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The Rocky Mountain News's Ed Stein is ending "Denver Square," his long-running comic strip, on May 21, but he's not wrapping up his career at the paper — and for that he's grateful, particularly since editorial cartoonists in general have become an endangered species. "More and more, you've got managers of newspapers who aren't news people and publishers who are so afraid of offending anybody," he says. "And what does a cartoonist do? He offends people. That's his job. And he doesn't cover the news, either — so that's a double strike against you."
Actually, it's more than that at many publications these days. Faced with declining revenues and dire budgetary projections, plenty of newspaper supervisors looking for positions to cut have settled on cartoonists for the aforementioned reasons, plus the easy availability of syndicated fare. As such, the number of full-time cartoonists is in severe decline. A century ago, as many as 2,000 illustrators had staff gigs in this sketchy profession. But now, according to Sacramento Bee cartoonist Rex Babin, who's also the vice president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, the total is under a hundred, even if freelancers being paid enough to make a living are included.
The Rocky is a major exception, employing not one, but two staff cartoonists: Stein and Drew Litton, who specializes in sports. Moreover, Rocky editor/publisher/president John Temple says, "I don't see that changing," despite the continuing pressure on him to do more with less. In his view, "There's a real need in this community for regular local cartooning, because a lot of editorial cartooning looks at national and international issues. Having Ed and Drew allows us to do much more skewering of the powers-that-be in this community, and I think that's valuable."
Stein shares this opinion despite the detrimental effect it's had on his earning power. A Texas native, the self-described "newspaper rat" attended the University of Denver, and during his years at the school, he fell in love with the city and its rich editorial-cartooning history; during the '60s, Paul Conrad and Pat Oliphant each won a Pulitzer Prize while drawing for the Denver Post. "By the time I graduated, by God, I was going to be an editorial cartoonist," Stein recalls. "So I raced right out, and nine years later, I got a job." The year was 1978, and he gladly accepted the Rocky's offer despite the disconnect between his ideology and the typically conservative one espoused by the paper. "I'm not in line with the editorial page very often," he allows. "But they've been hands-off and very supportive. You hear horror stories about cartoonists having to fight with editors to get their voices heard, but I've never had that problem."
In the mid-'90s, Stein began developing a multi-generational comic strip for Universal Press Syndicate "that failed for a variety of reasons I won't go into," he says. However, he thought the characters and structure could be adapted for a local offering. The concept wasn't entirely new to the area: The Bee's Babin, who worked at the Post for about a year in the late '80s, notes that Post cartoonist Mike Keefe once drew a feature called "Cold Facts Ave." that looked at life in Denver through the eyes of continuing characters. ("Cold Facts" was among the influences Babin drew upon when devising "Caleeforneeya," a semi-regular series built around California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.) But whereas Keefe's handiwork appeared occasionally, Stein would need to crank out multi-paneled items every day. The San Francisco Chronicle's Phil Frank was among the few major newspaper cartoonists doing something similar; he produced a local six-days-a-week strip called "Farley" for 22 years, until shortly before his 2007 death.
Despite this workload, Stein was game, and so was Bob Burdick, the Rocky's editor at the time: "Denver Square" launched on January 12, 1997. From the beginning, Stein didn't want the storylines involving his central characters — parents Sam and Liz, son Nate and grandparents Irv and Sarah — to be "intensely political." Instead, he focused more on what he calls "the joys and hassles of living in Denver," albeit with a generous helping of current events and contemporary issues — among them "TABOR and CSAPs and gun control," he says. Overall, the tone was generally mild whether the subject was serious or silly, although some people still managed to take offense. When asked about strips that drew angry reactions, Stein references an item in which the family described the state's fall colors as simply "yellow" — a joke that an unexpected number of readers read as a slap at Colorado's trees.
From the beginning, Stein knew "Denver Square" would never break the bank: "That was my stupid cartoonist's trick. I'd created a comic strip that can't be syndicated," he says. But for most of its run, Stein enjoyed the process — at least until the grind of churning out six new strips in addition to three editorial cartoons per week began wearing on him. "You've done the best gags you think you're going to do, and when you revisit them again and again, you reach a point where you find it's kind of stale," he concedes. So he decided to end it all by having the clan move out of town in the wake of financial troubles at Sam's job — a twist that bears an uncanny resemblance to what's happening in print journalism these days. "The newspaper industry isn't the only one having economic problems," Stein points out. "But you take what you know."