In The Press

Drawing on his beliefs

By: ELAINE WILSON, American staff writer
Publication: Anacortes American
Date: May 29, 2002

Milt Priggee's political cartoons have appeared in prestigious places, but, to Priggee, the "place of honor" for a cartoon is on somebody's refrigerator.

"If you can get people to get up and grab a pair of scissors, you've reached them. It's a cartoonist's goal," he said.

Priggee's work has appeared in Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, The New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today and -- now that he's an Anacortes resident -- the Anacortes American.

Priggee moved to Fidalgo Island recently, one of the changes he made after he lost his job during the "downsizing" of a daily Spokane newspaper in 2000. He saw opportunity in the situation and started a second career as a freelance and Internet cartoonist. The resulting Web site,, now gets 400,000 hits per month.

"It's a popular site. I get people visiting the site from literally all over the world. A professor from Munich, Germany, is a big fan," he said, his voice reflecting awe.

To Priggee, cartoons are an effective means for sharing and expressing ideas and the Internet is just another way to get them to people.

"Political cartooning is the ignition key to democracy. It's a tool of democracy," he said. "We criticize in a way that will bring greater public attention to the issue at hand."

Priggee gets his inspiration from topics that affect his readers, or that just rile him up -- anything from transportation gridlock on state highways to political machinations in the Middle East. Each morning, he fires up his PC and checks for the latest developments on a number of local and national news sites.

"This is a new world. I can scan them very quickly. They are all here at my fingertips," he said.

As he surfs, he fills notebooks with copious notes and rough sketches. He needs plenty of ideas to keep his Web site vital.

"The Internet requires a new fresh daily visual," he said. "I do a big session daily. I do a minimum of eight editorial cartoons a week."

Priggee is personable, and his conversation is punctuated with a ready laugh. However, his work isn't warm and fuzzy. Sometimes it bites.

"All humor is offensive to a degree. Plus, you're a critic. I try to remember to 'comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,'" he said, quoting H.L. Mencken. But, he added, some cartoonists have an earthier motto -- "Kick ass and take names."

"Most people think an editorial cartoon is 'Peanuts.' That's a comic strip -- it's entertainment. In an editorial cartoon, you're dealing with the issues of the day. An editorial cartoonist is working on the tightest possible deadlines," he said. "I am a writer, a commentator, a critic. Instead of the written word, it's a picture."

Priggee said that a comic strip would be harder to write. Each morning, an artist such as Gary Larson starts with a blank paper and must create something from nothing. Priggee has help.

"I've got the best writers in the world: George Bush, Osama bin Laden, Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky. I can't make this stuff up. A stain on a blue dress -- I can't make that up," he said.

Many of his cartoons are based on national and international events, but he also targets state politics. Don't expect to see him producing cartoons about the latest developments at the Anacortes Airport; he chooses issues that have relevance to readers throughout Western Washington and beyond. He now contributes to publications such as the American, Everett Herald and Every Other Weekly. His cartoons are featured on and on, the Web site of a Spokane television station.

Cartoons have been part of Priggee's life for as long as he can remember.

"I've been drawing cartoons that have been in print since the seventh and eighth grade," he said. "I've been drawing all my life."

One of his earliest cartoons depicts his father calling for help as he is being dragged into a refrigerator by mutant leftovers.

Priggee, 48, was born in Anchorage, Alaska, but grew up in the Chicago area. He earned a bachelor's degree from Adams State College at Alamosa, Colorado, in 1976. When asked if he majored in journalism, he laughed and said that it never occurred to him to take courses in political science or journalism. He majored in fine arts.

"I just knew I liked to express myself a little differently," he said.

After college, Priggee met his mentor, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist John Fischetti. Fischetti, whose work appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and The Chicago Daily News, helped the young cartoonist get started. Beginning in 1978, Priggee was the regular cartoonist for the weekly Crain's Chicago Business, until it folded. He worked for The Journal Herald in Dayton, Ohio, from 1982 until it folded, and worked for one more Spokane paper that closed its doors. Eventually, he landed at The Spokane Spokesman-Review, which not only stayed in business, but kept him producing editorial cartoons on local, national and world topics for 11 years.

Priggee has won awards from Associated Press Society of Ohio, National Newspaper Association, Overseas Press Club, Small Business Foundation of America, Inc., Mencken Awards, Pacific Northwest Journalists and Fischetti Editorial Cartoon contests. Earlier this month, he added more honors to his collection, winning two awards from the Western Washington Society of Professional Journalists for cartoons that ran in the Puget Sound Business Journal.

His greatest award came after he left the Spokesman-Review, when he won a fellowship to the University of Michigan that enabled him to learn animation and to apply his skills to new technology.

"The $40,000 gave me time to try out new things," he said. "It was an opportunity to evolve, to grow."

After seeing a number of papers shut down and many newspaper cartoonists lose their staff positions during corporate restructuring, he concluded that newspapers are a vanishing medium.

"I saw the writing on the wall and saw that newsprint was going through a de-evolutionary process," he said. "It was time to take a break and try something new," he said.

He emerged with a new skills and a new approach. "Freelance -- that's how I'm going to market my cartoons," he said. "You have to evolve. You have to work a little harder, work a little differently." In the current business climate, with dot-com companies folding and the 9-11 crisis, Priggee said that sites are not taking animation as quickly as he would like. He is responding by becoming more versatile, making himself available for lectures, assignments and caricatures.

"I'm becoming a small businessman. I even give speeches," he said. "You have to be a bit of a jack of all trades."

When Priggee's retraining was complete, the family decided to make another change. "We've always loved this side of the state. We lived on the dry east side and thought we'd try out the wet west side as our base of operations," he said.

Milt's wife, Janet, works at Island Hospital. They plan to stay somewhere in the region.

For now, Priggee works in a second-floor bedroom of a home near the top of D Avenue. Priggee still does much of his work the old-fashioned way, by sketching a concept then inking it. He keeps ink, paper and cans full of pens and pencils next to his drafting table.

But, with a spin of his office chair, Priggee can switch to the cutting-edge tools of the new millennium, which are right behind the drafting table. A computer sketch pad allows him to compose cartoons on his PC. The technology takes getting used to -- he has to look at a screen while he draws, rather than at his hands, because the electronic "pen" leaves no marks on the pad. But there are compensations, such as the ability to color wide areas or add movement to a drawing with just a few mouse clicks.

Whether he uses a pen or a PC, each cartoon is a personal, signed opinion. He takes responsibility for the contents, and his Web site includes the name and number of his lawyer, along with a request that angry readers take time to think before suing him.

He said each cartoon is shaped by his own, personal beliefs, as it should be.

"You have to believe in something," he said. "If you don't believe in something, you'll fall for anything."