Forty years ago, editorial cartoonist Pat Bagley published his first cartoon with The Salt Lake Tribune. The paper’s event celebrating the anniversary (at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, Thursday, November 14) is sold-out, but tickets to the after-party at Squatters Pub (8 p.m.) are still available; and Ken Sanders Rare Books will be fêting the cartoonist with a book release party Friday, November 8 at 7 p.m.. The following profile of the editorial cartoonist was published earlier this year as part of Artists of Utah’s print publication Utah’s 15: The State’s Most Influential Artists (Vol. II).
Pat Bagley doesn’t just draw, though he does that beyond exceedingly well. His cartoons tell a story; make us think as we smile — but he also writes, brief words to accompany his sketches, just in case we somehow miss his usually very pointed point. Editorial cartoonist for The Salt Lake Tribune, syndicated in more than 450 newspapers nationwide, illustrator and author of independent political cartoons as well as children’s books, winner of numerous cartooning prizes and a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize, Pat Bagley creates art that reaches tens of thousands of Utahns. Every day.
He is a thoughtful sort, measured in his opinions — forthright but clearly someone who has both given and observed a lot of interviews. Offhand words may often be misinterpreted and he’s just not going there. Bagley opens up cautiously and is a lot more intense (maybe the word is mature) than he was when we were first acquainted 20 years ago.
Surprisingly, this cartoonist is not a funny guy — witty, sure, and charming as hell; kind of quiet, yet easily met. He never was an “entertainer,” though he’s great these days in front of a crowd. While it may not reflect his nature at the regular poker evenings he enjoys with his — mostly — artist pals, his is a surprisingly head-on-straight persona for a guy whose cartoons have appeared in The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian of London and who was awarded the important Herblock Prize for editorial cartooning in 2009 (unanimously) by a panel of judges that included the likes of Garry Trudeau and Jules Feiffer. Bagley also has numerous other prizes and a batch of political cartoon books to his name, too, travels widely, and happily still calls Utah home.
He was born in Salt Lake City in 1956, but grew up in Oceanside, California, where his father was the Republican mayor, his mother a schoolteacher, and he ran track and cross-country in high school. “I was never very good at team sports,” he says, adding, “Well, there was this fear of screwing it up for everybody else, right?”
He has several siblings, all accomplished: eldest by six years is the well-respected Western historian Will Bagley, author of numerous books such as the award-winning Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows. His sister Lisa Bagley Payne lives in Maui and has a clothing line (and a son, the renowned world-class surfer Dusty Payne). Then there’s Kevin, an attorney in San Diego. “A tax attorney,” Bagley specifies. “He’s the black sheep.” (Kevin’s son, Nicholas Bagley, clerked for Associate Justice John Paul Stevens on the U.S. Supreme Court, is now a professor at Michigan, a widely read editorial writer, “one of the top experts in the country about the ACA” — he tells the cartoonist what to pay attention to, what to watch out for in that area, Bagley says, with evident pride).
They grew up surrounded by newspapers and books. His father was a smart guy who led by example. “He read, so we read a whole lot. I read fantasy, Tolkien, science fiction, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein, Asimov’s The Foundation Trilogy [he still enjoys those genres today as well as some history and biography and listens on tape when he goes to the gym in the mornings.]” If in the evening the TV were on, it would be the news. “So I got political by osmosis.“
“My parents were children of the Depression and wanted us to do practical things for a career,” he says. “Going into law was a possibility. My grandfather was a lawyer here in Salt Lake City [the Bagleys were a Utah pioneer family]. So that was something that was open to me.” And that, in fact, was the trajectory he initially pursued at Brigham Young University, after serving for two years in the Bolivia La Paz Mission. He eventually would “retire” from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and he never quite got started in law. “I was on track to becoming a lawyer until I fell into cartooning.”
He was a political science major with a history minor. Cartooning, he says, “was kind of by accident.”
The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, of which Bagley now serves as president, tells the story this way: “In 1977, during a finance class at BYU, Bagley doodled a political cartoon, which he submitted to the student newspaper, The Daily Universe. This became his first published cartoon, which was reprinted in Time magazine just weeks later. [Six years after that, People magazine would feature him as one of America’s leading editorial cartoonists.] Following graduation in 1978, Bagley briefly worked as a caricaturist in the nearby Orem Mall, before being hired as the editorial cartoonist at The Salt Lake Tribune.” He still works there today — the paper’s first and, so far, only political cartoonist.
And how does a cartoon come about? Bagley arrives at the Tribune “kind of late,” he says, “10, 10:30.” There’s an editorial staff meeting — just two people now, “Hi, George,” Bagley says in a nod to editorial page editor George Pyle. “People say, ‘You don’t spend that much time in the office.’ ‘You don’t work that much.’ But I’m always working. In the morning I’ll be going through the different stories and just feeding the fire. When I go in I’ll start whittling at an idea and see what we come up with.”
