When it comes to political cartoons, there’s a fine line between pushing the envelope enough to interest people and being so edgy that newspapers won’t run your work.
It’s a line Battle Ground cartoonist and artist Monte Wolverton has walked for the past 15 years. His left-leaning cartoons are syndicated to more than 850 newspapers worldwide, including The Columbian. They appear in the Daily News Los Angeles and in 100-200 other papers each week, and have run in the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post.
Despite the wide circulation, the occasional near-death-threat email from an offended reader lets him know he’s not playing it too safe when tackling controversial topics such as immigration, health care and government spending.
“They’re issues I can get upset about,” said Wolverton, 62. “You have to do something you feel passionately about.”
Cartooning itself is something for which Wolverton feels a great passion.
It’s a discipline he grew up with as the son of the late Basil Wolverton, a prominent illustrator who worked with the likes of Marvel Comics former editor in chief Stan Lee and whose comic magazine features included “Spacehawk” and “Powerhouse Pepper.”
Wolverton began following in his father’s footsteps at a young age.
“My dad built a little drawing board for me when I was 7 years old. I always drew, and I just assumed that something visual was going to be my profession,” he said.
If you go
What: Monte Wolverton’s solo art show at The Peculiarium in Northwest Portland.
When: Throughout the month of September. There will be an opening reception Sept. 1 from 6 to 9 p.m. as part of First Thursday. The Peculiarium is open Thursday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Where: The Peculiarium, 2234 N.W. Thurman St., Portland.
Admission: Free, unless there is a special event with a cover charge going on.
Information: 503-227-3164, or Peculiarium's website.
Though Wolverton has been dedicated to cartooning since childhood, the road to becoming a syndicated cartoonist was long and winding.
Wolverton was born and raised in Vancouver. He graduated from Hudson’s Bay High School in 1966, then moved to California to attend the now-defunct Ambassador College in Pasadena.
The college was affiliated with the Worldwide Church of God, now Grace Communion International. Wolverton’s father was active in the controversial church, which was founded as the Radio Church of God in 1934 in Eugene, Ore., by radio- and televangelist Herbert W. Armstrong. It underwent reform after Armstrong’s death in the mid ’80s.
It was at Ambassador College that Wolverton met Kayte, now his wife of 41 years. Upon graduating, he studied at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles and worked as a freelance illustrator and graphic designer before moving back to Vancouver in the mid-1970s to start Monte Wolverton Associates, an advertising and design business.
Wolverton ran the firm for eight years, working with such clients as the U.S. Forest Service, First Independent Bank and the Columbia River Economic Development Council.
In 1985, he was recruited by the Worldwide Church of God to move to Pasadena and be its design director. The “Creative Services” sign that once hung on the door to his department at the church’s offices now welcomes visitors to his Battle Ground home studio, where he works on his cartoons and other artistic endeavors today.
He held the design director position until the mid-’90s, when Plain Truth Ministries, a former subsidiary of the Worldwide Church of God, was incorporated.
He served as business manager and later chief financial officer of Plain Truth Ministries and managing editor of Plain Truth, its magazine, until moving to Battle Ground in 2010.
He had wanted to return to the area and to be closer to his daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter, who live in Camas. He continues to do contract design and editing work for Plain Truth Ministries.
In the ’90s, while working for the Worldwide Church of God, Wolverton began to feel a need to express his more leftist political opinions. Earning his master’s degree through a low-residency program at the liberal Goddard College in Vermont strengthened that desire.
On the Web
After he completed his advanced degree, Wolverton wanted to take a break from academic rigor and flex his creative muscles. So, he started drawing humor cartoons for MAD magazine.
The first appeared in the magazine in 1994, and there have been about a dozen more since then. His father also had work published in MAD from 1954 to 1970.
Wolverton drew his first political cartoon in 1996, poking fun at Newt Gingrich. He found the cartoons to be a good outlet for his political views.
“I kept getting ideas every week, and I felt like I needed to keep posting them on my website so people would know what I was thinking. Originally, it was a matter of pure personal expression,” he said.
Soon, a few small weekly newspapers began running the political cartoons. In the late ’90s, his friend, Daryl Cagle, started distributing them to news outlets and then invited Wolverton to join his new syndicate, Cagle Cartoons.
Wolverton draws two cartoons a week. The one for the Daily News Los Angeles tackles Los Angeles and California politics, as well as issues of interest to those readers, such as the closure of a major highway or Dodger Stadium being filled with dirt for a monster truck race. The other cartoon typically deals with Washington, D.C., politics.
“I’m told some consider me a ‘Beltway cartoonist,’” Wolverton said.
Wolverton keeps tabs on current events to get fodder for his cartoons, but sometimes the ideas come from an old friend, Vancouver songwriter and Union High School English teacher Randy Cate.
Cate and Wolverton were Hudson’s Bay classmates and played in a band together. Cate went on to write songs recorded by musicians such as Ted Nugent and Dionne Warwick. On cartoons that Cate has assisted with, Wolverton writes “Thanx to Randy Cate.”
Many cartoonists today work exclusively on a digital graphics tablet, but Wolverton likes to mix a more old-fashioned approach with new technology.
“I like the feel of actual ink on paper,” he said.
Wolverton starts the process of creating a cartoon by sketching on paper. He’ll scan that sketch into his computer, manipulate it using photo- and text-editing software, then print it out.
He’ll take the printout and trace it in ink on tissue paper. Then he’ll scan that in, make final adjustments and upload it in color and black and white to Cagle Cartoons’ website.
It used to be that many newspapers had staff editorial cartoonists, but that’s rare now. Most newspapers rely on syndicates, making it increasingly difficult to make a living as a full-time cartoonist, Wolverton said.
In the past four or five years, Wolverton has branched out into fine art. He works primarily with acrylic paint on canvas. His pieces are very colorful, and feature metaphysical creatures in a style he describes as “neo-psychedelic” or “neo-surrealist.”
“I try to create works that are at once fun, entertaining and mind-expanding — works that draw the viewer into a vortex of shape, color and texture. I like to imagine I’ve opened a visual portal into an alternative universe populated by forms, structures, devices, manifestations and luminescent beings far beyond our temporal experience,” Wolverton said.
His art currently is on display at CoproGallery in Santa Monica, Calif., and he’s about to have his first solo show.
Wolverton’s art will be showcased at The Peculiarium in Northwest Portland throughout September. There will be an opening reception on the evening of Sept. 1 as part of First Thursday.
The Peculiarium specializes in, as the name suggests, peculiarities. The space’s permanent collection includes an interactive alien autopsy exhibit, a glow-in-the-dark room, Al Capone’s vault and a vampire-killing kit. There’s also a cafe, where the more adventurous diners can try ice cream toppings such as freeze-dried mealworms and edible scorpions.
“I’m very comfortable having my first solo show in a place that specializes in the unique, bizarre and eclectic,” Wolverton said.
Mary Ann Albright: firstname.lastname@example.org, 360-735-4507.