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Drawing our picture book of news: North Carolina cartoonists take on current events

<i>WLOS</i><br/>Asheville's three editorial cartoonists -- David Cohen
Asheville's three editorial cartoonists -- David Cohen

By Caitlyn Penter

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    ASHEVILLE, North Carolina (WLOS) — From larger-than-life politicians to protests and a global pandemic, at times over the last two years, we’ve probably all taken a step back and thought, “Is this real life?”

Asheville’s three editorial cartoonists are showing what it’s been like to draw this history that’s felt like a cartoon because, like it or not, it’s a cartoonist’s world and we’re just living in it.

“It’s a thing where they say, ‘Oh I can’t believe they said that. It’s going to be great for a cartoon, but it’s going to be terrible for the country,’” said David Cohen, who works as a cartoonist for the Asheville Citizen Times.

Fellow cartoonist Randy Molton, who works with the Mountain Xpress, agreed about how this period in history differs from what he’s witnessed in his multi-decade career as a cartoonist.

“Yes, very much so, and it’s given me a lot of material, as you can imagine,” Molton chuckled.

Molton, Cohen and Brent Brown, who works for the Mountain Xpress, shared the unique skills of documenting history through pictures.

“Everything is more politicized. You used to say, ‘Well, let’s not talk about anything divisive. Let’s talk about the weather.’ Even the weather is politicized,” Brown continued. “Sports, no that’s been politicized, too. Fast food places, no I can’t eat at certain fast food places.”

Asheville is lucky to have three cartoonists writing our picture book as many newspapers have downsized or been eliminated all together.

The weight of drawing the important events that happen in Western North Carolina is resting on their pencils.

“Anything I can do to tamp down the rancor, the division that we have now between one side and the other,” Brown said.

The year 2020 brought the COVID-19 pandemic, a highly contentious presidential election, a nationwide social justice movement and arguably one of the most distinctive figures serving as the author of this chapter for our country.

“I would say that we’re at a very unique point in our country’s history. The fact that Trump got elected and then all the things that happened over his four years in office, that’s really unprecedented,” Cohen said.

For four years, Cohen and Molton, who are primarily political cartoonists, said former president Donald Trump was an easy person to caricature.

“I don’t think there’s a day that went by that I didn’t do some kind of a sketch on him,” Molton said.

Sometimes, cartoons are able to capture a particular moment in history better than words.

“The idea of a cartoon is it crystallizes something that you only need a second to look at and understand, whereas a newspaper story might take a thousand words to get to the meat of the story,” Brown said.

As 2020 ended and 2021 was ushered in, the cartoonists said the headlines haven’t slowed.

“The new congressman gives me plenty of material and, in some ways, you don’t really miss Trump because we actually have a Trump right here, you know,” Molton said, referring to freshman NC 11 Rep. Madison Cawthorn.

Cartoons are mostly meant to make people laugh. It’s been a fine line to walk for cartoons through some of the issues of the last two years, especially when the defining moment of 2020 brought so much death.

“When it first started, like how much of this can we joke about,” Brown said.

Brown said he had to really think about a way to lighten the mood.

“So, I did signs, your community is preparing for COVID, where dudes have their beards shaved with their masks that fit right around their hipster beard and things like that,” Brown said.

For Asheville’s cartoonists, it hasn’t just been the national news that has stuck out to them.

“I see my own kids have to get roommates, three people just to pay for an apartment,” Brown said.

They said local issues have only been heightened by the events of the last few years.

“People have to survive living here, if they can make enough to live here. Even before COVID, the wages, the cost of the tourism economy we have are all service wages and that wasn’t keeping up with the rent from being such a destination place,” Brown said.

As crazy as right now may seem, political cartoons from the past draw some parallels to today.

“His name is Billy Borne, and he was the cartoonist for the Citizen almost exactly 100 years ago. And he was drawing about a lot of the same issues that I draw about 100 years later,” Cohen said.

One century ago Borne, a prominent Asheville cartoonist, drew dozens of cartoons about homelessness, tourism, policing and Asheville’s high cost of living. Sound familiar? It makes you wonder whether we’ve been living in the cartoonist’s world all along.

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