Jim Borgman: My 25 Years at The Cincinnati Enquirer

Edited by J. Dennis Doherty Published by The Cincinnati Enquirer

Frankly, it's hard to think of Jim Borgman '76 as an eminence. There's just too much wit, verve, exuberance, and fun in his political cartoons-too much sheer youth. And there's too much dead-on truth about adolescence in his comic strip, Zits.

But here's proof that Borgman's energy has been matched by his endurance and, yes, eminence: a volume celebrating a career that began fresh out of Kenyon in 1976, that was still ascending when he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1991, and that has kept on soaring. Though it may be a contradiction of sorts to say so, because great cartoonists revel in iconoclasm, Jim Borgman is an institution.

And, as this book shows, he is a beloved one. Part homage, part exhibit, part family album, My 25 Years at The Cincinnati Enquirer offers an engaging picture of the man as well as the work. Short, anecdote-filled chapters, most written by Enquirer reporters and columnists, range from Borgman's boyhood (the son of a sign painter, he grew up in the blue-collar Price Hill neighborhood of Cincinnati) to his encounters with American presidents (President Clinton kept a Borgman cartoon in a bathroom just outside the Oval Office).

A section on his Kenyon years recalls his work for the Collegian, the encouragement he got from (now retired) art professor Joseph Slate, and especially the influence of another art department legend, Martin Garhart. "He took me from a kid who could draw things to understanding how to express myself in work," Borgman says of Garhart in an interview near the end of the book. Garhart taught him how "to talk about the world in drawings."

Amusing, revealing, and off-beat vignettes make this an enjoyable book to browse through. There is a good deal about the city of Cincinnati and its foibles, sports teams, controversies, and colorful personalities. For example, Borgman loved to caricature Marge Schott, the outrageous, chain-smoking owner of the Cincinnati Reds, and we learn that he and the newspaper's sports cartoonist vied informally to see who could squeeze more cigarettes in Schott's mouth. "He was winning," Borgman says, "until I started sticking them in her ears."

The book also includes a piece by Borgman's Zits collaborator Jerry Scott about the genesis of the popular comic strip, as well as "salutes" from fellow cartoonists in the form of affectionate caricatures of Borgman. And we meet Borgman's family-his mother, Marian, who began helping him with clerical work in 1980, when his cartoons were first syndicated; his son, Dylan, who reports on his father's 1993 sabbatical, which entailed a dog-sledding adventure in Alaska; and his daughter, Chelsea, who lists "25 Things I Like About My Dad" ("He will order pizza at 11:00 p.m." . . . . "He lets me color some of his comic strips").

Above all, My 25 Years treats us to a collection of Borgman's superb cartoons, together with commentary by the artist. He has drawn presidents, politicians, popes, celebrities, international figures, national landmarks, and even God-whom he once depicted as a fragile Third World child ("It felt jarring . . . but it may be a more compelling image than the white-bearded Old Testament figure."). He has also reflected on social issues by drawing just plain folks, "big doughy people in their house talking about issues-average Ohioans dealing with issues as they filter down into everyday life."

Politically, Borgman describes himself as "a contrarian," a "progressive iconoclast with a dirt-under-my-fingernails conservative streak." Certainly, he skewers without regard for political labels or ideology. He deploys humor deftly and with nuance, now poking gentle fun, now launching flights of hilarity, now inserting a wicked blade. His drawings work like a reflex: you can't help but smile, chuckle, or laugh out loud. Like all good satire, the mockery can be rooted in deeply felt anger. Borgman's list of things that "make me mad" includes spoiled ballplayers, deceptive presidents, half-baked medical bulletins, ignorant racists, spoilers of the environment, hypocritical holy men, gas price manipulation, gun nuts, pedophile priests, and "acceptance of mediocrity."

If the cartoonist's role is, as Borgman puts it, "to set off firecrackers under the principal's chair," it is also to articulate grief and compassion in times of loss or public tragedy. This book gives us fine examples of cartoons that serve this civic function, providing what Borgman calls "a sort of secular requiem." Among them are his drawing on September 11, 2001 (produced in less than two hours for a special afternoon edition) and his tribute to teacher-astronaut Christa McAuliffe after the Challenger shuttle disaster-a wordless picture of a child's hand holding an apple up to the stars.

"Good cartoons can make us wince, gasp, laugh, turn purple, ponder, retort, or snort coffee out our noses," Borgman writes in a chapter on his favorite drawings. "The best cartoons make us do several of these at once."

This book proves his point. Savor it-without coffee, perhaps.

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