Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Body slows, but the cartoons are moving

Peter Dunlap-Shohl was a local kid working in a frame shop when he was hired at the Anchorage Daily News. Though he was a philosophy major and accomplished folk musician, what he really wanted was a career as a blunt instrument – that is, as an editorial cartoonist.

I was able to find him a job in the art department, where he was "allowed" to produce cartoons basically on his own time. He blossomed and soon was producing highly individualistic local political cartoons with uncanny insight and uncommon wit.

Though he had grown up on Conrad and MacNelly, his work didn't look like anybody else. That – and the fact that he was relentlessly local in his focus – probably obscured his work from wider audiences, but he has been amongst the most potent, consistent and prolific visual commentators of the last 20 years.

After one of our many newsroom strategy sessions in the midst of the Great Alaska Newspaper War, Peter came to me with an idea: he'd draw a locally relevant cartoon strip for the funny pages six times a week. It would be a feature the opposition couldn't match, and might help distinguish and differentiate the ADN.

Good idea, I told him – but I thought the editorial cartoon was more important.

No problem, said Peter: he intended to do both.

I believe he was drawing four editorial cartoons a week in those days (hey, we were all younger) so that meant a weekly total of 10 different, creative contributions to the paper. Thus was launched the multi-year run of Muskeg Heights, as charming as the editorial cartoons were caustic.

I'm a PD-S fan, as you might guess, and also a friend, and I was stunned and saddened six years ago when I learned Peter had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. It was tragic in any sense, of course, but especially poignant for Pete. I mean, the guy draws for a living; it's who he is.

I'm happy to report that while Parkinson's has of course taken a real toll on Peter and his family, it hasn't stifled either the spirit or the creativity. "Since my diagnosis, I have been surfing my strongest creative roll, period," he reports.

Though the disease took away Pete's traditional drawing ability, it also forced him to adapt in ways he says have extended and enhanced his capacities. He now draws on a computer tablet, works in Photoshop instead of India ink, and has discovered the power of animation.

On his personal blog "Off and On: The Alaska Parkinson's Rag," he tells of learning to use the computer as a drawing tool, with a big assist from artist wife Pam:

Whenever I got stuck, bewildered, frustrated or exhausted, Pam would arrive and sort things out. Eventually I arrived at my goal of being able to produce work on the computer that was indistinguishable from my pre-computer cartoons.

When I arrived at that lofty peak, that dearly bought goal, that ultimate moment when I finally was able to reproduce that old style, I was rewarded with a moment of clarity. I realized that recreating my old look was was a stupid idea.

Take a two thousand dollar machine, equip it with some of the most sophisticated software available, and turn it into a fifty cent pen. Brilliant, wouldn't you agree?
Instead of trying to describe the result of that insight, I'll just recommend that you go and see for yourself. As Pete says, "The world is accelerating while my body is braking. But at least my drawings can move."

One of my favorites? This animated story of Laika the Soviet space dog at the bottom of this blog post.

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