He doesn’t watch the news. “TV takes you by the hand and leads you through a story and tells you what to think about it. You don’t have to use your brain at all. But if you’re reading, you can take a longer time to internalize it and think about it,” Bagley believes. He’ll listen to NPR, read The New York Times, Washington Post, Washington Examiner. He’s on Facebook and Twitter, but is wary of how social media tailors your feeds to what you are looking for. He says he asks himself, “What is it that outrages you the most today? And you hone in on the topic and settle in on what you want to say and how you want to approach it. Sometimes the whole creative process works and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Bagley makes his lunch and eats at his desk. “Living alone, you tend to make something that there’s a lot of, chili, spaghetti, that sort of thing. So I take something out of the freezer. I like it better. I work on the cartoon and it’s always different every day. Sometimes I’ll have the idea really quickly and then it’s just a matter of drawing it. Other days, I’ll really be pushing the deadline after thinking about it for five or six hours and then I’ll have a really short window to draw the thing.”
Is it possible for the noted Pat Bagley to do a less-than-pleasing cartoon? “I have a genre of least-favorite cartoons — when you overthink it,” he replies. “I’ve been doing this for 40 years and I talk to my peers who are about the same age and they say the same thing.”
On the flip side, the theory of the great cartoon keeps him motivated: “There is the Platonic ideal of a cartoon out there and if I could just grab it, the right cartoon and the right moment, it would destroy the Trump presidency. And it’s out there,” says Bagley intently. “The closest I’ve come to that is the Malala cartoon, Malala and the Book,” he says of his image of Pakistani female education advocate and Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai in sandals and a headscarf, and the text: “What Terrifies Religious Extremists like the Taliban are not American Tanks or Bombs … It’s a Girl With a Book.” “I thought when I got the idea it was a pretty good idea, a dang good idea,” he says. “I had no idea it was going to get the response that it got.”
He readily recalls his decision to stop fooling around and make certain his work would be provocative, would matter. Bagley was a moderate Republican until the presidency of George W. Bush “radicalized” him into what he terms a “liberal independent.” As he explained in his Herblock acceptance speech, when The Salt Lake Tribune endorsed George W. Bush for a second term it put him in a quandary. “I didn’t share my paper’s view on the matter. My first impulse was to do a cartoon saying ‘We’re With Stupid’ with an arrow pointing to the adjacent editorial. But I knew that wouldn’t fly.” His second impulse was subtler. He did a cartoon of Bush with his “trademark vacant look” staring out from the panel with the words “The Choice is Simple” blocked in beside him. “You could take it however you wanted,” Bagley recalls.
He used to do more editorial cartoons about the Utah culture, back when “with George H.W. Bush and Clinton … it almost didn’t matter who was running the show. There wasn’t that much difference. I was almost apolitical. I just did the cartoons and made hay of people in power. I didn’t really get radicalized until George W. Bush. And then it was like, ‘Oh, my god. This is serious stuff. What I’m trying to do, it matters.”
He wrote 101 Ways to Survive Four More Years of George W. Bush and the various Clueless George parodies of the children’s Curious George books. In retrospect, he says, “I had reason to loathe George Bush and Cheney. They set the table for Trump.” He hasn’t created a tome on Trump — at least not yet. His caricatures of the man now in office are so frequent, telling, and evocative you can’t imagine Bagley passing up the opportunity for long. He tells us he will probably put out a book next year of important cartoons from his 40 years at the Tribune. “I’m sure Trump will figure in it.” He says he cannot imagine another worse person in America to be president. “Trump is who he is but what is really distressing is that 30 or 35 percent of the people out there think he’s just fine. That’s frightening. He is everything I taught my boys not to be.”
Bagley’s the father of two sons, Miles and Alec. His feelings for them still seem to catch him off guard. “I thought I would be a dutiful father and found I couldn’t turn my eyes away, and I became a doting father and I didn’t think I had it in me. I remember my father occasionally reading books to us, so I did that — only more of it. I did a lot of reading to the kids and wish my father had done more things with us like camping and outdoors stuff so I tried to do more of that with them.” Bagley thinks the goal should be to do a little more than your own parent did. “I’ve got regrets and I made mistakes but I was better than my own parents were and hopefully they will be better than I was,” says the soon-to-be-grandfather who is all about trying to leave the world a better place. For his kids and theirs. And for yours, too. For the homeless, the poor, the refugees, the DACA kids, the Syrians — the list goes on and on.
Looking back 40 years to the day he was hired at The Salt Lake Tribune, Bagley says, “Luck has so much to do with how things turn out. My mother always said, ‘The only kind of artist is a starving artist.‘ But I just happened to be at the right place at the right time and got the bug. The Tribune was the only paper of its size that didn’t have its own cartoonist; I was hired full time. I wasn’t paid much, but on the other hand it was more than I’d ever made before. I loved the job. I remember the first time I walked into the newsroom I couldn’t see the other side because of the cigarette smoke. It was like ‘Madmen’ era. It was ‘Madmen’ era. Coming from BYU that was a shock. I was attached to the editorial department. One of my great regrets was that I didn’t keep a diary. And I wish I had the luxury of holding the cartoon and looking at it for a day and then letting it go out. But I don’t. It has to go out. It’s a high-wire act. I go into work every morning — I’m so grateful that I do what I do — but I don’t have any idea what I’ll do that day.”
A graduate of the University of Utah, Ann Poore is a freelance writer and editor who spent most of her career at The Salt Lake Tribune. She was the 2018 recipient of the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Artist Award in the Literary Arts.