summer, with losses in big-city markets from Honolulu to Palm Beach, Fla.

Devericks, the Times’ sole editorial cartoonist, is among the latest. And with the stakes as high as they are – his paycheck is the sole support for him, his wife, Brandi, and their three children – this talented cartoonist is about to give up a career that has known only success.

Growing up in the tiny logging town of Dallas, Ore., he had always been a scribbler. At Oregon State University, he read the student newspaper, the Daily Barometer, and found the editorial cartoons wanting.

“I thought I could do better,” he said. “And I could make some extra money.”

His first effort was a response to an anti-abortion protest by several Christian groups on campus. He depicted them as a pack of maniacal clowns with clubs, beating a guy labeled “Responsible Free Speech.”

“I got so much hate mail from the political cartoon, I was instantly hooked,” he said, with a devious chuckle. “And so I tried to be as good at making people mad as I could possibly be.”

In the spring of 2002, his senior year, the editors at the Times offered Devericks a trial position as cartoonist. He took incompletes and headed to Seattle with his wife and young daughter.

Like most of his ilk, Devericks has a healthy disdain for authority, and no one is safe from the slash of his No. 2 sable-hair brush and Pentel Pocket Brush Pen. He often depicts politicians with flies buzzing around their heads, suggesting they’re full of a certain waste product.

As the number of newspapers – and their profit margins – shrink, cartoonists have increasingly come to be viewed as a kind of luxury. Dick Locher, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune, gave Devericks this advice: “If you don’t want to lose your job as a cartoonist, you just make yourself invaluable and do everything you can.”

So Devericks started a blog, Antagonistic Ink, on which he shared rough sketches and explained the creative process to readers. Earlier this year, he produced his first animated cartoons for the paper’s Web site – a medium many feel is the future of political cartooning.

But it wasn’t enough. In a memo to the staff the day before the Nov. 4 election, Publisher Frank Blethen and President Carolyn Kelly said that while the paper’s print and online readership “continue to be strong and stable,” the company “had to adjust to structural industry changes which have reduced advertising revenue in all media, worldwide.”

Devericks got together with some friends and started LBL Apparel, which makes clothing for the skateboard company LongBoardLarry. He also got outside work designing T-shirts and other items to build a portfolio beyond his newspaper clippings.

The Devericks family is staying in Seattle long enough for the kids to finish the semester, and are moving in with friends to save December’s rent. In January, they’re heading to Southern California, where two buddies have offered Devericks a job as a business development specialist for their new industrial design company.

In the interim, he admits he’s having a hard time drawing cartoons for the paper.

Devericks toyed with the idea of making his last cartoon a headstone with his own name on it. But he’s received so many kind notes since word of the layoff leaked, even from politicians he’s skewered.

“I think I’d like to do something nice to say goodbye,” he said.


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