Five days after the inauguration of Pres. Barack Obama, the San Antonio Express-News announced that it would stop publishing Mallard Fillmore, a conservative comic strip. The newspaper blamed its shrinking number of pages for the move. Others suspected a different motive. Why did the Express-News cancel Mallard Fillmore and not Doonesbury, a liberal cartoon?
The editors in San Antonio were wise enough to avoid echoing what their pious counterparts at the Denver Post had once said when they tried to clip Mallard’s wings: “If we are truly committed to rebuilding a society in which we treat each other with respect and civility, even across vast political divides, we don’t need a sneering Mallard Fillmore on our pages.” Yet in both cases — and in many more over the years — the result was the same: Conservative readers revolted, liberal editors trembled, and Mallard Fillmore returned to print. “Take a bow, Mallard fans,” said the Express-News on February 8. “We listened. You saved the cartoon.”
Mallard Fillmore runs in nearly 400 newspapers. It doesn’t have anything like the reach of Garfield or Blondie, yet in more than 15 years of syndication, this right-of-center comic strip about a duck who works as a reporter for WFDR, a fictional television station in Washington, D.C., has built a large and loyal following. It is the creation of Bruce Tinsley, a 51-year-old artist who grew up in Kentucky and now lives in Indiana. In elementary school, Tinsley discovered that he could entertain friends with his pictures of teachers and classmates. “I wasn’t a very good student,” he says. “I was usually drawing instead of what I was supposed to be doing.” By high school, he was selling his work to a chain of weekly newspapers around Louisville. He majored in political science at Bellarmine College, and in 1986 the Charlottesville (Va.) Daily Progress hired him as a staff artist.
Tinsley specialized in editorial cartoons but pitched in as a writer and copy editor as well. “Most of my bosses were liberals, and they were great to work with,” he says. “They didn’t really care that I was conservative.” That easygoing atmosphere began to change after the Daily Progress came under new management. When Tinsley was asked to design a mascot for an entertainment section, one of his ideas involved a blue hippopotamus. “I didn’t make the hippo male or female,” says Tinsley, “but someone complained that it would insult fat women.” The editors preferred another animal that Tinsley had drawn, and thus the character of Mallard Fillmore was born.
From the start, the duck was popular. He became controversial as he migrated from the entertainment section into Tinsley’s editorial cartoons, including a series on the National Endowment for the Arts. “This was back when Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano were still in the news,” says Tinsley. In one cartoon, Mallard observes Michelangelo as he seeks a federal grant. NEA officials tell the painter of the Sistine Chapel that they like the nakedness in his art but not his portrayal of God as a man. They worry that upon seeing it, little girls will think that they can’t become God.
“My editors failed to see the humor in this,” says Tinsley. “So they fired me.”
That was in 1991. For the next few years, Tinsley tried to make a living as a freelance editorial artist. His income was irregular. “I ate a lot of canned tuna and ramen noodles,” he says. Then one day Mary Lou Forbes of the Washington Times called him. Looking through Tinsley’s portfolio, she had spotted the old Mallard clips, and she saw potential. Forbes invited Tinsley to draw a weekly strip for the paper’s commentary section. They called it The Fillmore Files.
“My mother realized that this was the only conservative comic strip in the country,” says Tinsley. His parents drafted a press release, which they sent to exactly one recipient: Editor & Publisher, the newspaper industry’s trade journal. It ran an item on Tinsley. Within a week, Jay Kennedy, the comics editor of King Features, called with an offer to syndicate. On June 6, 1994, Mallard Fillmore took flight as a daily strip.
The timing could hardly have been better. As Newt Gingrich rallied Republicans in that year’s congressional elections, Mallard Fillmore captured the country’s political mood. Tinsley benefited from Kennedy’s professional advice, too. Originally, Mallard was conceived as a newspaper reporter who battled the biases of his editors, such as the pompously left-wing Mr. Noseworthy. Kennedy urged Tinsley to turn Mallard into a television reporter. “It turns out that print journalists hate only one group more than conservatives: broadcast journalists,” says Tinsley.
