Cartoonist draws on faith

14 May
Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Steve Breen

Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Steve Breen

MAY 14, 2009 — Steve Breen and his wife, Cathy, had just finished a 54-day novena to St. Joseph when they got the news that he had won his second Pulitzer Prize.

Breen’s cartoons are nationally syndicated and regularly appear in The New York Times, USA Today, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report. Pulitzer judges picked Breen “for his agile use of a classic style to produce wide-ranging cartoons that engage readers with power, clarity and humor.”

A lifelong Catholic, born in 1970, the nationally syndicated editorial cartoonist regularly draws cartoons celebrating his faith. His Easter cartoon this year, for example, showed a silhouetted cross at sunrise on Calvary with the caption: “Sustainable power source.”

He spoke with Register correspondent Patrick Novecosky from his office at The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Was the Catholic faith central to your growing up in the Breen house?

Yes, it was. I had a strong Catholic upbringing. I grew up in Huntington Beach, Calif., as the second of eight children. We were your church-every-Sunday, fast-at-Lent, family-Rosary Catholics. We said grace before every meal, prayers before bed, and have a great loving mother who read to us about the saints and taught us the faith.

I went to Catholic elementary school, but my formation there was a little wishy-washy. It wasn’t until I got into college that I got stronger into my faith. That seems counterintuitive because that’s where a lot of young Catholics seem to drift away. But for some reason, I started to get more and more into my faith when I was going to the University of California, Riverside. I went to confession regularly, the Newman Center for Mass, and visited churches in the area.

My cousin was in the seminary, and we would have great theological discussions. So, I grew tremendously in my faith in my early 20s. One of the reasons may have been all the prayers I was saying to find a job and a spouse. Those prayers lifted me to a higher spiritual plateau. I did more spiritual reading, like Introduction to the Devout Life, and I’d defend the faith in discussions with my friends. I’ve always been a proud Catholic and stood out from my peers because of my faith. Let’s face it: Southern California isn’t known as a bastion of traditional Catholicism.

Did you draw a lot as a kid?

Yes, ever since I was 6 or so. As I got into elementary school, I started drawing more for my friends and developing a reputation as being a good artist. I loved the attention. I thought it was fabulous to have something that was special to me. My gift for drawing helped set me apart, and it’s really nice for a young person to have that. It gives them confidence and self-esteem.

I was always able to draw Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse. Then, as I got into junior high, did more Mad magazine stuff, cartoons of friends and teachers; I created my own cartoon strips — that kind of stuff. I loved to entertain back then and make my friends laugh.

You were planning on becoming a high school history teacher. How did you get started as a cartoonist?

At age 19, I knew I wanted to be a cartoonist. I was drawing editorial cartoons for my college newspaper at the time. One of my first ones ran in Newsweek, and that really put the wind in my sails and made me determined to try it as a career. I focused on it like a laser beam, but I couldn’t find a job. There was a recession going on in the early ’90s, so I spent another couple years in college working on a teaching credential. All the while, I was sending out my cartoons to newspapers all over North America that did not have a cartoonist. Literally everywhere, from Hawaii to Maine.

Finally, the Asbury Park Press called me, and they said, “We like your stuff. Can we use one of these?” I would boldly do cartoons on local issues or politicians, so I did some New Jersey issues. They ran a few, which developed into “Would you like to come out here and do an internship?” That developed into a full-time job doing cartoons one day a week and doing pagination the rest of the time. After a year or two, I became a full-time cartoonist. I met my wife in New Jersey, so it turned out to be a really good thing.

How does your faith inform how you perceive the news and interpret that in your cartoons?

Cartooning is all about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. It’s sticking up for the little guy, and that is one of the basic principles of Christianity. I try to show a respect for life in all my work. I’m consistently pro-life on everything from the death penalty to abortion to stem cells and euthanasia — even to being in favor of gun control and [opposing] unjust wars. I think that’s a consistent theme and a Catholic theme.

You dedicated your recent Pulitzer win to your fellow cartoonists across the country who have been laid off. You also admitted that, despite your success, your own position isn’t guaranteed. How does your faith sustain you in these tough times?

God will provide for those who are faithful. He may not always give you what you want, but he will give you what you need. Cathy and I recently finished a 54-day novena to St. Joseph, and right on the heels of it, I won three national awards, including the Pulitzer, so you can draw your own conclusions. Prayer really works, and it’s something that will sustain you — a sustainable power source.

Your editor said, “Steve’s talent lies in his ability to poke fun without getting personal.” Is it a challenge to stay fair and honest in your work without being mean-spirited?

It is, because sometimes you have to pull yourself back, take a pause, look at the cartoon, and ask yourself if it’s fair. Sometimes I’ll look at it and say, “No, it’s not fair. I shouldn’t say this or I should adjust that.” That has happened. Sometimes my editor will point it out to me. If you’re just out for blood or being mean-spirited in the cartoon, you can lose people — especially if you do it on a consistent basis. You’ll come to be known as the cartoonist who is nasty. It’s not that I want to be liked; I don’t want people to write me off as being too harsh and nasty. If I could tone the cartoon down and use some other device, I can reach more people sometimes.

You also created the comic strip “Grand Avenue.”

Yeah, I started it in 1999. I’d always wanted to do a comic strip with kids in it. Kids are so fun, and there’s so much material. But there have already been strips with kids, so I thought, “What if I add something different, like they’re being raised by their grandmother? There are a lot of older readers who might appreciate it.” That’s how it came to be. It’s been a lot of fun. A few years ago, I took in a partner, so I now draw it with Mike Thompson of Detroit. We’re now in 150 newspapers.

You and your wife have four kids, and you’ve written a few children’s books. Tell me about that.

Right. I’ve done two books. The first was Stick in 2007, then in ’08, I had Violet the Pilot. And this fall I have a new book coming out called The Secret of Santa’s Island. I’m a huge fan of Christmas and have always wanted to do a Christmas book. I also love the Charlie Brown Christmas special. So I show the elves watching the Charlie Brown Christmas show on one of the pages.

Getting back to my family, Cathy is from a family of 11 kids. Her dad is Bud McFarlane Sr., the Catholic evangelist. They are a great supportive family. We were married in 1998 and have four kids. Thomas is 10; Patrick is 7, Jack is 4 and Jane is 1.

The three oldest love to draw and color. But with the state of the newspaper industry, I’m telling them not to consider a career in journalism. I’m sure they’ll be great Catholic artists. They might find jobs in Catholic web design or something like that.

Patrick Novecosky is the founder and editor of The Praetorium. This article appeared in the May 17-23, 2009, issue of the National Catholic Register. Reprinted with permission.

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