Insight on Cartoonists: Adam Zyglis

An interview with editorial cartoonist Adam Zyglis

It is, as the song tells us, a long way to Tipperary, and it’s also a helluva trek to Buffalo in New York, especially in the winter, but well worth it when one gets to see and enjoy the work of Pulitzer Prize editorial cartoonist, Adam Zyglis, in the Buffalo News.

Adam Zyglis cartoonI’ve had the pleasure as well as the honor of interviewing a delightful range of such distinguished honorees, but never so soon after being recognized – the Pulitzer Committee awarded Zyglis the 2015 Prize for using “strong images to connect with readers while conveying layers of meaning in a few words.”

It’s easy to imagine how pleased his professors at Canisius College, Tom Joyce and Mel Schroeder, would have been to learn that they had a great impact on Adam Zyglis, including guiding him with his Senior Thesis on Editorial Cartooning. Both have “sadly passed away,” but he remembers them fondly to this day, along with The Griffin (his school paper) as well as his advisers, mentors and friends. “I think both my professors would be proud and rightfully share in the glow of the Pulitzer I received. In fact,  I know they would, for I felt their presence at a joint Canisius Collge/Buffalo News celebration in my honor recently.”

Looking back to his earlier years, Zyglis said that his parents “always encouraged my art – so long as it was a hobby! That explains my degree in computer science and math. Still, I generally received lots of support too.”

And growing up, he was fascinated by underground (and above ground) artists, like the brilliant R.Crumb, Mad Magazine’s Jack Davis and “The Amazing Spider Man.” Todd MacFarlane – “I loved the detail work and expression in their characters,” he tells us. And later, “I was drawn to the art of caricaturist David Levine and satirist Edward Sorel.” Adam Zyglis was clearly on the path to his current career, when at the age of 8, his mother gave him an illustrated book of animals from all over the world, and “it inspired me,” he says, “to create a comic strip of animals from Madgascar – long before the animated movie!”

Talking of favorite artists led him to remark that, although it might be a bit of a cliché, the one artist from yesteryear he’d love to meet would be the great Thomas Nast (a popular lad among editorial cartoonists). He said he’d “ask him if he ever got hate mail and death threats. I’d also love to know [since history tells us Nast’s drawings were instrumental in the downfall of corrupt politico Boss Tweed] if his cartoons really were in his possession when he was arrested.”

Zyglis couldn’t help romanticizing (as it were) when he was asked who might be the one person he’d like to be if he could imagine such an event. “It would be the essence of an architect, a designer of beautiful and intricate structures and buildings.” To this day, he adds, “Buffalo’s historic architecture is a source of inspiration to me.”

This touches on one of my favorite questions – where does a cartoonist’s inspiration come from – and Adam Zyglis turns to more than just the local architecture. He writes, “it’s the constant stream of dysfunction from Buffalo, Albany and Washington officials (that) keeps me busy. As Will Rogers said, ‘There’s no trick to being a humorist when you have the whole government working for you.’”

At home, it’s “brilliant wife, Jessica,” and his parents who were role models for their work ethic.  And surprisingly for an artist, it’s a football great who is the one he admires most: “the great Jim Kelly, legendary quarterback for the Buffalo Bills, a role model for every young person in Buffalo in the ’90’s. His leadership through four straight Superbowl losses was inspiring.”

We now know what has helped to groom this exceptional young cartoonist, but we also wanted to know what recent work has especially pleased him. “My favorites change almost monthly. Currently my ‘Age Old Argument’ from the Pulitzer portfolio is my favorite for the absurd narrative it creates. But my Rumsfeld cartoon from 2006 is a close second. His tie is a row of flag-draped coffins with  a folded flag at the top making a powerful image.”

In an era when a Donald Trump gets cut loose from various businesses or is even banned from some media (see The Huffington Post) because of things he said, the question of censorship came up. Adam Zyglis allows that in his first years at The News, he had “plenty of battles with my editorial page editor (thankfully he retired). Now,” he says, “it’s quite rare that a cartoon gets spiked (fewer than one a year), and it’s always because of the nature of the imagery, not the editorial message.”

Young as he is (he just graduated from Cansius in 2004), Zyglis says to those artists younger than he, “I would certainly encourage those considering cartooning as a profession to continue their pursuit if they truly loved it. Because it is such a hard field to break into, I would advise them to do the following: read as much as you can, produce as much as you can and, believe it or not, expect failure and grow from it. Be original.”

He continues, “We’ve seen that in recent years there’s been a growth in popularity of ‘the cartoon’ due to the internet and the graphic novel. As ancient as editorial cartooning may seem, it is tailor-made for our digital consumption – concise, shareable and packed with imagery and opinion. I’m encouraged how the digital world has enabled some cartoons to go viral and global. I’m also inspired by the long format cartoon and the growth of comics journalism.”

On the other side of the coin, Adam Zyglis is decidedly “not happy to see the business side of things fail to monetize the popularity of the craft.”

Today, Zyglis has the Pulitzer Prize to show for his efforts, but his euphoria was not always there. He told us that, “the first two years as a staff cartoonist for The News were the hardest. Finding my voice, style and rhythm were a challenge, and following Tom Toles? Every new person I’d meet would say, ‘Wow…Big shoes to fill.’”

While looking back, Adam says that if there were anything he could do differently, it would be that he’d “try not to sweat the small stuff.  Details that nobody would notice would bother me and the hate mail weighted me down too. I’d also experiment with more style.”

Speaking of style, one gets a real glimpse into the being of a person by finding out what sort of books they’d take with them on a long-distance flight to outer space. Zyglis said he would “choose a collection of David Levine illustrations – I could stare at his work all day long. I might also bring my books of Sebastian Kruger paintings [Kruger has done dozens of stunning LP covers, is treasured by musicians such as the Rolling Stones and is considered the greatest proponent of New Pop Art] and at least one of my favorite Hemingway books – The Old Man and the Sea or Farewell to Arms. And lastly, a new work of non-fiction. I’m always looking to consume more truth.”

And just what would this seeker of truth say truthfully to those gathered around him when he departs at the age of 150? “Why didn’t you take me out at 100? I’m 50 years past my expiration date.”

Life holds mysteries for all of us. But if you want to learn more about artistry, check in with Adam Zyglis – he knows a lot from A to Z!

Stanford Chandler
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