It also turns out that many readers are glad to have an alternative to Doonesbury, Garry Trudeau’s durable strip, for which he has won a Pulitzer Prize. Doonesbury currently appears in more than 1,400 papers and is a comic institution — and a voice of establishment liberalism. For nearly 40 years it has whacked Republicans with relentless glee. In the 1980s, then–vice president George H. W. Bush felt compelled to criticize it: Trudeau, he said, “speaks for the Brie-tasting, Chardonnay-sipping elitists.” Comic-strip editors have often heard the same from their readers. “They saw Mallard Fillmore as a way to provide balance,” says Brendan Burford, who succeeded Kennedy at King Features. Today there are several conservative political strips to choose from, as well as several liberal ones. Prickly City, by Chicago Tribune cartoonist Scott Stantis, appears in about a hundred papers and is solidly conservative, as is Day by Day, a web-based comic strip by Chris Muir. Joining Doonesbury on the left are Non Sequitur, by Wiley Miller, and La Cucaracha, by Lalo Alcaraz.
Tinsley may have been a comic entrepreneur who took advantage of a market opportunity, but he wasn’t a complete trailblazer. Little Orphan Annie, the long-running strip by Harold Gray, was conservative on the occasions when it touched on politics. Al Capp’s Li’l Abner started out liberal but eventually moved to the right; in the 1960s, Capp lampooned campus protesters as Students Wildly Indignant about Nearly Everything (SWINE). More recently, B.C. became an occasional vehicle for artist Johnny Hart’s born-again Christian faith, causing much earnest hand-wringing among militant secularists. (Thomas Nelson has just published I Did It His Way, a collection of Christian-themed B.C. strips.)
Editorial pages — as opposed to comic-strip pages — have always had partisan and provocative cartoons. The most influential artists have even shaped political culture. Our Republican elephant and Democratic donkey were the inventions of 19th-century caricaturist Thomas Nast. The cartoons of Mohammed in Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper, continue to ignite controversy. Traditional comic strips, however, are usually located in the sports or lifestyle section. Newspapers see them as an oasis of light and wholesome entertainment. The goal is to win a few chuckles from a wide audience, and to generate about as much debate as a sudoku puzzle. When a typical cartoon veers into political territory, it carefully avoids taking sides. On September 2, for instance, Heathcliff showed a cat and a dog in a schoolyard brawl. “I believe they’re discussing health care,” says an observer.
Mallard Fillmore goes for laughs as well as the jugular. The August 21 strip showed Mallard saying, “I have some serious problems with the president’s health-care plan,” whereupon his boss screams, “You fascist, racist, sexist, homophobic, global-warming-denying . . .” In the next panel, Mallard explains, “This has been a test of the liberal reflexive response system . . . If this had been an actual conversation . . .”
A few of the newspapers that run Mallard Fillmore put the strip on their editorial pages. “That’s where I think it probably belongs,” says Tinsley. The cartoons certainly look the part: Tinsley is a skilled caricaturist. His images of frequent targets (Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) as well as infrequent ones (Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor) are instantly recognizable. He’s almost always on the attack, too. Tinsley would much rather poke fun at a liberal than defend a conservative. Yet he doesn’t spare Republicans from his needling: Anybody who kept up with Mallard Fillmore in 2008 knows that Tinsley is no fan of John McCain.
Drawing a daily comic strip takes time, but it doesn’t demand nine-to-five hours. Tinsley is a stay-at-home dad who picks up his kids at school and works late into the night. Whereas editorial cartoonists can see their material in print the next day, comic-strip artists operate at least a couple of weeks in advance of their publication dates. Topicality is therefore a challenge. “I need to make sure my strips will stay relevant and funny,” says Tinsley. “Whenever you see one of my strips with dinosaurs, you know that I was awake at 4:30 in the morning, trying to make my deadline.” Occasionally, he’ll even stick a footnote into a strip, citing a news story or think-tank report. Every now and then, he makes no attempt at all to crack a joke, as when he notes a solemn anniversary or thanks our troops, past and present, for their service. Last year, he drew obituaries for William F. Buckley Jr. and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
This spring, CBS Late Show host David Letterman admitted that he couldn’t bring himself to make fun of Obama. “I’m going to have to go back to telling toothpaste jokes,” he said. This earned Letterman an appearance in Mallard Fillmore for three consecutive days of mockery. “I don’t understand Letterman’s problem,” says Tinsley. “Obama is keeping me in business.” Many humorists still find it hard to make fun of liberal politics, but thanks to Tinsley — and the fans who stick up for him — Mallard Fillmore is no longer a rara avis on America’s funny pages.